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Part 3: Katharine Graham and the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the Pressmen’s Strike

April 19, 2017

Part 3: Katharine Graham and the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the Pressmen’s Strike

Note: (Part 3 in a 3-part series on Katharine’s Graham’s memoir, Personal History. Find Part 1 here and 2 here. Page numbers refer to the Vintage Books paperback edition of 1998, not the original hardcover from Knopf.)

President Kennedy’s tragic assassination occurs about halfway through this book. Even though Kay Graham had so recently lost her husband Phil in a violent way, Kay said she felt at a total loss as to how to be of help to Mrs. Kennedy. This was followed, of course, not too long after, by the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Oh how short our memories are—or how young some are—to not truly know and understand the difficult days, months, and years we’ve had as a nation, racially and many other ways, over decades and centuries.

On a personal level Kay grew greatly in her ability to run an organization as huge as what The Washington Post Company became (purchased television and radio stations, etc.), including gathering within herself the chutzpah needed to fire a great friend from his job at the Post. She knew she had to do it for the good of the company (p. 385).

Historically, the Post had a huge role in shaping the second half of the U.S. 20tth century. I had forgotten the actual facts surrounding the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. It’s the kind of thing you remember happening if you’re old enough, but don’t quite remember the whys or wherefores. By the Post defending The New York Times in their decision to go against the government in making the controversial papers public, it catapulted the Post evermore into the category of world class paper—no longer just a city paper. And a long way from the day Kay’s father purchased the ownership of the Post at a bankruptcy auction.

The Pentagon Papers era also laid the groundwork for the Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning work investigating the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex related to Nixon’s 1972 presidential election. Graham’s replay of those events as publisher, deciding at every turn whether to keep publishing the findings of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, is also fascinating. She does not tell or rewrite their story which they did ably enough in their book, All the President’s Men. (I was living in Spain in 1973-74 as things fell apart for Nixon, leading to his resignation in August of 1974, so many of the facts of his final year in office were very muddy to me. We rarely believed the Spanish press in that era.)

What I had never followed either were the Post’s internal struggles with the various trade unions which worked on the production side of the paper—the Pressmen’s union and associated labor groups. In some ways this chapter was the least interesting to me personally. But it was incredibly educational about the function and foibles of labor unions of the time—the later ‘70s. Graham, a labor reporter herself in her beginning days, believed fervently in the rights of workers to organize in order to protect themselves and promote livable wages. But when it came to violence and the physical destruction of the presses (the workers set fire to the presses) which first halted the printing of the paper (missing actual publication for only one day), the executives and Kay teamed together for workarounds to keep publishing their paper until the presses were restored (more than a month). They pulled together to do the hard sweaty work through the wee hours of many mornings to get the paper out. That Graham could get messy in the trenches in spite of her pampered and privileged aristocratic upbringing spoke volumes to me about her personal integrity.

Kay died at age 84 after a head injury from a fall walking to a bridge game at Sun Valley, Idaho. Her funeral was held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. A number of times while reading her book, I was struck by her claims that she was not a religious person. References to faith are all but missing in her book except for talking about the history of her parents. But that may also be because for so many, religious beliefs are relegated to the private realm. Her obituary in the New York Times indicated that her parents had a pew at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, “the church of presidents.” Her father, who was Jewish, later gave liberally to many Jewish organizations; her mother was a Lutheran. The named pew was likely, in part, because that’s what rich people did—gave money and had a pew named after them.

So why read this book? It has a great sweep of 20th century history from the viewpoint of a woman privileged to sit at the helm of a mighty newspaper in what some call the most powerful country in the world. By now my fascination with history should be obvious in the three long biographies I’ve read and shared here. The faith commitments and lives well-lived of Mennonite leaders Harold S. Bender and Orie O. Miller (and even both my father and mother who I’ve often written about), are to me even more noteworthy for what they accomplished without the position and power of a Katharine Graham. So many of our forebears teach such valuable history lessons.

It was also mesmerizing to read this prize winning memoir during what sometimes feels like dramatic times in U.S. history: the election and inauguration of Donald Trump. What it did for me during this time is assure me that our country has been through other extreme leadership crises in our history, and will likely do so again.

May we learn the lessons of history that power and privilege are sometimes abused. In my opinion and in this telling, Katharine Graham lived up to the opportunities which, through no action of her own, befell her. (Perhaps now I need to read a more objective biography.) But she went a step or two further in forging new ground not only for both women and men in her position of power, to behave in morally respectable ways—even if she was not technically a diehard person of faith.

For many of us, prayer and faith are the bedrock that keep us living fruitfully no matter who the leaders are. Our sometimes small acts of faithfulness, prayer, and laboring for better lives are the glue which keep plain (unionized or not) folks going.

My daughters Tanya, Doreen, and Michelle, with my mother, Bertha at the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial in Washington D.C., 2007, after touring the Washington Post offices with Michelle (shown below left at her desk).


The Roosevelt quote behind my daughters and mothers says: “They (who) seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers. . . call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order.”


I’d love to hear any further reflections you have on Kay Graham’s life, Roosevelt’s quote, or my conclusion that sometimes “small acts of faithfulness, prayer, and laboring for better lives are the glue which can keep us going.”


From → Faith, Writing Life

  1. One quote stands out from all the rest, and it’s from you, Melodie: “For many of us, prayer and faith are the bedrock that keep us living fruitfully no matter who the leaders are.”

  2. Athanasia permalink

    I would say the FDR quote is apropos of what we is coming our of N. Korea now and Venezuela to name two, and maybe even Turkey.

    • I’m glad you noticed that, Athanasia. So much of what is here relates to our current day situation and history. Glad for your comment, as always!

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