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Tuesday, 17 July, 2001, 17:55 GMT 18:55 UK
Katharine Graham: First Lady of the Post
Katharine Graham: publisher of The Washington Post
Katharine Graham: publisher of The Washington Post
Katharine Graham was the doyenne of the American press and a pillar of the country's liberal establishment.

The friend of presidents and the most influential people in the US, whom she entertained at her Georgetown mansion, she had what the Americans call 'considerable clout'.

As president of The Washington Post from 1963 to 1993 she, together with the paper's editor Ben Bradlee, was responsible for some of the greatest scoops of all time.


I became absorbed by the challenge, I was trying to learn all the time, and I loved what I was doing

Katharine Graham
Katharine Graham was born in New York on 16 June 1917 to Eugene and Agnes Meyer.

Though Jewish on her father's side, she was baptised and raised as a Lutheran, like her mother.

Anti-Semitism

Even so, the young Katharine Graham experienced the insidious anti-Semitism which then clouded American life: as a student at the University of Chicago, certain clubs were closed to her. Later, she was unable to live in a "restricted" area of Washington.

Her father, who had headed the US central bank, the Federal Reserve and would become the first president of the World Bank, had extensive, and highly profitable, business interests in copper, cars and chemicals.

In 1933 her father bought the ailing Washington Post at auction. The paper's parlous situation was such that it would be another quarter of a century before it could afford to hire its first foreign correspondent.

The ailing Washington Post being auctioned in 1933
Her father bought the ailing Washington Post at auction
Katharine Graham joined the paper in 1939 after a short spell as a reporter on the San Francisco Chronicle.

A gangling figure who, initially, suffered from a paralysing lack of self-confidence, in 1940 she married Philip Graham, a brilliant, if unstable, Harvard Law graduate who would, by the age of 31, take over as publisher of The Washington Post.

Suicide

The next few years saw her career take a back seat as she raised a family. But, in 1963, everything changed when her husband's manic depression led him to commit suicide. In her late 40s, the widowed mother of four children took over the Post.

She sought to rejuvenate the paper's journalism and brought in the feisty Ben Bradlee as its editor. The following years would should just how good a decision that was.

In 1971, the New York Times came into possession of a vast number of documents illegally smuggled out of the Pentagon by a former government analyst, Daniel Ellsberg.

The documents, the Pentagon Papers, detailed the full extent of US involvement in Indo-China right back to the Truman administration of the late 1940s, an involvement far greater than any imagined by the American public.

President Richard Nixon
The Post's revelations helped to bring down President Richard Nixon

After the government obtained a judicial order preventing The New York Times from publishing the documents the Post, which also had copies of the papers, thought long and hard about publishing them, thereby committing an illegal act.

Taking what she later described as "a big gulp", Graham decided to publish.

The government blinked and the restraining order was lifted. Graham and the Times had won a landmark victory for press freedom but, in doing so, had made an enemy of Richard Nixon. This enmity would have startling consequences.

Watergate

The following year a Post reporter, Bob Woodward (later to be joined by Carl Bernstein), began his investigation into a break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington. The name of the building, Watergate, would lend itself to the greatest political scandal in US history.

Mr Woodward's trail led right back to the Oval Office: the paranoia which surrounded Richard Nixon had led his senior aides, in the name of plugging leaks, into authorising burglary against their political opponents.


The best we could do was to keep investigating

Katharine Graham on Watergate

As the evidence against the President and his entourage piled up, Nixon's allies mounted a political campaign against the Post, attempting to prevent the company from renewing its cable television licences.

On one occasion Katharine Graham was personally threatened by Attorney General John Mitchell, who would himself be imprisoned for his part in the Watergate scandal.

Her own view on the story was characteristically direct. "The best we could do," she said, "was to keep investigating, to look everywhere for hard evidence, to get the details right, and to report accurately what we found."

Vindicated

Following Nixon's resignation in 1974, Graham saw herself, and the Post, vindicated by the official report into the scandal.

The late 1970s saw a bitter strike threaten the Post's very existence. Before the industrial action ended, Katharine Graham found herself answering phones and dealing with the paper's mail.

Katharine Graham outside The Washington Post building
She published The Washington Post for thirty years

More recently, the Post had to weather its own scandal when Janet Cooke, a reporter on the paper, was forced to return a Pulitzer Prize after admitting that she had made up her award-winning story.

Katharine Graham saw her son Donald succeed her as chief executive of the Post in 1991, and of its other companies which included Newsweek magazine and numerous cable television franchises.

Nevertheless, she retained a lively interest in the newspaper right up to her death. In 1998, her autobiography "Personal History", which took a decade to write, won a Pulitzer Prize.

Looking back on her time at the Post, Katharine Graham said she had no regrets. "I became absorbed by the challenge", she said. "I was trying to learn all the time. And I loved what I was doing."

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