Her Newspaper : POWER, PRIVILEGE AND THE POST: The Katharine Graham Story: By Carol Felsenthal (Putnam: $29.95; 511 pp.)

Morrison is a Times staff writer

There it was at a flea market--one of those stag-party novelties, a tiny plastic telescope through which you see a half-naked woman with one breast squeezed in an old-fashioned clothes wringer, and a look of what was supposed to be comic pain on her face.

This, I realized as I looked at the thing, was what the publisher of the Washington Post, arguably one of the most powerful women in the world, had once been reduced to by the attorney general of the United States: a cheap sex-novelty joke.

Katharine Graham came to my attention because of one brief, vivid quote that emerged from Watergate scandal. Attorney General John Mitchell warned a Post reporter that if he printed a particular story about the cover-up, "Katie Graham is gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer." It was a coarse bit of slang, and it made me wince.

But, boy, was I impressed. Here was a woman important enough to get threatened by the attorney general of the United States.

That was the Katharine Graham I knew, or rather, knew of--the tough publisher who backed her boys as they printed the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate exposes in the face of powerful men who could do more than pinch. They could shut down her newspaper.

Her newspaper.

Carol Felsenthal's book--too sweepingly titled "Power, Privilege and The Post: The Katharine Graham Story"--lays out how Graham, the mocked, ignored daughter, the pitiable, belittled wife, became a sometimes reluctant Valkyrie of American journalism. Graham didn't always do it with wisdom or tact, but in making a name for her newspaper, Katharine Meyer Graham, now 75 and retired as CEO, made one for herself.

The transformation from a maladroit "big brown wren" to "Our Lady of the Potomac"--the latter title invoked admiringly or sarcastically--is rarely a pretty story, but it is sure a lip-smacker.

Until she was widowed in her 40s, Kay Graham lived a Grimms' fairy tale--the messy Teutonic kind, not the tidy bowdlerized one. The gawky, awkward heiress was the frog who finally became a princess among publishers . . . but only after the suicide of the handsome prince, her faithless husband, and after the eclipse of the wicked stepmother, Kay's real mother, Agnes, who sneered "Pardon us, dear, we're having an intellectual conversation" when Kay came upon her mother and husband in conference.

Among the middlebrow, such dysfunction makes for cathartic afternoon-tabloid TV. Found among the pashas of Washington and dignified between hard covers, it ranks as history, the way that the difference between "crazy" and "eccentric" is often measured chiefly by the size of one's bank account.

From emotionally battered daughter and wife to "the most powerful woman in the world" would be an absorbing read even if it were only a clip job. But Felsenthal (who also wrote a biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth) did extensive interviewing for this highly unauthorized biography among those who had been both warmed and scorched by Graham.

Graham's Jewish father, who had aspirations to statesmanship, bought the Post at a bankruptcy sale. Her Lutheran mother was an ambitious bluestocking who aggressively if platonically romanced the great artists of the day.

On almost every page in the early chapters is some act of hardly benign neglect: her parents not attending her college graduation; her mother's secretary sending a note of congratulations with Kay's first name misspelled.

Marriage simply transferred Kay--and the Post--from an overbearing mother to a mercurially charming and cruel husband. Kay retreated into the scenery while Phil swashbuckled his way through Washington. He imagined himself a kingmaker on his way to becoming a king, and he used the Post to those ends. He wrote the outlines to L.B.J.'s Great Society on a legal pad over a weekend, and berated President Kennedy on the phone, "Do you know who you're talking to?"

Then Phil took up with a Newsweek stringer and moved out. "There's nothing wrong with Phil that a good divorce wouldn't cure," was the remark his friend Ben Bradlee reportedly dined out on for a time. Bradlee emerged unsinged to become Kay's right hand at the Post.

Manic-depression killed Phil's threats, and all his promise. In the summer of 1963, at a newspaper banquet in Phoenix, he insulted other publishers and began stripping on his way out the door. He was sent back to Washington in a straitjacket. Not long after, he wangled a pass from his high-toned sanitarium and shot himself to death.

"You've got to take over the Post," a friend told Kay.

"I can't, you know I can't," was her response.

Phil and Agnes were hard acts to follow, and not very good ones; the Post was still a poor excuse for a newspaper. Over two decades and more, liberated from her husband's and mother's scorn, Katharine Graham often showed herself to be "smarter and tougher and colder" than Phil Graham ever was, one source declared.

Like the classic victim who out-toughs her victimizers, Graham was galvanized even by her contradictions. The widow who wept "I can't!" enlisted strong and able men to head up her operations, and even developed serial crushes on a few of them, but she could also scrape them off about as feelingly as the QE2 scrapes off a barnacle, and is said to have slammed some of her top executives as "jerks" behind their backs.

For Graham, Felsenthal writes, the political was personal.

Enchanted when L.B.J. whisked her off to his ranch one weekend, she later cushioned the blow of the Post's presidential non-endorsement policy in 1964 by assuring the Johnson camp, "Oh, we're for you a hundred percent"--to the horror of the staff.

Some of her best decisions--like the one to publish the Pentagon Papers, risking government censure, and to pursue the Watergate investigation--were visceral, not intellectual.

The grandest journalistic achievement, Felsenthal shows, was not one they gave out prizes for. It was overcoming the coziness of rank and wealth to understand that the press' job is to stand apart. While she doted on the advice and approval of important men like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, she realized that "as long as the Post was in the hip pocket of people like McNamara . . . the very people from whom she sought approval--it would never be a great newspaper."

"Whoever is my friend," Graham told one journalist, "has to understand that the paper is independent."

None of this made her a master of her times; born to rank and riches, she was not always even a creature of them. She was a pro-Vietnam War holdout for years, calling one anti-war editor "stupid." When it came to feminism, for the longest time Graham didn't. After she told Women's Wear Daily that "any man" could do her job better, a Post woman slammed a copy of the article down on Graham's desk and said, "Mrs. Graham, if you feel that way, then I ought to quit and every woman on this paper ought to quit." She was in the end won over to the Equal Rights Amendment and feminism; what finally changed her thinking, writes Felsenthal, was hearing that writer Mary McCarthy had asked her husband, writer Edmund Wilson, to take out the garbage, and he refused.

The book navigates the Post's annual reports expertly--stock values, corporate strategies, acquisitions that got away (Simon & Schuster--now Paramount Publishing) and ones that didn't but should have (the Trenton Times)--all the deals that made the Post and its mistress rich.

The bottom line is this, Felsenthal found: However the top players changed, under Graham's stewardship, Post shares rose nearly 30 times in value between 1973 and 1991.

Success never cured her insecurities. Tough and gutsy are no substitutes for confident and decisive, but they do make for good imitations--and in this case resulted in some decisions that made journalism history.

Felsenthal's style becomes chattier as she gets closer to the present, perhaps warming to her own sources. But nothing excuses sentences like this:

"Cap Graham, on his way to becoming a major landowner and a politician of some clout--the state senate district for which he was running extended from just south of Fort Lauderdale in the north almost to Key West in the south; no bill involving that district, which included almost all of Miami, could pass without that state senator's approval--knew he could open the door for his son."

As Theodore Bikel more or less said, "From the English into the German translation by no means so easy a task as it appears to be is."

But a more serious gripe than syntax: The book briefly ranges over Watergate, the Janet Cooke fiasco that forced the Post to return a Pulitzer Prize, and Newsweek's disastrous flirtation with the faked Hitler diaries (which Graham warned against). But it could have done more to earn its grand title.

What is lacking in this personality-fueled work was much of what Kay Graham revered as the pulsing heart of a newspaper--its journalists. If Kay Graham was swayed by McNamara and L.B.J., how did her staff, on its humbler plane, find and dispense news fairly in the insular, inbred Beltway hive? Instead, the newspaper comes to life only on the publisher's level, not as an organism staffed by hundreds whose work was critical to charting the day-to-day fortunes of the news and the nation, from Ike to Bush, Cold War to Space Age.

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