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The Life and Times of Citizen Graham : PERSONAL HISTORY.<i> By Katharine Graham</i> .<i> Alfred A. Knopf: 642 pp., $29.95</i>

<i> Gloria Emerson is a former New York Times foreign correspondent and author</i>

Nearly stifled by great wealth, damaged by a mother who by her own admission was “a conscientious but scarcely a loving parent,” the fourth of five children who describes herself as a goody-two-shoes eager to please and conform, Katharine Graham rose above her limitations to transform American journalism as owner-publisher of the Washington Post. It was a long road for a woman who confides how often her knees were knocking, for the student at Vassar College who did not know how to wash a sweater because a servant had always done that.

In her memoir, “Personal History,” a huge and most methodical book, Graham writes in detail about her family and her tragic marriage and, best of all, the many years as the great custodian of the family newspaper, the Washington Post, including the turbulent, historic era when its reporting led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. It was she who approved publication of the torrent of stories on Watergate by two young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, when a lesser publisher might have backed down.

This is what she will be remembered and always admired for. Goody-Two-Shoes did not buckle. The pressure from the White House was so intense, the atmosphere in the Capitol so sinister as the noose tightened around Nixon’s neck that a friend on Wall Street privately warned her “not to be alone.” She was more anxious about efforts to hurt her newspaper.

The paper was the passion of her life. She was hardly prepared to take over after the suicide of her brilliant husband, Philip Graham, who so often derided her. “I was growing shyer and less confident as I grew older,” she wrote during the later years of marriage.

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And yet, when she was in charge and desperately uncertain, Graham showed a remarkable instinct for whom to hire and whom to let go. She took on Ben Bradlee, who was the managing editor during the critical years of the Watergate coverage and who knew what the furnace felt like. A wildly charming man in a profession devoid of them, he gave her muscle and taught her how to laugh.

In his own book, “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” Bradlee writes that when the Post won a public service award Pulitzer (it was a disgrace that the prize did not go to Woodward and Bernstein), “Katharine Graham, God bless her ballsy soul, was going to have the last laugh on all those establishment newspapers and owners who had been so condescending to her and all those Wall Street types turned statesmen who warned her every day we were going too far, were going to respect her, not use her.” When it was all over and Nixon was gone, she wanted the paper to be out of the limelight, to be out of it herself.

So in 1974 when Woodward and Bernstein published their first Watergate book, “All the President’s Men,” and sold the movie rights to Robert Redford, Graham was angered and alarmed. The idea of a movie “scared me witless,” she writes, although the film was scarcely to be made by vulgar hacks. Once again, her ambivalence and fearfulness made her assume “a defensive crouch.” At their first meeting, she and Redford grated on each other. But the honest woman includes in her memoirs Redford’s rather acid impression of the encounter, which he later described in an interview.

“It was brittle, that’s the best way I can describe it. There was a definite tight-jawed, blue-blood quality to Graham that cannot be covered by any amount of association with Ben Bradlee or other street types. . . . She said she did not want her own name or that of the Post used. I told her that was impossible.” Redford told Graham that she was a public figure in her own way and so was the Post, and that the filmmakers weren’t interested in her personal life. Redford also said he asked Graham why, if she wanted to maintain so low a profile, did she keep making speeches and accepting awards?

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It was, of course, a wonderful film in 1976, directed by Alan J. Pakula with Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein and Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee. Twice Graham says how her feelings were hurt because she was omitted from the film. She must have made this clear, for she notes that Pakula justified this by pointing out that she figured only marginally in the book. Perhaps the strain of Watergate was taking its toll when she opposed the film, and serious labor disputes had arisen, but there was always her tendency to feel threatened if not slighted.

In 1933, during the early days when the Washington Post was a decrepit paper and deeply in debt, Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, a former governor of the Federal Reserve Board, bought it for $825,000. Knowing nothing about journalism, Meyer made some good innovations: women’s pages, an advice column, reader opinion polls done by George Gallup and a better editorial page. Young Katharine began to care about the newspaper, and the deep affection and trust between father and daughter grew.

Despite her “nervous nanny-bred worries,” Graham even worked on a San Francisco newspaper doing legwork for a labor reporter. In 1939, she went to the Washington Post for a job on the editorial page, and in the bright social whirl of the era met Philip Graham, who was clerking for Justice Felix Frankfurter. When courting her, it was with the provision that once married he would take nothing from her father--but he did: a job on the paper, working with the older man. In 1946, he became publisher and major stockholder.

Because in her exacting way she is inclined to include too much--parties, dinners, letters written and received and repeated self-deprecations that are understandable but not always interesting--"Personal History” lumbers. Yet her account of 23 years of marriage to a doomed man whose increasing spirals of “hyperactivity . . . with its accompanying angst and vitriolic diatribes” are a harrowing record of his suffering and of hers. Some time before his death, her husband fell in love with a young Australian stringer in Paris and made it widely known that he intended to divorce to marry her. With immense dignity, Graham writes of the younger woman that she “behaved well throughout.” And then this: “She must be a very decent person.”

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When she took over the paper and was president of the company (which included Newsweek and television stations), the obstacles seemed overwhelming, and Graham was ill-equipped. To make it worse, she was a slow reader. “I didn’t realize that nothing stands still--issues arise every day, big and small, and they start coming at you,” she writes. She did not know how much she was eventually going to enjoy it. The fear of seeming stupid or ignorant in a male world was wearing, although there was a circle of strong friends in journalism and in Washington.

Strong, indeed. One of them was Warren Buffet, now considered the most successful investor in the United States, who greatly helped Graham, when she became chief executive officer of a public company with obligations to shareholders, learn about management and how to make a profit while maintaining editorial quality. Buffet, who was to buy a large chunk of the company’s stock, saw how uncomfortable Graham was with the language of business and told her that she had a kind of “priesthood approach to business.” “He thought I seemed to feel that if I hadn’t studied Latin . . . I couldn’t make it into the priesthood,” Graham writes. But she did.

At no time perhaps did Graham feel her paper was in greater danger than during the strikes in the 1970s of the unionized pressmen, typesetters and others who used guerrilla tactics with slowdowns, sabotage and picket lines. Then 900 members of the Newspaper Guild walked out. The paper was put out by guild-exempt editors and some non-guild others. Graham took classified ads over the telephone and learned what hard work it was. The chronicle of the strikes, and the deadly bitterness they engendered, is a sorrowful one.

Nowhere is the ordeal more ironic than when she and others are obliged to prepare the mailing of the large Sunday paper for subscribers outside Washington. It had to be rolled in a wrapper with an address label pasted on, then sealed and dragged to canvas bags to be taken to the post office. It was the equivalent of the labor of migrant farm laborers. Graham wryly notes: “Warren Buffet, who spent several Saturday nights in the mail room with us, said it made him rethink the price of the Sunday paper--no price was sufficient.” It is almost a humorous scene to conjure: eminent capitalists bent over in ceaseless drudgery and waiting for deliverance.

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