Graham’s Courage Met the Test of Pentagon Papers, Watergate


For more than 20 years, Katharine Graham, head of the Washington Post and grande dame of American journalism, proudly displayed in her office the mechanical wringer from an old washing machine.

It was a reminder that life entails risks--and that taking those risks can lead to greatness.

During the early days of Watergate, when the Post labored almost alone to expose the improper and illegal actions that eventually forced President Richard M. Nixon to resign in disgrace, John Mitchell, the former attorney general who was then Nixon’s campaign manager, sent a crude threat to Graham through a Post reporter:


If a particularly damaging report were published, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer.”

Mitchell, who eventually went to prison for his role in Watergate, should not have been surprised that Graham, who died Tuesday at 84, stood up to the White House--and in the process set a new standard for the role newspapers should play in a free society.

She had done the same thing only a year or so before in the Pentagon Papers case--defying a federal court order by publishing the top secret record of government duplicity in Vietnam at a time when she was potentially even more vulnerable than during Watergate.

“At the most important moments of her professional life, she did the right thing,” said David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and a former Post correspondent. “In doing so, she and her editor, Ben Bradlee, dragged the Post out of the sea of the ordinary and made it great.”

Edwin O. Guthman, a USC professor of journalism and former senior editor at the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, said: “She showed her true mettle by becoming publisher of the Post under difficult circumstances and then letting it to do what newspapers are supposed to do in a democratic society. She backed a good staff in getting out news that powerful people in government and business and labor didn’t want the people to know.

“She set an example for publishers everywhere in this country because she put covering the news first, not the bottom line,” he said.


Similarly, Graham is widely credited with serving as a role model for women, especially women in journalism, because her life entailed an extraordinary transformation.

Until she took up the reins at the Post, Graham had embodied everything the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s was rebelling against. By the time she died, she had become almost everything that movement hoped to achieve.

In the early 1970s, for example, female journalists were excluded from Washington’s Gridiron Club, and from valuable opportunities it afforded to get to know senior government officials. As head of the Post, Graham was automatically a guest at the club’s annual spring dinner, along with the president, Cabinet secretaries and congressional leaders.

Female reporters began to picket the spring dinner. After the first such protest, many gathered in a Washington home.

“Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and there was Kay Graham,” Los Angeles Times reporter Marlene Cimons recalled. “The sight of her standing there, the fact that she would show up--we were just lowly women reporters and she was even then the most powerful woman in journalism--it was such a statement of solidarity.”

Graham’s son Donald, who now heads the company, said his mother “loved the Post and Newsweek,” which the Post Co. also owns, “and was enormously proud of both organizations. She was deeply involved in the journalism of both all her professional life and traveled the world with journalists doing interviews for both publications.”


Katharine Graham’s role in the Pentagon Papers case is less well remembered than Watergate, but for her it may have been a sterner test.

The Pentagon Papers were a detailed history of Washington’s often duplicitous actions during the Vietnam War. Prepared at the Pentagon using secret government documents, the papers were highly classified.

When the New York Times obtained copies and published a first installment in June 1971, the Nixon administration accused it of trafficking in stolen government documents and obtained a federal court order barring further disclosure.

Post editor Bradlee, who also obtained copies of the papers, urged Graham to publish them anyway.

Graham faced the decision while still in the process of transforming herself into a strong newspaper leader from the inexperienced, accidental executive she had been in 1963, when the suicide of her publisher husband, Philip, thrust her into Post management.

Moreover, she faced the Pentagon Papers decision at a moment of financial vulnerability.

The family-owned Washington Post Co. was about to go public. Lawyers warned that the Justice Department might press criminal charges, with calamitous consequences for the company’s economic health.


Graham “took a big gulp,” as she put it, and ordered Bradlee to forge ahead.

The Post and the Times published the papers in full. A higher court struck down the ban in a momentous decision for freedom of the press. The Post was catapulted into the front ranks of national newspapers.

Her actions on Watergate and the Pentagon Papers defined Graham’s greatness for the public record, but friends and Post staffers remember a host of similar, unsung decisions behind the scenes.

As president in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson frequently fumed over the Post’s coverage and used Jack Valenti, then an LBJ aide and now head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, to convey his displeasure.

Valenti, a longtime close friend of Graham, said: “I would call her up and say, ‘Kay, here I come again, I’ve got to ream you out.’ And she’d say, ‘Go ahead, Jack, ream me out.’ It got to be a game with us.”

But even Johnson admired Graham because she always stood behind her editors and reporters. “The president would say, ‘Kay doesn’t cut and run,’ ” Valenti said. “And she was a great source of strength for people who worked for her.”

“There was never a time when she said, ‘Don’t go ahead,” said a longtime Post staffer who reported on Watergate and later served as an editor. “She was a role model for what publishers should be.”


Eugene L. Roberts Jr., former Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor, said Graham “had the rare qualities of courage and commitment to journalism excellence that made the Washington Post steadily better to the point that it is so established now that even we in journalism tend to forget that when she took it over it was the Washington Star and not the Post that was recognized as the dominant paper in Washington.”


Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.