Sobrans -- The Real News of the Month

Death of a Sacred Cow

July 19, 2001

I thought I knew what a fawning courtier was, until I read the posthumous tributes to Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, who died this week at age 84. When an old lady dies of a head injury, you don’t expect the long knives to come out; but the praise Mrs. Graham is receiving would embarrass a Byzantine emperor.

In the two days after her death we were told that Mrs. Graham was a “giant of journalism,” a “publishing legend,” a “great publisher,” and a “great lady,” endowed with “courage,” “intelligence,” a “sense of humor,” and a “sharp wit” (though few examples of her wit were cited in the acreage of praise and reminiscence). She was also, inevitably, a “pioneering woman” in what had always been a man’s business.

She had, we were informed, “no sacred cows.” But judging from the obituaries, she herself was a sacred cow. Former secretary of state George Shultz recalls in awe: “Once, at her place on Martha’s Vineyard, we did not rise from the breakfast table until nearly noon, because the talk was so good we lost track of the time.”

In truth, it would be stretching a point to call Mrs. Graham a journalist, unless inheriting a newspaper makes you a journalist. She inherited the Post (which her father had bought) when its previous publisher, her husband Philip Graham, committed suicide in 1963. At first she planned to hold on to it until her sons were ready to run it. (Her New York Times obituary notes that “her daughter was not a candidate in her plan.” Did someone say “pioneering woman”?)

Meanwhile, she turned its operation over to people who knew how to run it, though one gets the impression that they also knew how to grab the reins. Chief among these was her long-time editor, the brilliant, brassy, aggressive Ben Bradlee, a former Newsweek reporter who had persuaded her husband to buy the magazine. Bradlee, a Bostonian, was also a pal of Jack Kennedy, and soon Mrs. Graham was tight with the Kennedys too.

Thus began her real career, as the capital’s greatest hostess, “at the pinnacle,” as the Times puts it, “of Washington’s social and political establishment.” A summons to her glamour-laden table was coveted only slightly less than an invitation to a White House dinner. People became so used to sucking up to her that they couldn’t stop even when she died.

[Breaker quote: Why journalists 
love Katharine Graham]The fiercely competitive Bradlee turned the Post into a great paper, with her support. By her own admission, backed up by all who knew her, she had been shy and uncertain when she assumed ownership; she apparently couldn’t say no to Bradlee, which may have been, on the whole, fortunate for the paper. He knew what he was doing, and he stamped his own will, not hers, on the Post.

To her credit, Mrs. Graham stood up to bullying from the Nixon White House during the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal. The Post really arrived when she made the gutsy decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, though she may have received more pressure from Bradlee than from Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and John Mitchell. After that, “the world [would] refer to the Post and New York Times in the same breath,” as Bradlee would proudly recall.

The paper’s pursuit of the Watergate story, also driven by Bradlee, helped turn a “caper” into a national sensation that forced Nixon to resign the presidency. Furthermore, Bradlee created the Post’s Style section, the most imaginative addition to American journalism in our time.

Katharine Graham’s real achievement, one gathers, was to stay out of Bradlee’s way. But the Post also became a predictable organ, unable to conceive alternatives to liberal and feminist orthodoxy. Even its news coverage was (and is) infected with unwarranted “progressive” assumptions.

Another publisher, Conrad Black, once expressed the note of skepticism missing from the obituaries: “I like Katharine Graham personally. But the amount of sloppy, ill-considered, and certainly unmerited veneration for that newspaper, that sacred cow of hers, is frankly incredible. The way people adulate Kay Graham, you would think she was St. Francis of Assisi, or Margaret Thatcher.”

When journalists praise Mrs. Graham, they are really praising themselves. They revere her as the ideal publisher: one who let her employees have their way.

Joseph Sobran

Send this article to a friend.

Recipient’s e-mail address:
(You may have multiple e-mail addresses; separate them by spaces.)

Your e-mail address

Enter a subject for your e-mail:

Mailarticle © 2001 by Gavin Spomer
Archive Table of Contents

Current Column

Return to the SOBRANS home page

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive | Back Issues of SOBRANS 
 WebLinks | Scheduled Appearances | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas | Notes from the Webmaster
  Contact Us | Back to the home page 


Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications

small Griffin logo