(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Katharine Graham has become such a fixture in Washington, D.C., through her influentialWashington Post that her rise to power and prestige seems natural and inevitable. How hard could it have been for a woman whose father owned the paper, whose husband edited it for several years, and who then took over after his death? In truth, her dominance took years of struggle. She was beset with self-doubt, with worry that she would lose the paper, and with a set of attitudes about a woman’s place in society that seem archaic. She exposes her vulnerability frankly enough to earn her high marks very early in her memoir. What she reveals lays bare the issue of how an executive maintains authority. Over and over again, Graham raises questions about her own competence. That she masters her weaknesses so decisively, however, makes her story not only compelling but far more honest than virtually any book ever written by a corporate leader.

Graham learned a good deal from her shrewd father, a man who came from wealth but who made his fortune on Wall Street using his own hard-earned money. Eugene Meyer resembles his Jewish contemporary Bernard Baruch in many respects. Like Baruch, he believed that he should use his wealth in the public service. When he bought The Washington Post in 1933, it was an also-ran among the city’s newspapers. Meyer sustained large losses over many years, but he patiently built up the paper’s quality and advertising revenues. At the same time, he made the paper a family enterprise. His wife, Agnes, a feisty woman with a taste for the arts and politics, often wrote for the paper and for other periodicals. His children also worked at the paper; Katharine took many different kinds of low-level jobs during summers and periods between school.

Yet even with an ambitious, accomplished mother and a father who did not automatically rule out women in the business world, Katharine Graham did not think of herself as having a career. Certainly she was active in the issues of her time. She was basically a liberal, though she never flirted with communism as did many of her contemporaries at the University of Chicago and elsewhere. She believed in labor unions and progressive policies, but she was never embarrassed about her family’s money, and her belief in a capitalist economy never seems to have been shaken by her radical friends.

Perhaps Graham might have considered a career earlier if she had not been romanced by Philip Graham, a brilliant Harvard University law student, a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and the scion of a family steeped in Florida politics. Philip expected to return home after his education and become a politician, although his father leaned heavily on him to continue the family farming business.

World War II changed everything for Philip and Katharine Graham. Philip served a tour of duty with his usual energy and panache. He was an intense man, prone to drinking too much and to great mood swings. Yet in the early days of his marriage to Katharine, his more erratic qualities rarely surfaced, and she obviously thought of him as a great man who was destined to do great things. Although Philip resisted the idea of joining the Post, concerned that Katharine’s family money would corrupt him or make it seem as though he had capitalized on her wealth, he could not resist Eugene Meyer’s offer to head the paper. Philip was only in his early thirties, and though he had served no apprenticeship in journalism, he had a brilliant mind and Washington contacts that would ensure his getting off to a fast start.

Philip’s launch was so meteoric that Katharine Graham became completely swallowed up in his life and career. Even as his manic-depressive personality began to show itself and he began to torture himself with doubts that he could have succeeded without his father-in-law’s support, she became even more committed to his quest to dominate the Washington and national media. He acquired several companies—notably Newsweek—in his quest to make the Washington Post Company grow and mature.

Philip Graham wielded an influence and became a Washington insider in ways that now might seem close to the unethical. He became so close to Lyndon Johnson and his quest for the presidency that he was virtually Johnson’s campaign manager. Katharine Graham repeatedly points out that her husband’s actions were not so outrageous at the time, but in the light of later standards that call for a more independent press, his actions seem to cross a dangerous line between reporting the news and making the news.

Unfortunately, Philip Graham’s manic-depressive behavior went untreated for several years. Katharine Graham is especially hard on psychiatrist Leslie Farber, who eschewed all use of...

(The entire section is 1955 words.)