Friday, June 16, 2006

Put One Foot in Front of the Other, and Step Off the Edge

Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post (1969-79) and chairman of the Washington Post Company (1973-91), was born on this day in 1917 in New York City.

After she left her job as a reporter with the Washington Post in 1945, Katherine Graham probably had no reason to believe that she would be anything other than a Washington hostess, mother and housewife. Her father, Eugene Meyer, had bought the Washington Post in 1933, and Katherine took a job there at age 20. Shortly thereafter, however, Katherine married Philip Graham, and left the Post to raise their family. Philip bought out Katherine's father and proceeded to expand the company, buying Newsweek and the Washington Times-Herald.

Philip Graham suffered from manic depression, however, and in 1963, he committed suicide, leaving Katherine in control of the Washington Post. In her memoirs, published in 1997 (for which she won a Pulitzer Prize), Graham wrote: "I had very little idea of what I was supposed to be doing, so I set out to learn. What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge."

During the 1960s and 70s, the Post became known for its tough investigative reporting under Graham's leadership, as she brought on Ben Bradlee as editor-in-chief; published the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg, in 1971, against the advice of attorneys; and pressed the polices that resulted in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's reports on the Watergate scandal, and ultimately in the resignation of President Nixon -- despite the fact that at the time the Nixon administration was threatening to pull the FCC licenses for her TV stations in Florida. When Carl Bernstein called to inform John Mitchell, Nixon's campaign chair and former Attorney General, that the Post would be printing an article linking him to the fund which paid for the Watergate burglary, it was perhaps a measure of Graham's personal power and charisma within the corridors of power in Washington when Mitchell testily responded "Katie Graham's gonna get her t*t caught in a big fat wringer if that's ever published." Mitchell was later convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and perjury, and served 19 months of a 2-1/2-to-8 year prison sentence in a minimum-security federal prison in Alabama.

Not only did Graham help to make the Washington Post an internationally respected newspaper, but by the mid-1970s she was being hailed as the most influential woman in the U.S. When she retired as CEO of the Washington Post in 1991, she was one of only 2 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. She died on July 17, 2001 in Boise, Idaho, from head injuries after a fall on a sidewalk while attending a conference.

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