What The Post Gets Right (and Wrong) About Katharine Graham and the Pentagon Papers

A Smithsonian historian reminds us how Graham, a Washington socialite-turned-publisher, transformed the paper into what it is today

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in "The Post." (20th Century Fox)
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The decision to publish the famed Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post ultimately came before its publisher, Katharine Graham. Caught between the caution of her lawyers and the zeal of her hardworking journalists, Graham was under enormous pressure. The estimable New York Times first broke the story about a cache of classified government documents revealing uncomfortable truths about the Vietnam War, but after the Nixon Administration successfully stopped the Times from printing, Graham’s paper had a golden opportunity to pick up the story.

On one side were her Post reporters and editors, eager to play catch-up while they had the advantage on the Times. On the other, were the lawyers arguing against publishing the study, warning that the court might order an injunction against them as well. The newspaper board’s advisors feared that it would lead the paper, which recently went public, into financial turmoil.

The new movie The Post dramatizes this brief period in 1971, as Graham debates and deliberates the decision. When Graham, as played by Meryl Streep proclaims, “Let’s go. Let’s publish,” it’s a celebration of a woman who forever changed the course of American history and brought her newspaper to the national stage.

Amy Henderson, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s historian emerita and curator of the “One Life: Katharine Graham” exhibit, said in an interview that Streep’s portrayal is mostly faithful. Her main issue with the film is how it plays up Graham’s inexperience for dramatic purposes. By the time she was presented with the Pentagon Papers decision, Henderson pointed out, Graham had been publisher of the paper for eight years, and had a better grasp on her tenure than the movie lets on.

It’s true, however, that when Graham initially assumed the position, she was very unsure of her ability to lead, says Henderson. Her father, Eugene Meyer, bought the fledgling Post in 1933 and encouraged his daughter to pursue her interest in journalism. She worked for a time at a paper in San Francisco where, Henderson says, “she was having a really good time, she had never been on her own before and was enjoying life.” When Graham returned to D.C., she worked briefly at the Post before marrying Philip Graham, a Supreme Court law clerk, in 1940.

When it came time to pass the paper’s leadership to the next generation, Meyer overlooked Katharine, his favorite child. He instead chose Graham and gave him the majority of the family’s stock, telling his daughter that “no man should be in the position of working for his wife.” In her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Personal History, Katharine wrote she thought nothing of it. The decision meant she could continue her life as a wife, mother and socialite, hosting the Washington elite at their Georgetown home. When her husband committed suicide in 1963, she took over as president of the Post. Graham faced a steep learning curve, and intense feelings of self-doubt. Her insecurity was in part a result of difficult relationships with her mother and her husband.

In her memoir, Graham recounts her hesitancy: “‘Me?’ I exclaimed. ‘That's impossible. I couldn’t possibly do it.’”

An acquaintance reassured her: “‘Of course you can do it,’ she maintained. … ‘You’ve got all those genes … You’ve just been pushed down so far you don't recognize what you can do.’”

Her ascension to the Post’s leadership was made all the more arduous by the era’s and industry’s sexism. As shown in the Steven Spielberg-directed film, the men surrounding Graham, specifically the ones who advocate against publishing the Pentagon Papers, doubt her abilities. One board-member praises her late husband who was appointed back in 1946: The fact that Meyer selected him “said something about the guy.” A colleague responds rather, that, “It said something about the time.” It’s gratifying to see Graham assert her authority—as she moves from a timid to a towering figure— who fights for both her voice and the freedom of the press.

Despite Graham’s powerful position, it took some time before she fully embraced the feminist movement; conversations with activist and writer Gloria Steinem played a part in changing her thinking. Managing the paper made Graham “more aware of women’s problems in the workplace and of the need to get more women in the workplace,” she wrote. Once a hostess who carefully observed social norms, Graham as publisher pushed against the ingrained sexism of the day. After one dinner party, she notably joined the men discussing politics rather than the ladies discussing household matters.

Today’s readers are used to the ongoing, albeit friendly battle between the Post and New York Times. While it seems that nearly every day under the Trump administration either paper, or both, has a major scoop, it wasn’t always this way. In publishing the Pentagon Papers, Graham helped propel the Washington Post forward as a prominent newspaper that could play on the national stage.

Part of that too was hiring Ben Bradlee, the former Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, who became the Post’s executive editor and is played by Tom Hanks in the film. “With her backing, he forged a staff of reporters and editors and put out a breezy, gutsy paper that investigated government with gusto,” wrote the New York Times.

The groundwork was laid, then, for the Washington Post’s biggest scoop: the Watergate scandal as reported by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But anyone watching the Oscar-nominated film that details that story, All the President’s Men, would be hard-pressed to find Graham in it; she was left out of the 1976 movie completely, save for one oblique reference.

According to Graham’s Personal History, Robert Redford claimed “that no one understood the role of a publisher, and it was too extraneous to explain.” Graham wrote, “Redford imagined that I would be relieved, which I was, but, to my surprise, my feelings were hurt by being omitted altogether…”

Henderson adds, “it was Katharine Graham who made the ultimate decisions—not Ben Bradlee—that proved so vital to preserving freedom of the press when a president was behaving criminally.” She speculates that “one of the reasons [Graham] wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir was to set the record straight.” The Post not only puts Graham back into her paper’s history, but it puts her back in charge.

Watching The Post, one is struck by how relevant and timely the events remain. The script was sold just a week before the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton’s victory was widely assumed. Producer Amy Pascal said the film spoke to her because “it was the story of a woman finding her voice, and an entire country finding its voice.” But in the election’s aftermath, The Post has taken on an additional meaning as a bulwark against unsubstantiated calls of “fake news,” and as a reminder of the hard and vital work needed to protect a free press. 

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