by William H. Benson
August 2, 2001
The right to criticize our government and its leaders extends back beyond the Constitution to the colonial days. On August 4, 1735 the New York Governor William Cosby acquitted John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, of libel charges. Zenger had defended himself and won his case by pleading that his charges against the colony’s governor were true, and therefore not libelous.
Throughout the two plus centuries of this American Republic’s existence, the press and the politicians have bantered back and forth, but in the 1970’s Richard Nixon’s hatred of the press and especially of the Washington Post exceeded the normal to the point of being bizarre.
Katharine Graham, the owner and publisher of the Post and Newsweek, wrote in her autobiography, Personal History, “Trying to keep all of his hatred of the press, and particularly of the Post, within the confines of the White House proved too much for the president.”
Henry Kissinger said of Nixon, “He was convinced that the Post had it in for him. At what point he got that idea, I don’t know, but when I met him, he already had that idea. He wanted a confrontation with the press. He really hated the press.”
Katharine Graham inherited the Post from her father, Eugene Meyer, a wealthy businessman who had purchased the newspaper in June of 1933 at a bankruptcy auction. He only gave $825,000 for the paper, but it was years before it ever showed a profit.
Katharine’s husband, Phil Graham, ran the newspaper in the fifties and early sixties, while Katharine played the role of the dutiful “doormat” housewife and mother to their four children. The difficulty was that Phil, for all of his dazzle and brilliance, was a manic depressive. On Saturday August 3, 1963, shortly after lunch, he shot himself in the bathroom, and Katharine found him.
At age 46 she found herself in the top job of publisher and CEO of the Washington Post. She was a widow. Shy, insecure, lacking little self-confidence, she somehow found the courage and the internal strength to face the job, to learn what she needed to know, as well as balance her children’s lives with her own. Decisions were thrown at her.
In 1971 Katharine Graham gave her editor, Ben Bradlee, permission to publish the Pentagon Papers, information about the decisions leading up to our involvement in Vietnam. Nixon was furious, which puzzled everyone. The papers reflected nothing on Nixon personally; they were essentially a history of decisions made before Nixon was even president. His reaction to the papers was an example of his extreme paranoia about secrecy and national security.
Then, on Friday night, June 16, 1972, police caught five men breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel, and a national nightmare had begun. For the next two years the Post kept the story alive. The Post’s two reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, dug and dug until they found “Deep Throat”, a leak in the White House who willingly talked. Everything he or she told them checked out. They knew of a cover-up, but how to prove it?
At one point Katharine Graham asked Ben Bradlee, “All I want to know is if this is such a great story, where are the other newspapers?” Fighting a president was not for the faint of heart.
On August 5, 1974 the “smoking gun” was found. The White House released three new tapes that recounted conversations between Nixon and Haldeman on June 23, 1972, six days after the break-in. They proved Nixon had directed efforts to hide the involvement of his aides. On August 9th Nixon resigned.
Last month Katharine Graham at age 84 died of a brain hemorrhage. The question many in Washington asked was, “How did she go from daughter, to housewife, to mother, to widow, to newspaper publisher, to a media mogul with the power to topple a president?”
She had answered that question years before, when she said, “It was different for women of my generation. We did it like a cake, layer by layer.”