By Katharine Graham
Alfred A. Knopf
644 pages; $29.95
"Personal History" is many books, all of them extraordinary. It's a poignant self-examination; a backstage pass to a world of power and privilege; an insider account of a great newspaper's rise. But you probably know about all those by now, so let's focus on another fine book here: a how-to manual for publishers.
From 1963 to 1991, Katharine Graham ran the Washington Post, a middle-of-the-pack paper her father had bought at auction in 1933 and her husband Phil had run for the 17 years before her. The paper had momentum and historical fortune on its side, but it was on her watch that it leapt into the elite league.
Graham's Post published the Pentagon Papers, dominated coverage of the Watergate mega-story, and morphed into that manager's sweet dream, a money machine with world-class prestige.
Graham was hardly perfect. She seems to have had an off-with-their-heads approach to handling business-side executives, and the paper faced severe labor problems during her tenure. But overall she succeeded grandly, and her story suggests several reasons why:
• Humility. Graham tiptoed into adulthood as an insecure self-doubter. "I can't say I think Mother genuinely loved us," she writes painfully. "The more subtle inheritance of my strange childhood was the feeling..of believing we were never quite going about things correctly."
She was swept away by the dazzling Phil Graham ("this brilliant, charismatic, fascinating man loved me!"), upbeat even after he misspelled her name in a letter telling his father of their engagement, equable in her role as "the tail to his kite," barely flinching when he paraded an affair in front of their friends and called her Porky in public.
When her father transferred Post ownership to the couple, she never complained that Phil got more than twice as many shares as she did. So it wasn't surprising that, when Phil committed suicide in 1963 and she was elected company president, she saw her role "as supporting the strong men..who were running things."
• Heritage. Despite the popular image of Graham as a guileless innocent cast into the boardroom snakepit, the truth is more complex.
Here was a person with a Vassar/University of Chicago pedigree, whose family had owned the paper for 30 years, whose close personal friends included Walter Lippmann and James Reston, who had taken her first job at the Post (as a copy aide) in 1934, who had reported for the San Francisco News, worked in the Post's editorial section and written a magazine column.
She had enjoyed a nonstop journalism tutelage for decades, first from her father ("He felt a newspaper was a public trust... His quest for integrity clearly extended to the business side"), then her husband ("I was very aware of everything in his day's work").
• Hard work. So she leaped ahead, relying on advisers from Lippmann to Gloria Steinem, applying what she calls "the Montessori method — learning by doing." She traveled widely, listened carefully, probed everywhere.
"I must have driven everyone around me crazy by studying everything so intensely," she writes, "but I was compelled to know more. I traveled to several cities to observe newspaper operations. I spent a day at Texas Instruments..I visited the headquarters of Xerox and NCR. I attended a week-long, hands-on production-process school..I also attended IBM's seven-day course designed for heads of companies..."
• Helpfulness. From all this came a management style featuring a blend of hands-on intensity and from-a-distance faith in subordinates. Graham gave editors "real autonomy" but insisted on the "no surprise rule" and a "constant conversation." And while she believed that "the editors are more often right than wrong," she was no pushover, warning one, "I didn't want to wake up more often than not to editorials with which I didn't agree."
Whether battling to keep her reporters out of foreign prisons or volunteering to be jailed herself in a confidential-sources case, she was a steadfast presence. "Let's go. Let's publish," she famously said about the Pentagon Papers.
And during Watergate, even though she believed "our existence as a company was at stake," she describes her role simply but expressively: "What I did primarily was stand behind the editors and reporters, in whom I believed."
• Humor. It was the odious Attorney General John Mitchell who told Carl Bernstein, about one Watergate story, that "Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published."
So when someone presented her with a tiny wringer and humorist Art Buchwald gave her a small gold breast to go with it, Graham did what a proud publisher should do. She wore it around her neck.
Publishers and publisher-wannabes looking to learn leadership will find few better primers than "Personal History."