Jewish World Review July 19, 2001 / 28 Tamuz, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Katharine Graham, giant -- IN a town supposedly known for its "giants," political and otherwise, if the truth be known there have been few who genuinely have deserved the name over the last half century. A case can be made for some but not all of the presidents --- perhaps Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan.

In Congress, senators like Everett Dirksen, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, William Fulbright, Jacob Javits, Mike Mansfield, Ed Muskie, Bob Dole; House leaders like Sam Rayburn, John McCormack, Tip O'Neill, Bob Michel, Gerald Ford; Supreme Court justices like Earl Warren, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan; all of these will be so described by some historians of the period.

Notably in this list there is not a single woman, although some have served with distinction in Congress, such as Maine's Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. No, this very political town has, and continues to be, mostly a man's town, with women still chiefly gaining prominence, in the vernacular of the diplomatic world, as "wife of." First ladies may be an exception, but they too have held the spotlight predominantly if not exclusively because of their husbands' celebrity.

There is, importantly, a big difference between notoriety and stature. Former first lady and current Sen. Hillary Clinton certainly has achieved the former, in spades, but perhaps not yet the latter. A clear illustration of the distinction could always be found in a woman who was not a politician but functioned in the political waters as a true giant until her death yesterday at 84 - Katharine Graham, retired but not retiring publisher of the Washington Post.

Mrs. Graham from the outside made her mark on political Washington just as indelibly as Eleanor Roosevelt did from the inside. As a recently widowed woman with little newspaper experience (though she once had been a reporter for the Mount Vernon, N.Y., Argus and the old San Francisco News), she took over the Post at a time when it was far from the dominant newspaper in town.

Her hiring of Ben Bradlee as editor launched the restaffing of the paper that brought it national laurels, and she was deeply involved in the decision to print the Pentagon Papers and to pursue the Watergate scandal to its perilous but sensational end, with the resignation of President Richard Nixon. She was a hands-on publisher whose on-the-job training never ceased.

During one strike of the editorial staff on which I worked, she plunged into putting out the paper, including writing stories, taking classified ads over the phone and all the rest. She was a regular presence in the newsroom while giving Bradlee and the other editors a free hand in decision-making.

Once, during the 1976 presidential campaign, she had a lunch at her home for Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. As the reporter accompanying him during the Iowa caucuses he had just won, I was invited. Carter, asked how he rated his treatment by the Post, proceeded to complain that he had not been fairly covered in Iowa.

Sitting at her long dining-room table, I squirmed as one of the editors reminded Carter that I had been there throughout the caucuses. Carter tartly replied that maybe I had been but I didn't get the story right.

Afterward, he shook my hand as if he hadn't just pulverized me before my editors and publisher.

Later that afternoon, Mrs. Graham came into the newsroom and asked me for my side of the story. I defended myself and she smiled, and that was that. She was ever a supportive presence, never an authoritarian one, in the newsroom where many publishers never venture.

In the last paragraphs of her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Mrs. Graham reflected on her advancing age and what passed for her retirement from active direction of the Post. "I am grateful to be able to go on working and to like my new life so well that I don't miss the old one," she wrote. "It's dangerous when you are older to start living in the past. Now that it's out of my system, I intend to live in the present, looking forward to the future." And that's exactly what she did, to the end.

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