It began with a bankruptcy sale in 1933, when a Republican businessman and presidential confidant reinvented himself as a newspaper publisher in the nation’s capital. It ended with an announcement that his descendants had sold the newspaper to an Internet wizard who lives in the Washington on the other side of the country.
In between, The Washington Post and the family collectively known as the Grahams became inseparable, indistinguishable. They were journalism royalty known around the world but remained as distinctly Washington as the cop on the beat. Which one of them was.
From Eugene Meyer to Philip L. Graham to Katharine Graham to Donald E. Graham to Katharine Weymouth, it was always a question of when power would shift from one generation to the next, not whether it would.
Until Monday. The Graham family — an icon of both Washington and journalism for the newspaper it led — had made a startling decision. The Post, they said, would be better off with somebody else.
“We have loved the paper, what it stood for, and those who produced it,” said a letter from Donald Graham, the Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive. “But the point of our ownership has always been that it was supposed to be good for the Post.”
He added: “We were certain the paper would survive under our ownership, but we wanted it to do more than that. We wanted it to succeed.”
It was the same 80 years earlier, when Meyer, a wealthy native Californian, sent a representative to the steps of The Post’s former headquarters on E Street. His winning bid for the bankrupt newspaper was $825,000, and he was not disclosed as the new owner for 12 days.
He drafted the announcement of the sale and stated his intentions: “It will be conducted as an independent paper devoted to the best interests of the people of Washington and vicinity, and hopes to have their interest and support.”
By the time Meyer was 40, in 1915, his fortune was said to be in the $50 million to $60 million range. When he bought The Post, he was 57 and most recently had been chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
He stressed the “independent” part to dispel rumors that the paper would become a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. He said seven principles would guide The Post, the last of which was: “The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.”
Meyer poured his fortune into The Post and was an enthusiastic cheerleader. He was said to have tried to sell a subscription to the driver before he exited a cab.
But the real change for The Post came 21 years after the purchase, when Meyer and his son-in-law Philip L. Graham bought out its morning rival, the Washington Times-Herald. “For the Post, it meant a doubling of circulation, a morning monopoly and within five years the overtaking of the traditional advertising leader in Washington, The Star,” Post reporter Chalmers Roberts wrote in a history of the paper.
Graham was brilliant and charismatic, a former Supreme Court clerk with big ambitions and serious problems. He became publisher at 31, and Meyer arranged for him to hold more stock in the company than his own daughter Katharine because, he explained to her, “no man should be in the position of working for his wife.” Mrs. Graham did not object.
“I increasingly saw my role as the tail to his kite and the more I felt overshadowed, the more it became a reality,” Katharine Graham wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, “Personal History.”
Philip Graham struggled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1963; his 47-year-old widow was faced with the decision of whether to sell the paper or run it herself.
It was the beginning of a long career for Katharine Graham that coincided with — and came to symbolize — two powerful trends. The first was the role of women as leaders in American life. The second was the rise of Washington’s permanent elite, an orbit of the unelected that grew along with the federal city and exercised soft power on those who had hard power.
Graham became both the leading woman in American business and a center of connection and influence in Washington society. When Graham later penned her bestselling memoir, writer Nora Ephron wrote in a review: “The story of her journey from daughter to wife to widow to woman parallels to a surprising degree the history of women in this century.”
Graham’s legacy at The Post was defined by her choice of editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, and by a series of journalistic crises. In 1971, a judge had ordered the New York Times to stop publishing reports about the Pentagon Papers, a secret official history of the Vietnam War. The Post obtained its own copy. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’ ” Graham recalled saying.