Jules Witcover: ‘The Post’ reveals how Graham stood tall for journalism
WASHINGTON — There’s a new film out about The Washington Post and the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the Department of Defense’s classified history of the lead-up to the Vietnam War. Before I saw the film, I was mystified by the title, “The Post,” because the Pentagon Papers were first leaked to and printed in The New York Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for it in 1972.
But after seeing the film, and after reading Post executive editor Martin Baron’s explanation in a later Post interview, the mystery was cleared up for me. “Well,” Baron said, “they didn’t have Katharine Graham, in all honesty. If they’d had Katharine Graham, it would be — we’d be calling it ‘The Times.’ “
The timing of the film’s release — at the peak of the “#MeToo” movement against male sexual harassment in the workplace — appears more fortuitous than intentional. It is more a declaration of women’s arrival and progress against gender inequality in the news media and elsewhere.
The team at The Post of publisher Graham and editor Ben Bradlee continued well after the historic Pentagon Papers case, which marked the first time the American free press was obliged to go to the Supreme Court to assure the right to publish.
Later, during the Watergate scandal coverage, for which The Post won a Pulitzer, Bradlee regularly kept his boss in touch with the progress of the sleuthing he oversaw by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, on which the reputation of the newspaper also was critically at stake.
Graham herself infamously became a memorable footnote in the Watergate saga when Bernstein phoned Nixon presidential campaign manager John Mitchell and told him the next morning’s story would report of the plan to buy off the burglars, to which Mitchell angrily replied: “All that crap, you’re putting in the paper? … Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” She later one-upped him by including the quote in her Pulitzer-winning memoir.
The Stephen Spielberg movie in essence is not so much about the Pentagon Papers revealing the deceptions and mistakes of officialdom as it is about the gutsy decisiveness of the woman who unexpectedly inherited The Post, and made the call to publish the papers.
When her husband Philip Graham, the paper’s previous publisher, committed suicide in 1963, Katharine, as daughter of the previous Post owner, took over amid deep doubts about doing so. From the start, she leaned heavily on the male board members, including executive editor Bradlee, the tough but fun-loving and charismatic leader she had brought over from the Post-owned Newsweek.
In her memoir she wrote that although “I was still the newcomer” in Post top management, “Ben and I, however, were partners, very much together in focusing on our common goals.” A scene in “The Post,” in which the Bradlee character waits silently and deferentially as she gives the final word to publish, says it all.
Kay Graham, portrayed with verve by look-alike Meryl Streep, is seen as uncertain at first but steadily growing into and accepting her heavy responsibilities to the family enterprise and to real-world journalism.
Bradlee, for all his brusque and dominant manner, is presented by Tom Hanks as Katharine’s confidence-building right arm and respectful friend, who in every scene makes clear it’s her call on whether or not to publish, despite the strong disinclinations of other Post board members. Notably, Kay and Ben go together and stand side-by-side at the Supreme Court hearing, awaiting its critical decision enabling her to order the Post’s printing presses to start rolling.
In her memoir, she wrote that after the Pentagon Papers case: “I gained even more confidence in Ben. He and I had a true understanding between us, as well as a respect and admiration for each other, but until the Pentagon Papers we had never been tested publicly in any way.”
In a sense, the scenes that demonstrated her transition from early insecurity in the presence of the elder, seasoned but more cautionary advisers of her late husband, to the Kay Graham confidently emerging as true partner of her executive editor, shows why film’s short title, “The Post,” might justly be better called, simply, “Katharine.”
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.