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How Katharine Graham Defied A Federal Judge To Publish The Pentagon Papers


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "The Post," directed by Steven Spielberg, is about how the Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee defied a federal judge by publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department history of the war in Vietnam. Graham and Bradlee risked going to jail and the ruin of the paper. Today, we're going to hear interviews from our archive with the late Graham and Bradlee. In the new film, they're played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Here's a clip in which Bradlee pulls Graham aside to tell her they're close to getting a copy of the Pentagon Papers. Graham is nervous about the idea of publishing them.


TOM HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) So can I ask you a hypothetical question?

MERYL STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) Oh, dear. I don't like hypothetical questions.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Well, I don't think you're going to find the real one either.

STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) Do you have the papers?

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Not yet.

STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) Oh, gosh. Oh, gosh - because you know the position that would put me in. You know, we have language in the prospectus.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) I know. I know that the vendors can't change their mind. And I know what is at stake. You know, the only couple I knew that both Kennedy and LBJ wanted to socialize with was you and your husband. And you owned the damn paper. I guess that's the way things worked. Politicians and the press, they trusted each other. So they could go to the same dinner party and drink cocktails and tell jokes while there was a war raging in Vietnam.

STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) I don't know what we're talking about. I'm not protecting Lyndon.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) No, you got his former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the man who commissioned this study. He's one of about a dozen party guests out on your patio.

STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) I'm not protecting him. I'm not protecting any of them. I'm protecting the paper.

GROSS: So that's Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. We're going to start with my interview with Katharine Graham, recorded in 1997 after the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir. She died in 2001 at the age of 84. Graham took over The Washington Post in 1963 at a time when newspaper women were pretty much confined to the women's pages. She led the Post through its transformation from a mediocre paper into a major force in the political life of Washington and the nation. She gave the go-ahead on the publication of the Pentagon Papers and had reporters keep on the Watergate story in spite of White House pressure to get off it.

Before she retired in 1993, she was sometimes called the Iron Lady. But her memoir revealed the insecurities beneath the surface. The Post was a family-owned paper. Graham unexpectedly inherited the position of publisher when her husband Philip Graham committed suicide in 1963. He had taken over the paper from Katharine Graham's father when he retired. Her father made his fortune on Wall Street. He purchased the Post in 1933 when she was in high school. Here's an excerpt of our interview.


GROSS: You made Ben Bradlee the managing editor of The Washington Post, a move probably no one would dispute was a smart move. He became a very close working partner of yours. And you had a long and, I think, very gratifying working relationship with him. How did you decide to make him managing editor?

KATHARINE GRAHAM: Little by little, I realized from things that happened, like people applying to be editor. Or my friend Scotty Reston of The New York Times said, don't you want a hand on a better paper to your children than you inherited? And on the job, I realized that there was discontent in the city room and that things were not going as well as they should have been. And all this dawned on me gradually. And so I began thinking about it.

And by accident, Ben Bradlee had been - he was then-bureau chief of Newsweek in Washington. And he had been offered two or three jobs to go to New York and get on the ladder and be one of the principal editors at Newsweek. And he turned them down. I think, first of all, because between him and his wife they had six children. And he liked Washington, and he didn't move. And I thought, well, I better go talk to Ben because I didn't really know him very well. But I had heard great things about how he was running the bureau and how he was attracting talent and how the bureau was good.

And so I asked him to lunch. And I took him to a club because I'd never asked a man to lunch. And I didn't want to pay the bill. It's really funny. And so we went to a club I belong to. And I said, what is it that you do want to do? I noticed you've turned these jobs down in New York. And, of course, Ben being Ben said, well, now that you asked me, I'd give my left one to the managing editor of the Post. I know that's a little bit vulgar, but Ben talks like that. And I was really brought up short because I didn't expect that.

And the managing editor of The Post was an old-timer, had been very loyal and was a personal friend. And so I said that's not possible in the near future - maybe someday. And then Ben began pushing. And I'd run into him, and he'd say, now when are we going to talk? And I'd say, Ben, let's cool it, and it's too quick. And Ben kept pushing. And finally - first of all, I sort of resented it and wondered why, since he didn't have the job, he had the nerve to be so pushy. And thinking it over, I thought, well, maybe that kind of energy and that kind of drive is what we need.

And so I checked up on him, with people like Walter Lippmann and the people at Newsweek, and asked everybody what they thought. And they all thought that was a great idea. And so eventually I persuaded the editors to bring him over as an assistant editor. They at first said, oh, fine, he can come on as a reporter like everybody else. And I said, no, no, I think this is needed in management. And finally, he came over. And that began the process of his succeeding the editor.

GROSS: One of the defining moments in your career in journalism, and in the life of the Washington Post, is when you and Ben Bradlee decided to publish the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the war in Vietnam. And Ben Bradlee was saying publish it and publish it quickly. But your lawyers were saying wait. Don't publish it so quickly. In fact, maybe you shouldn't publish it at all. So either take your time, or don't do it. But don't rush into it. How did you make up your mind, being in between your lawyers and Bradlee and knowing that this was going to be a really important decision?

GRAHAM: It was - I had to do it very quickly in about a minute because I - the editors and the head of the company Fritz Beebe were at Ben's house. And they were writing and trying to keep it secret. And the lawyers were there, and they were saying that it was very dangerous. And indeed, we shouldn't publish because the Times had been enjoined already from publishing by the government, who had taken them to court. And we were in the process of going public. We had announced our plans and not sold the stock. So we were particularly liable to any kind of criminal prosecution from the government.

So finally they called me up because it got so late, and the argument got so tense, and said you're going to have to decide this. And I said, well, why do we have to do it right away? The Times took three months. And they - the editors all got on the phone. And the businesspeople were on the other phone saying wait a day. The editors were saying we mustn't wait a day. Everybody knows we have these papers. And we have to maintain the momentum that was stopped when the Times was enjoined. And it's very important. People have their eyes on us. And we have to publish.

And so I listened to them. And finally after talking to both sides, I asked my colleague Fritz Beebe what he would do. And he was a lawyer. And he said, I guess I would not. And that made it hard but not impossible. He said it in such a way that I thought he's leaving it up to me. And I can do this. And so I said let's go. Let's publish. And I hung up because I was so freaked out by having had to make that decision so fast.

GROSS: Did you have to decide at that moment what your guiding principles were - whether your guiding principles had more to do with journalism or with just protecting the profits of the company?

GRAHAM: You know, I made speeches at the time. And I made them for rather another reason, which is that my image on Wall Street was that - when we went public, which was later in 1971, I was this kind of nutty woman who was taking these risks with the company. And I started talking about excellence and profitability go hand in hand. And I really did it to show Wall Street that I cared about profitability because they thought I didn't. But in fact, I think it's true. And I really believed it - that if you invested in the editorial product and build up the production and business side, I really believed it - that if you invested in the editorial product and built up the production and business side, that it would work. And to a large extent, it did and has.

GROSS: You built up a lot of animosity from the White House toward The Washington Post through publishing the Pentagon Papers and then breaking the Watergate story. And you say in the book, bearing the full brunt of presidential wrath is always disturbing. Now, you have told us about how insecure you were, the kind of low self-esteem you had as a professional when you took over The Post. And here you are, now being criticized by the White House. Did you feel personally able to deal with that kind of criticism?

GRAHAM: It was pretty scary. And you had to deal with it. Some people have referred to that as courageous. And I didn't view it as courageous. I viewed it as we had no choice. I think courage is when you have a choice, and you choose to be courageous. I thought we had no choice once we got in the Watergate reporting. In the Pentagon Papers - that's true - we did have a choice for about a minute.

In Watergate, you were - it was like wading into a river. By the time you realize how serious it was, which was several months into the story, we were into it up to our waists. And then there was no way you could go back. You had to go forward. And so I simply had to live with it. I was very anxious. I lay about a foot above the bed, worrying at night. But I also didn't think we had any choice except to proceed and to back the editors and reporters in whom I believed.

GROSS: Were you worried that, one day, you'd find out that you were being misled, that you were set up, you were the victim of some kind of scam?

GRAHAM: Indeed I was. I used to go down and talk to Ben and Howard Simons, the managing editor, all the time and ask, are we being fair? Are we being accurate? And are we being set up or misled so that our heads can be chopped off? And they had good answers to these, and they were really reassuring. I don't think they were as assured themselves inwardly as they seemed to be to me.

But they said that some of our sources were Republican and that because we had the story to ourselves that Woodward and Bernstein had time to check and that they often withdrew a story by themselves unless they were - and they had two sources for everything. And thirdly, that Woodward had a source, particular source, to whom he went when he was really bothered and puzzled and that this source had never misled him. And, of course, the source was later christened by the managing editor, Howard Simons, Deep Throat. I know - I still don't know who Deep Throat was. I didn't know then, and I don't know now.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1997 interview with Katharine Graham, the former president and publisher of The Washington Post. She died in 2001. The identity of Deep Throat, FBI Special Agent Mark Felt, was revealed four years later. In this excerpt of our interview, we talked about how Graham unexpectedly inherited the position of publisher in 1963 after her husband, Philip Graham, committed suicide.


GROSS: You write that early on after taking over The Post, you were encumbered by a deep feeling of uncertainty and inferiority and the need to be - to please and to be liked. You say, I was unable to make a decision that might displease those around me. How did that affect your decision making early on and your interactions with the staff?

GRAHAM: Oh, it got in my way a lot, but it's a very - lot of - it tends to be female baggage, and it still is to some extent. But it was much worse then. The way it affected my performance is that I couldn't say, I've listened to everybody, and now I think we ought to do this. I had to get everybody to agree to whatever it was. And if everybody didn't agree, I'd go around, begging them to see my point of view. And it was just a very poor way to be a leader.

GROSS: Suddenly, you were - your social circle expanded, but that circle was really pretty similar to the one you'd had before with your husband. But now, instead of being the wife, you were the publisher in that circle. How did that change your behavior in that circle? And was there an uncomfortable transition (laughter)?

GRAHAM: I think it was very gradual because I was used to the people I was relating to. I just gradually grew used to it. And I realized that I was going to be conspicuous because I had the job I had. At one point, I was at my friend Joe Alsop's for dinner, and I had been used to the women and the men parting company after Washington dinners, while the men talked about issues and the women went and powdered their nose and discussed their households.

And at one point, I suddenly realized that I'd been working all day, that I'd been involved in an editorial lunch with somebody who was in the news and that I'd been working and that now I was being asked to go in the other room with the wives. And I said to Joe, who was a good friend, I hope you won't mind if I slip out of here because the paper comes, and I really can use the time better than going into that room with the wives.

And he said, oh, darling, you can't do that. And I said, sure I can. I mean, it's just I don't want to use my time like that, Joe. And so he was so upset that he made me stay. And he broke up the segregation. And then it broke up all over Washington. So that was an instance where, I guess, suddenly I realized that I was in the working world and that I didn't have to do those things.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1997 interview with Katharine Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post. In the new movie "The Post," she's portrayed by Meryl Streep. We'll hear more about The Washington Post after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1997 interview with Katharine Graham, who was the publisher of The Washington Post when it published its Watergate investigations and the Pentagon Papers.


GROSS: When you took over The Post, there were few women in journalism and far fewer women in the kind of upper position that you held. You said that early on, you didn't realize that part of what you were experiencing was emblematic of the larger issues in the women's movement. What made you realize that your life really connected to the issues of the women's movement?

GRAHAM: Two things. One is simply experience in the workplace and being talked to by women and issues coming up such as really little issues but they were symbolic. I was - there's a big newspaper dinner and no women had ever been invited called the Gridiron in Washington. And I was invited as a guest. And the women rose up in the paper and wrote me and said, please don't go until there's a woman member. And at first, I was startled and said, you know, I was rather thrilled to go. And after all, it was a gesture toward opening up.

And they said, no, you know, until as a member, don't please go. And we feel very strongly about this. And so I didn't. And, of course, it made me aware of those issues. But the other thing that was as important if not more so was the rise of the women's movement. In particular, I became a friend of Gloria Steinem. And she argued with me about women's positions and how I should understand them. And at first, I said, oh, Gloria, you know that's not for me. And she said, yes, it is. If you understand what this is about, it will make your life better and it will make other people's lives better around you. And she was right. So those two things, experience and Gloria.

GROSS: OK, so when you realized that Steinem was right and you more personally and intellectually connected to the women's movement, how did that change you personally and change the way you managed The Post?

GRAHAM: I think it made you certainly more aware of women's problems in the workplace and of the need to get more women in the workplace. It made me more aware of bias in the news, such as somebody being described as a 58-year-old, gray-haired grandmother. And I realized that I had to do something and try to make things better in the company. I know - I didn't always succeed because I didn't quite know how to go about it in some cases. I didn't know how to lean on people who were doing a wonderful job but who were blatant male chauvinists and make them understand the issues.

But little by little, we made progress. And some of it was due to being sued.

GROSS: The Post was sued.

GRAHAM: Newsweek was sued, the stations were sued and The Post.

GROSS: Did you ever confront a man about his chauvinism on the job?

GRAHAM: Yes, I wrote a note once that I found in the files in which somebody at - a personnel director had circulated a memo. And he had referred to the men as Brown (ph), Smith (ph) and Jones (ph). And it was - the women were Mary (ph), Sue (ph) and Margaret (ph). And I said, wait a minute here, why are we referred to by our first name and the other guys are last names? Another instance in which the issue arose was that I recommended a woman to be back of the book editor at Newsweek and the editors just said, that's impossible. We can't do that.

And I must say, I mean, we work long hours, we work weekends, we're here at night. And I stupidly accepted this. And then finally, we were sued by the women at Newsweek. And the editor and Frederick Beebe called me up - and I was on vacation - said, the women are suing us and this is very serious. And I said, whose side am I supposed to be on? And Fritz Beebe, my colleague, whom I really loved and respected, said, this isn't funny. And I said, I know it isn't funny, and I'm serious. And on the other hand, as a manager, it bothered me and I got offended by these suits. But they were right.

GROSS: Katharine Graham recorded in 1997. We'll hear an interview with Ben Bradlee after a break. They're both portrayed in the new film "The Post." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.