Goodbye, Insecurity

For nearly a week after she died, right up to the day of her funeral, there was something unsatisfying about the life story of Katharine Graham, as told by the media. The obituaries all highlighted the central paradox of Graham's life: Although she was "insecure," as The New York Times reported in its front-page obituary, Graham rose to the top of the media establishment.

But this isn't really a paradox, or even surprising. Powerful people are often insecure; it's what drives them toward power in the first place. And it was easy to view Graham's insecurity as a useful tool, the learned habit of a rich girl who figured out early how to disarm those intimidated by her position and, thereby, gain the upper hand.

Still, reading and watching the Graham coverage, one had a nagging sense there was a connection the obituary writers and all the columnists were failing to make. That there was a way in which Graham's insecurity was about something larger than one woman's personality, or the success story of one media empire. The pieces didn't fit together for me until I tuned in to C-SPAN's live broadcast of Graham's funeral. The first eulogist, Henry Kissinger, called her "a symbol of the permanent Washington that transmutes the partisanship of the moment into national purpose and lasting values....The Kay of the permanent establishment never lost sight of the fact that societies thrive not by the victories of their factions, but by their ultimate reconciliation."

Of course, that establishment turned out to be something less than permanent, as Kissinger unintentionally made clear when he described how he met Graham shortly after arriving in Washington in 1969. Joseph Alsop, a Washington Post columnist and legendary establishmentarian, admonished Kissinger, "You cannot be in Washington, dear boy, without knowing Kay Graham." She and Kissinger were promptly invited over to chez Alsop for an intimate dinner.

In today's Washington, that's a laughable story. Alsop and his ilk are gone, recalled only in history books and at the funerals of the very old. The city doesn't work that way anymore, and a good thing, too, we tell ourselves. What a hidebound, elitist world it was.

As if to underline the point, Graham's second eulogist, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., recalled that after Graham's husband killed himself, and she took over the newspaper, she wasn't sure how to proceed. So "she consulted with old friends in the newspaper world, especially Walter Lippman and Scotty Reston." Because you couldn't run a newspaper, dear girl, without consulting them.

Another comic story of quaint, clubby old Washington. All those silly people running up and down the banks of the Potomac, having dinner parties, tête-à-têtes, hobnobs, and after-dinner scrums in the parlor. Spending their lives worrying and chattering about how the government should run, what makes a good newspaper, and what to do about the Soviet threat. In retrospect, it all looks so nervous, so frantic, so ... insecure.

It wasn't just Katharine Graham who was insecure, it was the entire establishment. An establishment of people for whom the Great Depression and a world at war were vivid memories. People who, though somewhat arrogant in style (my dear boy), were, just beneath the surface, not entirely sure of themselves or of the future they were trying to mold. For all their now-laughable pretension, all the egotism and self-interest that figured in their motives, what they were doing, at bottom, was trying to figure out what was best for the nation and the world. And they were never completely sure they'd gotten it right.

What's replaced that old, insecure Washington establishment? Graham's third eulogist, Ben Bradlee, gave a hint at the beginning of his remarks, when he spoke of how she spent her final hours, in Sun Valley, Idaho, at an annual meeting of media moguls: "Well, Mums, what a way to go: lunch with Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson on that last day; bridge with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates the day before; dinner the night before that with admiring moguls galore ..."

The new establishment isn't insecure at all, and it's not in Washington. It's made up of movie stars and media titans, and people who unabashedly call themselves moguls. They're not huddled together in old Georgetown rowhouses, chattering in the kitchen about spies and civil rights. They fly around on private jets to places like Sun Valley and Aspen, where the chatter is about mergers and content-sharing. And when they pose for Vanity Fair, they have the most-perfect tans.

Katharine Graham was a member of this new establishment, too. She attended the mogul confabs, posed for the photos. In a way, she was a bridge between the old and the new, the one human link between the old dear boys and the new dear boys. But when you saw her in those photos, there was something slightly off, a way in which Graham, the embodiment of the insecure, earnestly ameliorative, old Washington establishment, didn't quite belong.

Once in the early 1990s, when I was a Washington Post reporter, I attended a luncheon that Graham gave for Disney Chairman Michael Eisner. I was one of several Post reporters covering Disney's plans for a new theme park in the Virginia countryside outside Washington. Eisner wasn't happy with the tenor of the coverage, and he used the luncheon to air his complaints, in a very new-establishment, used-to-getting-my-way tone of voice. Mrs. Graham listened politely, but didn't say a word in defense of her fellow mogul. At one point, I looked over and she was fast asleep, softly snoring.