Eulogy for Katharine Graham
The friendship Nancy and I shared with Kay Graham is one of the legacies of my government service that we cherish most. Unlike so many Washington relationships which end with the exercise of power, it grew in intensity in the decades after I left office. Yet The Washington Post had been a relentless critic of many aspects of the administrations in which I served.
This seeming paradox dissolved in the face of the admiration and affection I came to feel for Kay as a person. Strong and, at the same time, somewhat shy, appreciative of humor, unobtrusively purposeful, never bitter and always brave, matter-of-factly loyal to her friends and deeply devoted to her family, Kay ennobled all her human relationships. Who can forget the somewhat mischievous way she and Meg Greenfield would comment on the foibles of Washington and, even more so, the exquisite tenderness with which Kay looked after Meg in the difficult last years of Meg’s life.
After a great personal tragedy, Kay took over The Washington Post and, with no previous experience and not a little diffidence, built it into one of the world’s most respected newspapers. She fiercely defended its freedom of expression and was a seminal figure in the battle to submit even the highest officials to ethical and judicial norms.
Kay was also a symbol of the permanent Washington that transmutes the partisanship of the moment into national purpose and lasting values. In that role, she tended to look with a certain wonder at the prominence fate had brought her and to treat it as an obligation to build the basis for eventual healing. 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 reconciliations.
Kay and I met in 1969 at the home of Joe Alsop, another member of Washington’s permanent establishment. Technically a Washington Post columnist, Joe saw his calling in protecting the nation from the depredations of the ignorant. Though his views rarely intersected with those of his publisher, Kay treated Joe with respect and enormous affection, occasionally tinged with exasperation. Nevertheless, for his 70th birthday, Kay gave him a big party to celebrate his contributions to our nation. A few weeks after I arrived in Washington, Joe invited me to meet Kay at his house for dinner for the three of us “because you cannot be in Washington, dear boy, without knowing Kay Graham.”
Unfortunately, the evening did not turn out as Joe had planned. The President had called me into his office just as I was preparing to leave, and I had instructed my secretary to call Joe periodically to explain the delay. Joe considered a telephone call from a secretary a profound social offense, a subject on which he held forth at great length and with considerable passion, when I arrived an hour late. So it happened that Kay was obliged to spend most of the evening calming the irate Joe, a task she accomplished with customary grace and some humor, gradually reducing Joe’s successive eruptions to manageable proportions.
As the months went by, Kay remedied the initial lack of dialogue between us. She would invite me to small dinners with one or two people to evoke, with persistent questioning, a discussion about the nation’s future beyond the issues of the day.
In the midst of a divisive Vietnam debate, Kay telephoned and said: “You need some rest. Let’s go to the movies.” Ever thorough, she sent over Post reviews of the choices available. And the movie audience was surely startled when the lights went up and they saw us sitting together. During yet another crisis, Kay telephoned with a comparable message: “Things are tough right now. Why don’t you use my home in Virginia for a weekend?”
These, and many similar gestures too frequent to count, were her way of asserting the permanent Washington to which human relations mattered more than the controversies of the day and in which the political battles were a prelude to new elaborations of national purpose.
As the decades went by, the bonds between Kay and Nancy and me became ever stronger. We saw each other frequently and exchanged annual, what diplomats would call reciprocal, weekend visits in the summer, for the timing and guest lists of which negotiations usually started in February.
I saw Kay the last time about three weeks ago when she spent a weekend at our house in Connecticut. She was in good form, relaxed, interested, humorous. Thunderstorms prevented her from leaving as she had planned so we watched a movie together, and then she mused about her family. She wanted to buy a present for Lally’s imminent birthday, and she was not sure whether to surprise her or whether, in order to be sure of Lally’s approval, let her help pick it out herself. Kay spoke with pride and warmth of Lally’s success as a writer, of Steve’s sense of humor and work in the theater, of Bill’s role in the financial world, and of Don’s surefootedness at the helm of The Washington Post. She was clearly at peace with herself.
It is hard to believe that Kay is no longer among us. But, in a way, she will never leave us. Her place in this country will not be filled nor the void her death leaves in the lives of her friends and her family. Yet, in the pain of this moment, none of us would trade places with those whose lives were never touched by Kay Graham.