"After she took on that union, I decided to forgive her for what she did to Dick." Those words of admiration that I overheard in 1976 in Kansas City, Missouri, flashed across my mind when I read about the exhibit opening soon at the New York Historical Society – "Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO." (May 31-Oct. 3)
I was in Kansas City to attend my first Republican National Convention, a battle pitting incumbent President Gerald R. Ford against insurgent Ronald R. Reagan. I was there to participate in a panel discussion on Political Action Committees (PACs), which then were relatively new in American politics. I had established one in 1973 and served as its secretary-treasurer – the person who recommended whom to support and who also signed the checks.
It was a heady time in the history of American politics. Meeting in New York City, a month earlier, the Democrats had nominated James E. "Jimmy" Carter, a peanut farmer and cotton ginner and former governor of Georgia. The Republicans now had to decide whether to stick with Ford or to go with Reagan. Ford, a popular, albeit accidental president, achieved the office when President Richard M. Nixon resigned in August 1974, following the release of incriminating tape recordings that would have resulted in his impeachment. By virtue of the 25th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, Ford, as vice president, succeeded Nixon.
Ford had come to the office of vice president following the resignation of Spiro Agnew, who had resigned after pleading nolo contendere to charges of taking illicit payments during his political career in Maryland and as vice president. Ford, a well-liked Michigan Republican representative, was serving as house minority leader, when Nixon, acting pursuant to Section 2 of the 25th Amendment, nominated Ford to succeed Agnew and both the House and Senate approved the nomination.
That Ford had become president without ever having been elected to the offices of president or vice president concerned many conservative Republicans who favored Reagan.
The world was focused on the Republicans gathered in Kansas City. Media representatives of every stripe from across the world were there to report every development, every nuance as this political drama unfolded inside and out of Kemper Arena.
In the midst of the excitement, I made an early dinner reservation on the third night of the convention at the then new and trendy restaurant, Americana, in the Crown Center. My PAC chairman, Raymond S. Tapp, an influential Republican from Lubbock, Texas, had just arrived in town and would join me. With the convention delegates voting for the presidential nominee that night, Kansas City was buzzing with excitement. When we arrived for our early reservation at six p.m., we were seated in the center of the restaurant in a large curved banquette facing a long table, where over the next few minutes some 20 middle-aged and prosperous looking men arrived, wearing dark blue bespoke suits. Seated at the end of the table was a tall, well-coifed, handsome woman clad in a classic black dress wearing a string of pearls. Raymond leaned over and whispered, "Who is that woman? She looks familiar."
"It's Katharine Graham," I replied. "She owns The Washington Post."
"What's she doing here? She's a Democrat," Raymond said.
"Those men are obviously newspaper owners like she is," I said. "They're here for the convention. It's news."
Raymond was a strong Ford supporter as he was a Nixon supporter and was not one to forgive Graham for the Post's aggressive investigative reporting of the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building that led to Nixon's resignation. Over the next hour, we enjoyed our meal while straining to overhear the conversation of the newspaper publishers, many seemingly in Ford's corner.
When we finished dinner, Raymond and I were waiting at the elevator with some of the media moguls, when one of them said to the others in his group, "You know, Katharine is a great person when you get to know her. I hated her guts for that Watergate reporting, but after she took on that union, I decided to forgive her for what she did to Dick." The others all nodded in agreement. The man speaking was referring to the 1975-76 pressman's strike at The Washington Post in which Graham held fast, hired replacement workers, and prevailed in the subsequent negotiations that resolved the strike.
Over 20-years later, after Mrs. Graham had written her Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Personal History, I approached her at a Library of Congress reception and related what I had heard outside the Americana Restaurant. She bent over laughing and then grasped my hands. "Oh, that's so funny. Had I known that it would have been in my book. Thank you so much for telling me."
It was the only time that I would meet this strong, gracious, and competent person who died a few years later in 2004. Upon her death, The New York Times noted that she had "transformed The Washington Post from a mediocre newspaper into an American institution and, in the process, transformed herself from a lonely widow into a publishing legend."