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on April 25, 2002
Katharine Graham: Job of the Journalism World
Whether they should have or not, the politics, journalism and social issues discussed in Katharine Graham's Autobiography captured little of my interest. However, what kept my attention through a very wordy 625-page book written by Katharine herself (who was thankfully just the editor of the Post and not a writer) was the moral fiber she displayed. Katharine never failed to remain tenacious, perseverant, and passionate in every venture of her life, both personally and professionally-even those most difficult for her.
Katharine experienced a major crisis in every aspect of her life. At home, Katharine loses a child in a miscarriage. Years later, her beloved husband, mentor and friend, Phil, becomes mentally unstable and commits suicide. Her daughter is divorced several times and Katharine loses the closeness with her two sons as a result of her headfirst dive into her work. At the Post, Katharine experiences the death of a President, the difficulty of having to run a corporation when she has no experience, and losing her entire staff (and a great deal of equipment) to a union strike. Throughout all of this, Katharine is able to remain focused and positive and hang on long enough to re-gather her bearings and start again. She moves on to fill the job Phil held, although she recognizes she will never do it as well. She backs the new president fully and helps him and his wife through a difficult time, and she gathers together family and friends to answer phones, write articles, and print papers so she can continue delivering the news to her subscribers. Katharine never gives up. Despite her aristocratic, ritzy upbringing, she is full of heart. It is very interesting that she cannot do laundry or cook her own meals, yet she can lead a corporation that came to be so influential in founding the policies and actions of journalism as we know them today.
Katharine says, "I had to come to realize that I could only do the job in whatever way I could do it" (341). This mindset is one of the greatest reasons Katharine was continually successful. She knew she her mothering skills would have made Dr. Spock cringe, however, she never stopped loving her children and being there for them the best way she knew how. At the Post, she says, "I was...uneducated in even the basics of the working world-how to relate to people professionally, how to tell people things that they might not want to hear, how to give praise as well as criticism, hw to use time to the best effect. Things that people learned automatically in the workplace or in graduate schools..." (343). This never stopped her, and although she admitted over and over again that she had no idea what she was doing and felt "as I've walked on stage for a part I've never rehearsed," Katharine threw herself into learning and trying, a formula which eventually led to success (354). Her humble attitude caused people to want to help her, and Katharine felt that she needed to know the workings of every part of the Post intimately, so she started from the bottom up, learning how each component functioned and fit together to produce the paper. This knowledge was of great value later on, for a multiple of reasons. The "lower end" employees respected Katharine because they felt she understood them and valued their contributions. Also, when the union strike occurred, Katharine had to take over every part of production herself, and because of the time she had spent learning, she was educated enough to produce the Post herself with limited assistance. Even though Katharine often knew her work was inferior to the job others could do, she recognized a need for her to step in, she took the challenge, and she gave all she could. Eventually, this proved to be enough as Katharine's success blossomed over time.
Katharine's daughter described her mother's strengths as, "good judgment, ability to get along with people, earn their respect and discern their strengths and weaknesses" (342). All of these qualities were not things that Katharine felt she started out with after Phil died and she took over the Post. However, each time Katharine held on during a difficult situation and persevered when it would have been easier to quit, she gained another valuable skill to add to her repertoire. When these added up over time, they came to mold Katharine into an experienced, well-balanced career woman who would never fail because she would not allow herself to. This, combined with the passion Katharine always threw into her work, caused her to be one of the most charismatic individuals in the history of journalism, and also politics.
Katharine Graham impacts my life in perhaps a very different way than other readers. I envy her ability to hang on even in the worst situations. Besides merely staying in the game, Katharine found ways to uses these circumstances as opportunities to grow as a person and develop more knowledge and skills. I am motivated by her character and find her tenacity and strong-will inspiring.
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on November 4, 2001
I'll have to take the word of nearly every pundit in America that Katharine Graham was one terrific gal, but I remain mystified as to what she actually achieved. In this interminable book, we are submitted to every tremor of inadequacy she ever felt, as she bathes in self-indulgent recollection. But what else is there once you get past the feelings, the many, many, feelings :
(1) She was born rich.
(2) Her husband went nuts, got himself a girlfriend and tried taking the Post away. In the midst of this struggle, he was released from an asylum, went with her to their vacation home, and was carted out in a body bag. She got the Post.
(3) She and the Post were in bed, either figuratively or--she at least hints--literally, with Adlai Stevenson, JFK, and LBJ.
(4) As a result, they gave the personal misdeeds of Democrat presidents a wink and a nod and supported Vietnam through the 60s. Then Nixon got elected and they published the Pentagon Papers and jumped on Watergate like a wolf on a lamb chop.
(5) They then skated on their new reputation for the next thirty years as the upstart Washington Times, which is owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon for God's sake, scooped them left an right.
(6) Meanwhile, and I'm particularly perplexed by why this doesn't bother more people, the Post supported Marion Barry as he drove Washington, DC into the ground, presumably because their reflexive liberalism made it impossible to criticize a black mayor.
(7) There is one area where Graham and the Post did depart from the doctrinaire liberal line, and that was on unions. Of course, there was nothing noble about this; she just had to break the power of her own unionized employees in order to improve her company's bottom line.
Maybe I'm just being willfully obscure--heck, that's almost certainly the case--but she appears to have been an amiable party hack who had her mediocre career handed to her on a silver platter. I realize that's the kind of charge that Democrats normally level against the Bushes, but at least George Bush and George W. had to run for office once in awhile. What did Katharine Graham ever do? Her mystique eludes me.
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on July 10, 2001
Personal History is an apt name for this biography. I would have to say that I enjoyed the history part more than the personal insight. I loved the insight into the newspaper industry and the glimpses into the world of politics, but probably could have found a better book to show those facets. I found myself disappointed in the personal aspects of Graham's life presented. The potential was there for a truly thoughtful and reflective biography considering all that happened in her personal and professional life but we are given very little insight into Graham herself except her insecurity and passivity, and, sometimes. cluelessness. It's disappointing to see a woman in such a position of power and influence have so much reliance on the judgment of the men around her and so little confidence in herself and her own abilities. Granted, as one of the first women in the upper echelon of a male-dominated world, it is perfectly reasonable to have some self-doubt and she did have the pressure of dealing with the consequences of being the one to hand down the decisions, even if she wasn't necessarily making them. I just wanted to shake her and tell her to go _learn_ about things so she could make an informed decision for herself without having to turn, almost unquestioningly, to the opinions of the men around her. This sounds really harsh, maybe some of this is attributed to Graham's modesty, I hope. Yes, the name-dropping was a little excessive (got to get Einstein and Picasso into the index!).
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on April 24, 2001
This is quite good as your publishers' memoirs go, but it has certainly been wildly overrated in some quarters. There are long passages of what reads like research assistant's prose, and letters that are printed in toto that could have been excerpted just as effectively. The first section of the book, dealing with her parents and her youth, is the most interesting and sharply written, and the sections dealing with her marriage as candid as can be expected. If you're interested in the history of the Washington Post per se, much of this information is available elsewhere, and her account of activities at the paper during her husband's era is somewhat hampered by the fact that -- although she doesn't acknowledge this outright -- she obviously didn't know that much about what was happening. Later on, there are some good but occasionally familiar anecdotes about the famous names you'd expect. She is not much for social policy or foreign affairs, and her interests apart from the company don't seem to be terribly wide. After Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and the busting of the unions there's not much to talk about, and so the last quarter of the book is pretty dull, with lots of stuff about My Friend Warren Buffett and so forth. (There are the messes involving Janet Cooke at the Post and the Hitler diaries over at Newsweek, but she doesn't spend too much time there for obvious reasons. The ugly debacle over her (and Ben Bradlee's) suppression of Deborah Davis' book is not mentioned at all.)
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on November 2, 2000
Perhaps I started this book with the wrong expectations...I expected to read Katherine Graham's autobiography and find out how a strong, determined woman dealt with her husband's suicide and then proceeded to bring The Washington Post to great success. I was disappointed to find that Graham was overly indulged and insecure, and, when it came to running the business, she was overly reliant on the people around her to set the newspaper's goals and achieve them. Her role seemed to really be more of a figurehead.
While this book is valuable for some of its political anecdotes and how they relate to history in the bigger picture, Graham is overly wordy and name drops a great deal. For a reader who is not part of Graham's generation, it's often difficult to know who she is referring to--and some of her anecdotes are more petty parlor talk than historical.
Contrary to some of the other customer reviews on this book, I found Ms. Graham's writing style to be very journalistic. Many of her chapters read like a newspaper article about her life and lacked any color or richness. In particular, I found that the chapters leading up to her husband's suicide only skimmed the surface. When the suicide actually occurs in the book, it's anti-climactic.
I wish that Graham had employed an editor to help her shape this book and decide which anecdotes were important and which should be left out. I think assistance with Graham's writing style alone could have made this a more interesting read.
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on August 4, 1998
The raves this book received in the press prove that journalists must hold low opinions of their bosses' abilities--any halfway decent narrative they produce is treated as a triumph. Graham's high-profile press life and connections are the only conceivable reasons this adequately written, but frequently irritating, book was so overpraised. Worse, its too-often coy copy comes up short on the basic reporting Graham's Post editors would demand--who, what, when, where, and why?
Her misapprehension of her husband, Phil Graham's, motives and attitudes is particularly saddening. But like her actions' impact on her children, these are never explored beyond "I was wrong," or "I did not understand." If this is what book reviewers think passes for self-analysis and exploration, send them back to Psych 101. Even her hintdropping about sexual encounters and affairs seems borrowed from a romance novel: phrases that pique interest while telling the reader nothing! really should have been left out all together. The first half of the book is interesting thanks to those she writes about. But Graham's obsession with justifying her 1970s strike-breaking actions while Post publisher dulls the last quarter of the book completely--anyone who followed that episode in the city's and paper's history, even if sympathetic to her cause, will be very aware of the self-serving spin put on her role.
Her dependence on and friendship for Warren Buffett is one of the lengthier threads in this narrative--but like most others close to Graham, Buffett never emerges as more than a wooden prop to her story line. Too bad--with all the fascinating people Graham grew up with, knew, and loved, this could have been a winner in the hands of a truly reflective writer.
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on February 18, 1997
If only I read more autobiographies!--then I would have a
larger data base to compare this book with. As I read it,
I wondered why I'd bought it, anyway: I was interested in
Katharine Graham because she was the owner & publisher of
the Washington Post, but it was all about the famous and
rich people she'd met. It's a book about privilege and
power, too. Positives: Katharine Graham was raised not
to think very highly of herself as a woman or as a person,
but when she had a chance to take control of her life and
the Post, she showed she could do it.
The book isn't perfect, of course. Not everybody would
agree with Mrs. Graham's view of history, for one thing.
The editing errors are annoying, too. Here's an example:
"However, she did keep his picture on her desk always, a
handsome man."
Does the world need another autobiography? I don't think
so, but then, as I said earlier, I don't usually read them.
If I made a habit of reading biographies and auttobio-
phies, I would prefer less name-dropping and more life, more
to show the substance of the person. Maybe because she was
a woman of her time, it's impossible for Mrs. Graham's life
to be written that way.
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on September 21, 2003
I thought I would be giving 5 stars for an award winning book but after reading, it just fell short. There was too much name-dropping, one has to be very familiar with the power scene of Washington at her time to really appreciate who was who and their significance. That itself made the book very unapproachable to readers who do not move in her circle, non-American, the younger generation etc. A lot of time she just mentioned the names and expected the readers to know who they were or connect to her earlier mentions (it would really be a pain to constantly check the index and refer back to the earlier pages!)
This book read like an account of achievement of her father, her husband and herself. Honestly, Katharine came across as someone fairly stupid (though kind), I couldn't help to wonder if she was who she was simply because of her birth, marriage and being there at the right time. For a personal history, it came across as fairly impersonal.
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on April 5, 1999
Don't get me wrong, it's a good book and a good read, and Graham has an interesting take on some of the most important events & trends of 20th century history. But writing quality should be a key component of the Pulitzer, and the writing here is so uneven (and long--about 100/150 pages too long). Too much telling without showing, such as three dozen mentions of "This stems from my insecurity" and only four or five incidents demonstrating her insecurity; and far too many questions posed in the text, like "Was I being unreasonable? I suppose that perhaps I was." A good writer would ask the question implicitly, and answer it more gracefully. Pulitzer was awarded more for who she is than what she wrote. Still, it's worth a week or two of reading time.
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on August 26, 2003
The interesting life of an interesting woman that could hold the readers' interest better if it were half the length!
Kay Graham manages to overcome many of her life's obstacles -- and privileges -- to become a powerful and effective leader. She doesn't always make sound choices; she clings to her corrosive and philandering husband through thick and thin, and she overturns her Republican father's desire to create an unbiased-newspaper by making The Post a mouthpiece for the Democrats. But it is her mistakes that make Graham most interesting and accessible to readers.
Her journey is rich and varied, but not so much that it warrants more than 600 pages. Definitely, many chapters deserve only the lightest of skimming.
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