By Katharine Graham

Knopf 642pp $29.95

These days, bookstores are filled with autobiographies of people who have accomplished little. As soon as the Super Bowl wraps up, 25-year-old quarterbacks are knocking off their bios.

Then there's the autobiography of Katharine Graham, the grande dame of the Washington Post. With a story that seems straight out of a 19th century novel, Graham's Personal History is full of the stuff we want to read about--money and power, sex and scandal, tragedy and courage. Its workmanlike style isn't exactly Proust's, but with this kind of material, who cares?

The book weaves together three stories: that of Graham's own life; an insider's history of the Post; and a tale of the dramatic transformation of American journalism during the 20th century.

Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, was a fabulously rich businessman who was appointed to the Federal Reserve Board by President Herbert Hoover. Her mother, Agnes, was brilliant, opinionated, and cold. Looking for something interesting to do after Hoover's 1932 defeat, Eugene bought the bankrupt Washington Post at a street-corner auction for $825,000.

Katharine, a shy, naive debutante, did everything rich girls did in those days: attended finishing school, moved on to Vassar College, and made the grand tour of Europe. She even slummed for a bit, covering labor unrest for the now defunct San Francisco News--and having a romance with a local union organizer. In 1940, she married Philip L. Graham, a promising Washington lawyer.

While Katharine did little more than attend a succession of dinners with the rich and famous, Phil gradually took over day-to-day management of the paper. In 1948, Eugene gave Philip control of the Post.

In 1963, Phil Graham killed himself. And Katharine, in her words, "went to work." The paper she took over was a financial success, but still a journalistic mediocrity.

It also sat squarely within the tradition of political partisanship and cozy conflicts of interest. Eugene had used the Post to blast the New Deal, while Phil was up to his elbows in Democratic politics. In 1960, he helped talk John F. Kennedy into choosing as his running mate Graham's pal Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1961, Phil buried coverage of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Within a decade, this kind of journalism would undergo a stunning change--in considerable part because of Katharine Graham and her gray, Establishment-oriented Washington Post. Two notable events marked the change. First, in 1971, came the court fight over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the government's secret history of the Vietnam conflict. Then, of course, came Watergate.

Neither of these were battles that Graham looked for, and she candidly describes how uncomfortable they made her. After all, Vassar had hardly prepared Graham for the viciousness of the Washington fray--much less for the day a U.S. Attorney General warned that her "tit would get caught in a big fat wringer" if the Post published one early Watergate story.

In the surreal atmosphere of the early '70s, Graham continued to host cozy dinner parties for Washington's political elite--including, at least for a time, top Nixon aides. Meanwhile, the ink-stained wretches in her newsroom were grinding out the stories that would eventually lead to the President's resignation. The code of silence among powerful Washington insiders was clearly broken.

Republicans always claimed the rise of this sort of hard-hitting investigative reporting was a result of the enmity between the liberal press and the Nixon Administration. But it was much more complicated than that. Constrained by an enhanced ethic of objectivity, modern publishers such as Graham had much less control than her predecessors over what got printed. By the 1970s, press barons who openly dictated news coverage were gone. Publishers were more likely to be bean counters than power brokers. And the bright line between the editorial and business sides of news organizations had become a Berlin Wall.

Graham argues that she had much less to do with the Post's coverage of the Pentagon Papers or Watergate than Nixon imagined. What Graham did was hire aggressive journalists and, for the most part, let them do their jobs.

While the Post may have reached its journalistic zenith with Watergate, its parent company's success as a business enterprise was just beginning. Graham raised the money needed for expansion by taking the company public in 1971. And with great passion--and no pretense to objectivity--she tells the story of the critical event in that growth, a 1975-76 strike. Graham used the unrest to bust the pressmen's union and disembowel the Post's other labor units. She says she did it reluctantly. But she also did it with vigor.

This is memoir, not history, and Graham can be surprisingly thin-skinned. She frets over ancient news stories about her that she insists were unfair, and she still carries deep scars from the strike. But with the help of Evelyn Small, who, Graham says, "took the words I wrote and shaped them," Katharine Graham has penned a fascinating tale of an extraordinary life.

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