The Graham Dynasty’s Last Hurrah

Over 600 Washington Post employees and alumni gathered to send off Donald Graham, the paper’s CEO for two and a half decades, as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos takes over.

“There’s nothing more intoxicating than nostalgia,” longtime Washington Post managing editor Robert Kaiser remarked.

And so it was, Monday night, that 650-odd alumni and current employees of the fabled newspaper—a brand name that has insinuated itself into the popular culture, and in a Hollywood blockbuster or two, as a synonym for crusading and cutting-edge journalism—gathered to remember better days, reconnect with old friends, and pay tribute to Donald Graham, the scion of the family who for the past 80 years had nurtured an ink-stained, bankrupt local rag into a powerful national franchise.

That is, until a tidal wave of technological innovation swept over the Post and its competitors, washing away the last vestiges of what was once a sustainable business model.

“Don Graham is the man who is the embodiment of the Washington Post that was,” legendary rewrite man Martin Weil declared, raising his glass in one of a series of touching toasts—in a sprawling downtown Washington event space that used to house the presses—to the final chief executive of The Washington Post Co. (The company must soon change its name, now that the paper has been sold for $250 million to Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos, who formally assumed ownership on Oct. 1). “Don Graham,” Weil continued, “is the embodiment of the Washington Post that lives on in our memories.”

Having worked at the Post from June 1980 till July 2003, and during my first week there meeting Don, then the 35-year-old publisher, who made a point of canvassing the newsroom and introducing himself to every new arrival, I couldn’t stay away from Monday’s tribute, for which Posties had come from as far away as Baghdad and paid $36 apiece to defray the cost of hors d’oeuvres and wine. Unlike his mother, Katharine—whose shyness was occasionally mistaken for haughtiness, and whose tentative reserve masked a spine of steel—Don was the approachable everyman of the Graham clan. Over his mother’s fearful objections, he enlisted in Vietnam at the height of that ill-advised war, and on returning from combat duty, joined the Washington police department as a beat cop patrolling a crime-plagued neighborhood in Northeast D.C.

Bob Levy, one of Monday night’s toastmasters, recalled how one day in 1969, shortly after Don’s eccentric career move, Kay Graham was making her way through the newsroom, chased by Al Lewis, the grizzled police reporter who later helped cover the Watergate burglary. “I can stop it! I can stop it!” Lewis shouted after his boss. “He couldn’t stop it,” Levy noted.

Resident humorist Gene Weingarten, who arrived at the Post in 1990 from the Miami Herald, recalled that unlike Kaiser and former executive editor Leonard Downie—who had spent their entire careers under the benevolent rule of the Graham family—most of us in the journalism biz have had to work elsewhere at some point and thus have coped with less supportive owners. “When you worked at those places you expected a certain business model. We had talented, creative people putting out the paper despite the absolute shmuck at the top,” Weingarten said as he raised his glass “to Don, the anti-shmuck at the top.”

Op-ed columnist Eugene Robinson, the former assistant managing editor of Style—for many years the premiere newspaper feature section in the country—recalled how Don held things together even as the onslaught of the Internet and free content radically disrupted the newspaper business. “I was here during the ‘80s. They were great,” Robinson said. “And I was here through the ‘90s and they were fabulous, too. The 2000s, as a business? Not so much … It was a time when we started off having to go to a lot of focus groups. It was always in the most anonymous strip mall in the most anonymous suburb you could find, and we’d go out to the focus group and we’d look through the window and the poor facilitator would be talking with these people around the table and saying, ‘If we do this would you buy the paper? If we make it big? If we make it small?’ Not really!”

Politico editor in chief John Harris, who covered the Virginia suburbs and Bill Clinton’s White House for the Post, donned one of Graham’s ratty blue blazers—salvaged by Graham’s wife, Bloomberg editor Amanda Bennett, on its way to Goodwill—to perform his patented Don Graham impression, punctuated by a brief sendup of the 92-year-old Ben Bradlee, the famous executive editor of Watergate days, who was seated with wife Sally Quinn in the front row, a dozen feet from Bob Woodward.

“I spent my life being compared to Kay Graham, Phil Graham [and] Gene Meyer,” Don said when it was his turn to speak, mentioning several groundbreaking Post publishers. “And tonight all I have to do is top John Harris,” he added, to laughter. “So this is relatively simple.”

Graham, who became the company’s chief executive in 1991, helping to transform its once-negligible educational services subsidiary, Kaplan Inc., into a hugely profitable cash machine, shocked the media world when he announced the sale of the newspaper two and a half months ago.

“I remember standing in a room like this in 1979, when my mother made me publisher,” Graham told the crowd, reminiscing about his various jobs in the family business—metro reporter and sports editor, among others—but leaving unmentioned the bitter, violent pressmen’s strike of 1975, a pivotal moment in the Post’s 136-year history and Graham’s 42-year career. “And I said, my mother’s given me everything except an easy act to follow.”

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Graham joked about his reputation—mentioned by Weil in his toast—as a prolific sender of handwritten notes to writers and editors who’d worked on a good story. “I’m never gonna write any of you a damn note again.” And Post columnist John Kelly, Monday night’s emcee, presented Graham with a brass plaque, ready for installation and bearing the inscription: “On this elevator Don Graham greeted Post employees by name 806,101 times”—a reference to Don’s scary aptitude for recalling such personal details as “the names of [employees’] children, their pets, their first grade teachers, their HDL and LDL.”

Keeping his composure in the midst of a palpably emotional crowd, Graham declared: “Now it’s time for me to go, but tomorrow morning, I’ll pick up the Post with the same pleasure and expectation I felt in 1971.”

At one point, he introduced Bradlee, who slowly rose to his feet and thanked Graham for “a beautiful time” before the two men embraced, joined by Quinn.

“I’ve loved working with all of you,” Graham said, and then repaired to the lobby, where he greeted—by name—every single attendee.