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Farewell, my Washington Post

Commentary: A columnist reflects on the Grahams and his years at the paper.
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The front page of The Washington Post newspaper on August 6, 2013 in Washington, DC, the day after it was announced that Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos had agreed to purchase the newspaper for $250 million from the Graham family. The sale marked the end of an era for one of American journalism's iconic brands. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — People everywhere who are interested in the news about the news were startled and saddened to learn that The Washington Post had been sold — but none more than those who had once worked for that storied paper, which even The New York Times called a “crown jewel” in the newspaper trade.

For 80 years The Post had been owned by the Meyer and Graham family, which stood for the highest ideals of American journalism.

I joined The Post more than 40 years ago when its glory days were just beginning. Every day, two young city reporters, without experience in national affairs, were out ahead of any competition covering what came to be called the Watergate scandal.

In the news room, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein could be seen bustling in and out of executive editor Ben Bradlee’s office with the latest leads that would be on the next day’s front page. Bradlee called his two reporters the “Bobsie Twins.”

Once Bradlee came out from his office to sit on the edge of Woodward’s desk to take the phone from him. We could only guess at a phone call to Woodward that would be so important Bradlee had to come down from on high to chime in. When the call was over, Bradlee didn’t just put the receiver back down in the cradle. He handed it to Woodward to do so. (The gods do not hang up mere mortals' telephones, for back then Woodward was still a mere mortal.)

Bradlee was a wonderful boss, full of enthusiasm, who spoke in a tough, gravelly voice that was much imitated by his underlings. He was a Boston Brahmin out of Harvard, but his language was full of obscenities learned on a destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II.

His newsroom troops adored him. He wore the most expensive shirts you could buy in London with the shirtsleeves rolled up. We all knew that he had been an intimate of President John F. Kennedy, who, of course, had been in the same theater of war on PT boats. They both represented that “new generation” of leaders — born in the 20th century, as opposed to all our previous presidents.

I wish I could tell you that I had a role in the Watergate story that brought down President Richard Nixon, but I was junior man on the State Department beat, and was only once or twice called upon to look up some records that might or might not be useful in the Watergate investigations. But the whole newsroom was caught up in the high-risk drama that The Post had embarked upon, as little by little the trail led closer and closer to the White House itself.

If Ben was then the most famous newspaper editor in the country, Katharine Graham was its most famous proprietor. She made a bet-the-paper decision to back Bradlee on the Watergate story, which could have turned out very badly had Woodward and Bernstein gotten it wrong. As I remember it now, the only serious mistake they made is when Woodward told his source he was taking his silence to be a confirmation. It wasn’t a confirmation, but the error was only a blip on the way to journalistic glory.

Graham had faith in her editors and reporters, and I remember hearing her say later that she was more worried about Woodward and Lothrop, an important department story and advertiser, than she was about Woodward and Bernstein.

I had met Graham years earlier when I spent a weekend on the Graham family's farm in the Virginia countryside. My then-girlfriend was working for the Grahams that summer taking care of their children. I played tennis with Donny, then 15, long before he went to Harvard, and then to the war in Vietnam, to the police force in Washington DC, and from there to be the last Graham to lead the paper as chairman.

Later I married that same girlfriend, and on my first day at The Post, Katharine Graham sailed into the newsroom where I was introduced to her. “Oh, I know Greenway," she said. “He married my au pair girl.”

Years later, when Bradlee and she had written memoirs of their remarkable lives, she confided to me her delight that her book was selling “better than Ben’s.”

In due course, I became The Post’s man in Southeast Asia, and heard President Nixon’s farewell to the presidency over a tinny short-wave on the banks of the Mekong River in Cambodia. I could only imagine the scene in the newsroom as one of awe, then satisfaction that, thanks to The Washington Post, not even the president of the United States could get away with breaking the law.

Katharine Graham, when she owned The Post, not only lived in the nation’s capital but presided over the city as if a queen. To be invited to dine at Graham's table was the most sought-after invitation in the city, for there she gathered the political leaders of America and the world.

I wish the new owner well, but Jeffrey Bezos lives in Seattle, and doesn’t intend to move to that other Washington. I hope this sale will result in the saving of the much-diminished Post, but it will no longer be my Washington Post, under the leadership of the Graham family, for which I once felt so proud to work.
 

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