Personal History by Katharine Graham

Published on July 15, 2009

Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger has often advocated the practice of “making friends with the eminent dead who had the right ideas.”  This concept may initially sound strange, but it is based on the belief that it is a mistake to fail to learn from the life and experiences of others who have had success in business and in life, and particularly those who have succeeded despite significant adversity.  It is in this spirit that I decided to read Personal History, the Pulitzer Prize winning memoirs of Katharine Graham, the longtime leader of the Washington Post.

Personal History

I have been fascinated with the newspaper business for most of my life.  My first experience with the complexities and challenges of the business world was running a paper route for several years starting at the age of twelve.  Later, I became interested in the favorable economics of markets in which only one paper exists.  Most recently, I have been considering the challenging economics of print newspapers in an increasingly electronic age.  Perhaps Mrs. Graham’s memoir could shed some light on the industry as it evolved during the twentieth century.

A Personal History

First and foremost, Mrs. Graham’s book is, as the title would suggest, a very personal history.  While there are fascinating accounts of her leadership of the Washington Post, this is not primarily a book focusing on the operations of the newspaper industry.  Instead, it is an illuminating account of the economic, political, and business landscape of much of the last century.

Eugene Meyer, Mrs. Graham’s father, purchased the Washington Post in the depths of the Great Depression for $825,000 in 1933.  Almost from the beginning, Mrs. Graham was intimately involved with the Post and became immersed in the newspaper world.  By all accounts, during her college years, Mrs. Graham became an important confidant for her father who would often discuss newspaper issues with her.  From our early 21st century perspective, it seems very odd that no one, including Mrs. Graham, ever considered a formal role for her in the paper.  Instead, Mrs. Graham’s husband became involved in the business and eventually took charge of the company during the 1950s.  Philip Graham’s mental health issues and ultimate suicide in 1963, followed by Mrs. Graham’s entry into the business of the Post, receives significant space in the narrative.


I ended up enjoying this book more because of the political material rather than insights into the newspaper business.  Indeed, reading this book is somewhat like attending private dinners and meetings with almost all of the major political figures from the 1930s to the 1980s.  Mrs. Graham personally knew every President who served during this period and there are some fascinating accounts of the “behind the scenes” discussions that led to important events.  In one memorable scene, John F. Kennedy responded to a skeptical Philip Graham regarding his reasons for running for President in 1960:

Phil looked Kennedy straight in the eye and said, “Jack, you are very good.  You will be president someday.  But you are too young and you shouldn’t run yet” — to which Kennedy replied, “Well, Phil, I’m running and this is why.  First, I think I’m as well qualified as anybody who is going to run, except for Lyndon Johnson.  Second, if don’t run, whoever wins will be there for eight years and will influence who his successor will be.  And third, if I don’t run, I’ll have to stay in the Senate at least eight more years.  As a potential candidate in the Senate, I’ll have to vote politically and I’ll end up as both a mediocre senator and a lousy candidate.”

I am not sure what went into the ultimate decision that led Barack Obama to run for president in 2008, but it is likely that he may have considered these types of factors.  In fact, most Senators who wish to be President (are there any who do not?) may relate to the difficulties of running for President while in the Senate.

Those who are interested in Watergate and the Pentagon Papers will not be disappointed with Mrs. Graham’s coverage.  In fact, the portions of the book that deal with the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 1970s are among the most interesting.

Business and Leadership

Although the book does not contain as much behind the scenes coverage of business topics as I initially hoped, the details surrounding the serious union troubles the Washington Post faced in the mid 1970s paints a vivid picture of the nature of management/labor relations during that time frame.  This portion of the book also deals with Mrs. Graham’s relationship with Warren Buffett who purchased a large stake in the Washington Post and helped to shape many important policies including the large share buybacks that ultimately added significant intrinsic value for shareholders.

Ultimately, this book delivers exactly what it promises to deliver:  a personal history.  Those who are interested in the political scene of the mid to late twentieth century will definitely enjoy the book.  For those who are seeking a detailed account of the evolution of the Washington Post as  a business, this memoir probably will not fully meet their objectives.  However, the book obviously was never intended to serve that purpose and may have been diminished had Mrs. Graham attempted to change the nature of the overall narrative.

Personal History by Katharine Graham
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