By: Lawrence L. Knutson, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Katharine Graham was a Washingtonian for more than 80 of the capital’s 202 years, listening and observing and finally guiding the work of those who wrote about the politics and policies that are the city’s heartbeat.
“My whole orientation is toward this place,” the late Washington Post publisher writes in Katharine Graham’s Washington, published posthumously this fall. “It is a city whose industry — first and foremost politics — got into my blood early and stayed there.”
The book is an anthology culled from the writings of a legion of Washington watchers whose observations and experiences and memories bracket her life and the administrations of presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton.
It can be read as a gathering of background material for her first book, Personal History. That best-selling memoir won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, three years before Graham’s death. It followed her life as she unexpectedly became the Post‘s chief executive and steered the newspaper’s Washington coverage through and beyond the Watergate crisis that toppled a president.
Wilson, who was president when Graham was born in 1917, once offered this definition of the capital: “The city of Washington is in some respects self-contained, and it is easy there to forget what the rest of the country is thinking about.”
Graham found the city more elusive, and more interesting, than that and set out to prove it in her final book. “All of my experience relating to this place … leads me to the conclusion that there is no one ‘fundamental fact’ about Washington,” she writes. “It’s not just one thing — it’s one thing and its opposite at the same time.
“The contradictions inherent in this place are evident everywhere: it’s formal and informal; it’s public and private; it’s social and political; it’s a small town and the capital of the world. It’s a city that’s a symbol of democracy and yet thoroughly undemocratic, since it remains the only place in America where people are taxed without representation in the very bodies [Congress] that make the policies that govern them.”
Graham’s selections, and her own memories, are facets of a larger whole. Each of the writers she has chosen sees the city and its people from the slant of personal experience.
* Columnist Marquis Childs, on the changing nature of the city: “Just when the capital is pleasantly arranged, as a monument, as a museum, the theater of a debating society, then some cataclysmic event sweeps in with the force of a tornado and the pattern is forever upset.”
* Columnist Stewart Alsop: “It is good, too, to live in the midst of great events, to live in history — even as an onlooker, a mere provider of footnotes. And Washington is where most great events either begin or are molded and altered or end.”
* Washington Post writer Henry Allen: “Some Americans don’t care about Washington at all. To them, Washington isn’t a city as much as a mailing address or a dateline or an abstract principle of power or scandal or foolishness.”
* Associated Press reporter Bess Furman: “There are a number of ways of getting to Washington. Some get elected. Some get appointed. Some get drafted. Some get transferred. Some ride a lobbyhorse to this man’s town. Many arrive as wives. … Some come on pilgrimages and remain.”
* Historian David McCullough: “What I’m drawn to and moved by is historical Washington, or rather the presence of history almost anywhere one turns. It is hard to imagine anyone with a sense of history not being moved. No city in the country keeps and commemorates history the way this one does. Washington insists we remember, with statues and plaques and memorials and words carved in stone.”
* Columnist Elizabeth Drew, musing on what historians will say about Watergate: “Will they know what it was like to be stunned — again and again? … Will they know how it felt to be shocked, ashamed, amused by the revelations — will they understand the difficulty of sorting out the madcap from the macabre?”
All in all, Katharine Graham’s Washington is a love letter to a city. And when she says Washington’s climate is just right for her she is not referring to the summer heat.
The climate of Washington, she writes, fits those “who like drama with all its figurative thunder and lighting.
“Washington is certainly the best city in the world for someone like me who thinks there is nothing more exciting than news,” she writes. And even if the news doesn’t originate here, it’s often commented on here, or enlarged here, or explodes here.”