Saturday, January 2, 2010

Personal History - Book Review

Personal History
by Katherine Graham
First published 1997
Vintage Books(paperback)1998

This is the personal memoir of Katherine Graham who owned and ran the Washington Post newspaper.

I have always been interested in the Watergate scandal and the 2 journalists who broke that story wide open - Bernstein and Woodward who both worked for the Post. Now I have finally finished Mrs Graham's memoir. This is the chunkster I mentioned a while ago. There is just over 600 pages of tightly packed small print. But that is not the reason wny I took over a months to read this book. No.

This book was hard to read because it reminded me so much of me. Katherine Graham insisted on pointing out a large number of times when she was a doormat - when she said "yes sir" and did what she was told without being allowed to make her own descision. She was a doormat for her father and mother, for her husband and for the government.

But after her husband died, Katherine was forced to grow up, to make decisions and to learn to make her own decisions. Just like I was. The second half of this book after her husband died was so much easier to read.

When I finished High school, I can still remember being told that I should do accounting and commerce at University (because thats where the jobs were) and not history which is what I wanted to do. So I did accounting and economics and I failed every single course. I was officially suspended from university for one year and never bothered to go back.

I truely regret not sticking up for myself and doing what I really wanted to do. If I had done the history degree, I could have been a librarian and right now I could be working in a career for the last 20 years, a career that I know I would be enjoying very much. But no, I was told that all I can do with a history degree was teach - and I did not want to be a teacher.

Thats enough, lets get in with it... (rolf harris)

Katharine Graham was born in 1917 in washington DC to great privilege. As I read about her financially privileged birth and upbringing, I wondered how such a spoiled and very sheltered child could survive in the world. Like I said, I did not get past the third chapter before I had to take a break from the book for a few days.

When Katharine was a 17-year-old boarding school student in suburban Washington, D.C., and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression (1933), her father bought The Washington Post Company (the fifth of five city newspapers and a pitiful, failing wreck) for $825,000. From then on, Katherine's life centered around The Washington Post.

At first, Katharine’s involvement with the Post is observational: she studied journalism in college while her father strove make a profit running the newspaper. She married a lawyer named Phil Graham. Phil inherits the newspaper while she raises her children. She did not inheriet the Washington Post because she was a woman.

Katherine wrotes about how she stayed socially aloof, ran the household complete with servants and a cook, and had parties with many famous people. There is a lot of name dropping in this book. Also a lot of Photos as well.

Phil graham was having very strange mood swings, and noone knew why. Now the symptoms of manic depression are obvious but they were not widely known in the 1960s. Also this illness, whatever it was, had to be kept quiet. In 1963 Phil committed suicide.

After Phil died, Katherine's life changed for the better. She was given the post of Presdient of the Washington Post. She had a lot to learn and she was not afraid to ask questions and learn the ropes. She was considered a powerful woman because of her title.

Katherine wrote about what happened during the turbulent 1970s. The Pentagon papers were published in 1971, Watergate stretched from 1972 to 1974 and in 1975-76 the printing union went on strike for 5 months.

Katharine’s life revolved around The Washington Post Company in every way, especially after her husband’s death and her assumption as president and publisher of the company. During the unfolding of Watergate, she or the newspaper were getting threats from the Nixon White House on a daily basis.

In addition, while one might have thought that The Washington Post was a well established paper when Watergate happened, it wasn’t. In 1974, after Watergate, the printer’s union went on strike, and The Washington Post could have easily folded. Instead, Katharine Graham learned how to run the presses, and the paper got out every day during the nearly six-month strike. Grahams’ ability to save the paper, despite the pressures, was incredible.

Katharine Graham led an interesting life of contrasts. While I worried her rich childhood meant she had a spoiled, sheltered life, I was very pleased on how much she grew and developed even during the seemingly insurmountable challenges.

As Katharine reviews her own life, she reveals much about the times in which she lived and the developments that society faced. I learned not just about Katharine Graham but about politics and political figures, publishing and journalism, travel, the life of the rich, history, culture, and the changing face of humankind over time.

She died in 2001 at age 83.
Prsonal History won Katherine a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

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