Decline But Not Fall

The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee leaving US District Court after winning a ruling in the Pentagon Papers case, 1971

Eugene Meyer, a Wall Street plutocrat with an itch to perform in the nation’s capital, bought The Washington Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933. The price was $825,000, but the paper was so far decayed that Meyer had to keep dipping into his own capital for the next ten years to keep it alive. It doesn’t seem to have pinched him financially; when contemplating the purchase, his wife Agnes asked her diary a question distinctive to shoppers overburdened with spending money: “What after all is money for if not to be used”?

Before embarking on journalism Meyer had been a Wall Street figure on the grand scale, a “titan” as novelists like to call such glittering specimens of triumphant capitalism. He was a millionaire perhaps forty times over in an age when a million dollars was still real money and he had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, as well as connections at the White House, having performed honorable chores for Presidents Wilson and Coolidge. Under President Hoover he became chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, but resigned after Franklin Roosevelt’s election and began shopping the Washington newspaper market.

Though Meyer was a Californian and his career had tied him to New York, frequent work in Washington had given him a taste for its marble splendors and proletarian pomp. Agnes’s diary suggests that she and Eugene both thought that owning a local newspaper might help them become people of consequence in the capital—“players,” in today’s political jargon. Eugene’s buying the paper “will be a sensation,” Agnes told her diary, and—since they had told friends they were “done with Washington”—they would “have a reputation for Machiavellian behavior.” It was also, she wrote, “a great opportunity for E. to be a dominant influence in this formative period of the new America.”

Eugene made the purchase at the bottom of the Great Depression, and the Meyer family has controlled The Washington Post ever since, either from the publisher’s office or the chairmanship of the Washington Post Company, a fat and robust diversified corporation begot by the newspaper’s thundering financial success in the latter half of the twentieth century. The paper’s present publisher is Eugene Meyer’s great-granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth; the company chairman is Donald Graham, Meyer’s grandson, who had been the Post’s publisher before Ms. Weymouth.

Before Donald the paper had been run by Meyer’s daughter Katharine Graham, in Washington circles invariably known as “Kay,” though occasionally “Katie,” as when the attorney general of the United States told a Post reporter that unless the paper quit being beastly to President Nixon, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer.” Kay’s ascension was not by a father’s nepotistic edict; far from it. Obedient…

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