By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—Thank you, Eugene Meyer. Thank you, Philip Graham, Katharine Graham, Donald Graham and Katharine Weymouth. Thank you for building and sustaining one of the world’s greatest newspapers—and, when the time came, letting it go.
Thank you, Mr. Meyer, for spending $825,000 to buy the Washington Post at a bankruptcy sale. That was a lot of money in 1933, but you could afford it. You were a wealthy financier who could have retired to a life of leisure. You chose to own a newspaper, which is the opposite of leisure.
Thank you for writing your “Seven Principles for the Conduct of a Newspaper”—the commandments by which we try our best to live. I hope your words, outlining our mission and responsibilities, are always displayed in the Post’s lobby, as they have been for the 33 years I’ve worked here. I won’t quote them all, just the one that seems most relevant this week:
“The newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owner.”
Thank you, Philip Graham, for your ambition. When you took over from your father-in-law, the Post was hardly a dominant journalistic force nationally or even locally. You changed that.
Thank you for buying the competing morning paper, the Times-Herald, which allowed the Post to eventually overtake the once-dominant Evening Star in both circulation and advertising. Thank you for buying the company’s first radio and television stations. And thanks especially for buying Newsweek. The magazine has different owners now and is pretty much on life support, but for decades it gave haughty Time a run for its money.
Thank you, Katharine Graham, for ... I don’t even know where to begin. How about this: Thank you for being one of the most important newspaper publishers in history.
Thank you for hiring Ben Bradlee as your executive editor. Thank you for recognizing that this handsome, swashbuckling Bostonian possessed both a first-class mind and the nerves of a gunslinger. You stood by Ben during the Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, when the newspaper’s future was at stake. You stood by him during Watergate, when the nation’s future was at stake. Ultimately, you made the crucial decisions—and they were the right ones.
Thank you, Mrs. Graham—you said to call you Kay, but I never could—for your ability to sound like a prim and proper patrician one minute and swear like a sailor the next. Thank you for your ferocity in defense of the newsroom. I remember one luncheon in your office suite at which you tore into some bureaucrat from the Chinese Embassy over a visa problem our correspondent in Beijing was having. You were genteel but utterly relentless, and by the time dessert was served the poor man looked about to cry.
Thank you also for your graciousness. When I was editor of the Style section, my wife Avis and I decided to host a party for leaders of the local arts community who felt unappreciated by the newspaper. I was delighted when you agreed to stop by for a minute and say hello; I was amazed when you stayed all evening, charming our star-struck guests—and proving that this great, gray, intimidating institution really did care.
Thank you, Don Graham, for propelling the Post to its greatest glory—so far. Len Downie was your Ben Bradlee, the ideal partner. Outsiders think of the Kay-and-Ben era as the Post’s golden age, but it was in the Don-and-Len era that the paper hit its peak in terms of circulation, advertising, the number of journalists in the newsroom, the number of foreign bureaus—just about any measure you can think of. Under Downie, the Post won 25 Pulitzer Prizes—by far the most any paper has won under a single editor.
Thank you, Don, for treating every one of us like family. I’m going to sound mushy here, but it’s true. Your kindness when anyone at the Post suffered a personal crisis was unlimited. You shared our sorrow at moments of grief and our joy at moments of triumph. I am so proud to call you my friend.
Thank you, Katharine Weymouth, for joining your uncle Don in the thankless task of downsizing the Post without stripping it of its greatness. Thank you for helping him make the wrenching decision to sell. And thank you for staying as publisher after the paper changes hands—ensuring that the remarkable work of a remarkable family goes on.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group