By Tammy Merrett
There is a well-known portrait of late Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham that
was created by legendary photographer Richard Avedon. In the portrait, created in 1976, Graham is standing with her arms folded, holding her glasses and the sleeves haphazardly rolled up on her simple shirtdress.
Graham has been described in the portrait as serious, stern and steadfast… a bit
intimidating. It is easy, if you’re a woman, to interpret those words as having a negative connotation in reference to a woman who can make decisions beyond what to make for dinner that night.
The Post has been in theaters for several weeks now, and Meryl Streep is up for another Oscar for her performance as Graham. Tom Hanks plays Post editor Ben Bradlee. The winners will be announced March 4.
There are several films about journalism and media practitioners out there, one of the most recent being Spotlight about the Boston Globe’s reporting on priest sexual abuse cases. Those of us who work in journalism all have our favorites, many choosing All The President’s Men dramatizing the reporting of the Watergate scandal that took down a president.
But The Post almost works as a prequel to the film about Woodward and Bernstein’s work. The report that became known as the Pentagon Papers was ordered during the Johnson administration by Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara, who was also a close friend and adviser of Katherine Graham’s. It revealed that, reaching back into the 1950s, the U.S. government had started to get involved in Vietnam and knew that our involvement would increase. By the time most U.S. citizens were aware we were committing resources and personnel, they were led to believe that it was to fight Communism when, at that time, it was to attempt to contain China, but even more so to save face. The U.S. couldn’t have a defeat.
That is revealed in a somewhat suspenseful way, which is no simple task when you’re dramatizing the real reporting process.
The Post helps put the point of view of the Nixon administration toward the press into perspective. He was paranoid and coming apart at the seams, but he was also very likely angry because of the scrutiny that he and his administration were getting while it seemed that the press in Washington and New York had not looked so critically at the Kennedys or LBJ. He wasn’t wrong.
For those watching the film who were not alive or old enough to remember the details of the time, you learn of the coziness that reporters had with those administrations, which were much more at fault for the decisions and motivations revealed in the report than Nixon was. Bradlee and Graham had socialized quite closely with the Kennedys. There is a point in the film where you see it possibly clicking for Bradlee that JFK was intentionally befriending him all along to cloud his judgment on covering the Kennedy administration.
This is a harsh reality that Graham also had to contend with that the film spends quite a bit of time working through. Graham was born into money and privilege. She dabbled in being a young reporter while her father owned the Washington Post, but gladly saw control of the company given to her husband, Phil Graham, when Eugene Meyer chose his son-in- law as his successor. There is a moving monologue in the film in which Graham talks about how that’s just how it was done and that all she ever wanted was to be a wife and mother and have the life and social standing she had become accustomed to – lots of garden parties with higher-ups in U.S. government and Washington, D.C. and New York society.
But when her husband committed suicide in 1963, it left Katherine with a company to run, and one that needed an infusion of cash to continue to grow. She decided to take it public, and the Pentagon Papers almost threw a serious wrench in the works of the initial public offering. We see Streep portray the constant siege that Graham must have felt she was under – having to keep up appearances with her social circles while finding that some of them were part of a huge lie on behalf of more than one presidential administration, feeling compelled to tell the public what was happening and having to fight the government to do it, struggling with these mammoth decisions while her family’s business that she never wanted to run could face financial ruin, and facing it all as a widow… a mother of four children… and as a woman.
While Katherine Graham was not always on the side of the little guy in running her business later on in life, she was known as a good boss to have if you were a reporter. And she became that while overcoming the biggest challenge women in business had at that time and more many more years on – she was a woman. What could she possibly know or contribute? She surely can’t make level-headed, financially sound decisions.
Streep’s expression of the turmoil Graham must have felt seemed true. There were misty eyes in the theater after her monologue, when she talked candidly to her daughter. She understood it. She knew how it felt to be a woman working twice as hard to be respected in her profession. She knew how it felt to be treated as if you didn’t belong. She knew how it felt to be an ant pushing a boulder up a hill, but doing it in heels and uncomfortable pantyhose. Streep portrays well that Graham didn’t ask for the job, but she did it well, possibly better than her father did or late husband would have.
And you see that in Graham’s face in the Avedon portrait. It’s easy to misinterpret her expression as stern, but for women who have quietly fought for respect in workplaces dominated by strong men, they can see it. Her sadness at what she had lost and what her country had lost in those years. They can see in her eyes her insecurity from a lifetime of being told she wasn’t valuable. They can see she is tired and apprehensive about what is around the corner.
But they can also see she is proud of the strength she found when she had to and would call on again when she needed it.
Tammy Merrett is a professor and newspaper adviser at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She serves as vice president and treasurer of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists, and is a past president of St. Louis SPJ and the Illinois College Press Association.