Farewell to Mrs. Graham, Triumphant to the End

The death and funeral of Katharine Graham, proprietor of The Washington Post , has been one of those passages that must provoke reflection. As is usual with the passing from the scene of a central and significant figure, the best and worst came out. Indeed, the list of ushers–chosen possibly by Mrs. Graham, possibly by her heirs and others close to her–was as comprehensive a sampling of the best and worst in contemporary boldface society as I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

Much of the media commentary on the late publisher fell into the category of “I knew Mrs. Graham, and let me tell you what she said to me the last time I was at her house for dinner–lest you, dear reader, have the slightest doubt how much she liked me.” This sort of thing isn’t very helpful, although in slobbering puppies it is at least endearing. As one big-time media personality observed to me, “There were times when I wondered whether Kay Graham’s death wasn’t all about whether she liked Diane Sawyer better than Barbara Walters.” For those of us who admire neither, the question is moot–and uninteresting.

Not having known Mrs. Graham, I can’t comment except to say that, from this distance, she seemed an admirable, balanced person who handled inherited responsibility and advantage just about as well as could be. All in all, I would have to venture the opinion, strictly personal, that Washington has been more fortunate in the proprietorship of its newspaper of record than we in New York have been in ours, certainly in the last decade. Considering how little it has to work with in the way of material, all in all, by comparison with The New York Times –namely the infinite variety of New York versus the limited menu on offer in quotidian D.C.– The Washington Post is a remarkably good and interesting paper. If you don’t believe me, read The International Herald Tribune for a couple of weeks and compare the stuff from The Post with the stuff from The Times .

This may change, of course. Indeed, I bet that it will. I’m a big fan of Howell Raines, who I expect will restore some of the old-fashioned Southern gumption that, for whatever reason, has been an important part of The Times ‘ legacy. One thing I hope Mr. Raines will do is restore some sense to the obituary page, which has fallen victim to Little Arthur Sulzberger’s strategy of becoming a “national newspaper.” As things now stand, a person can lead a long, full New York life, with a real impact for good or not on his or her fellow Gothamites, and receive not a tittle of recognition in The Times . But let such a person have participated for 10 minutes in 1967 in a political rally in Kuala Lumpur, and lo and behold–three column inches!

Mrs. Graham’s obituary in The Times was, of course, lengthy and memorable, as was her memorial service in Washington’s National Cathedral. Being a student of obsequies, I followed it on the Internet and noted much of interest. The seating was especially peculiar–Mayor Rudy right up front!–and did not speak well for the placement skills of whoever will succeed Mrs. G. at the head of what all agree is, and presumably will continue to be, Georgetown’s most coveted dinner table.

I thought the choice of hymns interesting, because it dovetailed with other funerals that, sadly, I have attended recently and suggests the presence of a sort of osmosis in funeral programming–an extension of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” if you will, that seems to say a good deal about society’s state of mind at a given moment.

For example, a couple of years ago, when the Dow Jones was steaming north–when “dot-com” was the rubric of the day and money grew on trees in a nation barreling ahead on the back of the sovereign dollar like a cowpoke busting into town on Saturday night–every funeral I attended featured the Parry-Elgar setting of Blake’s “Jerusalem,” with its stirring closing affirmation: “I shall not cease from mental fight / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land.”

I found this an interesting choice, especially since, in the preponderance of the decedents whose lives we were celebrating with lusty voice, the closest they’d come to the unsleeping sword was the pen with which they’d endorsed the trust-fund checks that furnished their Palm Beach villas. But it was a bully, confident time, remember, and people were full enough of themselves to program “Jerusalem” without feeling a bit hypocritical. It was a time when we felt ourselves to be quite up to the task of doing God’s work, thank you very much. Hence: “And did those feet in ancient time … ,” etc., etc.

Nowadays, you don’t get “Jerusalem.” Things are different now. Layoffs. Retirement plans under water (the revelation that there are widely distributed man-in-the-street 401(k) mutual funds buying into loans syndicated by the likes of Chase’s Jimmy Lee is a notion that is absolutely appalling to me, or to anyone else with enough knowledge of the securities business to grasp that the public must be treated with a modicum of ethical decency if the great, greasy Limpopo River that carries fat fees and bonuses to Wall Street is to continue to flow unchecked). Collapse in the telecom and dot-com sectors. The Florida electoral hangover. So many 1998 constituents of American exceptionalism are now in a headlong tumble from their financial and psychological highs that it reminds one of that famous graphic presentation of Napoleon’s advance on, and retreat from, Moscow.

Not a good time for “Jerusalem,” really. Time instead for “America the Beautiful,” which is the funeral hymn of choice these days. “God shed His grace on thee”–meaning America. Three years ago, the people singing that verse would have been mentally paraphrasing it “God shed His grace on me,” and I’m sure some still do. But fewer. Times have changed. When we feel we can handle ourselves, we sing “Jerusalem.” When we think we need help, we go to “America the Beautiful,” which affirms that we are blessed among nations, but admits that we could use a little help.

Such reflections were interrupted by one of those rare moments that connoisseurs of contradictions-in-terms live for. Within the compass of the same service, Ben Bradlee, Mrs. Graham’s Watergate editor, spoke of how a great newspaper shines light on the darker corners of society … which is all very true. But–whaddya know!–within the same quarter-hour there slithered out of exactly such a dark corner none other than Henry Kissinger, to eulogize the woman whose proprietorial forthrightness had been the instrument responsible for bringing down the anti-Constitutional regime near whose evil-oozing epicenter Henry the K. lurked like a Miltonic succubus. To be exposed to a speech by Mr. Kissinger is to be coated with an aerosol of self-serving moral and political hypocrisy, so naturally there were many brows being wiped as he went on in his characteristic coarse, egotistical fashion (“Intimacy did not end with the exercise of power”), although the brow-swabbers will doubtless say it was the heat.

Kay Graham was a leader. She created, she begat and underwrote initiative. She instilled confidence in her troops to get on with the job.

Her passing reminds us of how short a supply of leadership we have in this country right now.

On May 3, 1945, the writer Dashiell Hammett wrote to Lillian Hellman: “My elderly statesman advice to you on the new President and international, as well as domestic, affairs is to wait and see before you start shivering. He’s not likely to be a great man … but he could turn out to be an able one.”

Hammett was speaking of Harry Truman, just as this column has counseled the same with respect to George W. Bush. But I am beginning to worry, quite seriously. It has nothing to do with Mr. Bush’s policy vs. someone else’s; the nature of politics today has made that pointless. It’s about leadership, about those collective emanations of presence and eloquence and character and intelligence that leaders display, but that the new President has shown scant evidence of possessing in his six months in office. Like others, I had hoped to find another Truman, but I fear that all there may be is just another Bush, and one of those was already plenty.