By Norman Solomon
Movie critics are already hailing â€œThe Post,â€ directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep asÂ Washington PostÂ publisher Katharine Graham. Millions of people will see the film in early winter. But the real-life political story of Graham and her newspaper is not a narrative thatâ€™s headed to the multiplexes.
â€œThe Postâ€ comes 20 years after Grahamâ€™s autobiographyÂ Personal HistoryÂ appeared and won enormous praise.Â Read as a memoir, the book is a poignant account of Grahamâ€™s long quest to overcome sexism, learn the newspaper business and gain self-esteem. Read as media history, however, it is deceptive.
“I donâ€™t believe that whom I was or wasnâ€™t friends with interfered with our reporting at any of our publications,” Graham wrote. However, Robert Parry — who was a Washington correspondent forÂ NewsweekÂ during the last three years of the 1980s — has shed some light on the shadows of Grahamâ€™s reassuring prose. Contrary to the claims in her book, Parry said he witnessed “self-censorship because of the coziness between Post-Newsweek executives and senior national security figures.”
Among Parryâ€™s examples: “On one occasion in 1987, I was told that my story about the CIA funneling anti-Sandinista money through Nicaraguaâ€™s Catholic Church had been watered down because the story needed to be run past Mrs. Graham, and Henry Kissinger was her house guest that weekend. Apparently, there was fear among the top editors that the story as written might cause some consternation.” (The 1996 memoir of former CIA Director Robert Gates confirmed that Parry had the story right all along.)
Grahamâ€™s book exudes affection for Kissinger as well as Robert McNamara and other luminaries of various administrations who remained her close friends until she died in 2001. To Graham, men like McNamara and Kissinger — the main war architects for Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — were wonderful human beings.
In sharp contrast, Graham devoted dozens of righteous pages to vilifyingÂ PostÂ press operators who went on strike in 1975. She stressed the damage done to printing equipment as the walkout began and “the unforgivable acts of violence throughout the strike.” It is a profound commentary on her outlook that thuggish deeds by a few of the strikers were “unforgivable” — but men like McNamara and Kissinger were lovable after they oversaw horrendous slaughter in Southeast Asia.
But for Hanrahan (whose Republican parents actually never belonged to a union) the admiration was far from mutual. As he put it, â€œTheÂ Washington PostÂ under Katharine Graham pioneered the union-busting â€˜replacement workerâ€™ strategy that Ronald Reagan subsequently used against the air-traffic controllers and that corporate America — in the Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and other strikes — used to throw thousands of workers out of their jobs in the 1980s and the â€™90s.â€
TheÂ Washington PostÂ deserves credit for publishing sections of the Pentagon Papers immediately after a federal court injunction in mid-June 1971 stopped theÂ New York TimesÂ from continuing to print excerpts from the secret document. Thatâ€™s the high point of theÂ Washington Postâ€™s record in relation to the Vietnam War. The newspaper strongly supported the war for many years.
Yet Grahamâ€™s book avoids any semblance of introspection about the Vietnam War and the human costs of theÂ Postâ€™s support for it. Her book recounts that she huddled with a writer in line to take charge of the editorial page in August 1966: â€œWe agreed that theÂ PostÂ ought to work its way out of the very supportive editorial position it had taken, but we couldnâ€™t be precipitous; we had to move away gradually from where we had been.â€ Vast carnage resulted from such unwillingness to be â€œprecipitous.â€
Although widely touted as a feminist parable, Grahamâ€™s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography is notably bereft of solidarity for women without affluence or white skin. They barely seemed to exist in her range of vision; painful realities of class and racial biases were dim, faraway specks. Overall the 625-page book gives short shrift to the unrich and unfamous, whose lives are peripheral to the drama played out by the wealthy publisherâ€™s dazzling peers. The name of Martin Luther King Jr. does not appear in her star-studded, history-drenched book.
Katharine Grahamâ€™s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was indeed laudable, helping to expose lies that had greased the wheels of the war machinery with such horrific consequences in Vietnam. But theÂ Washington PostÂ was instrumental in avidly promoting the lies that made the Vietnam War possible in the first place. No amount of rave reviews or Oscar nominations for â€œThe Postâ€ will change that awful truth.Î¦
Norman Solomon is the coordinator of the online activist group RootsAction.org and the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of a dozen books including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.