When I was writing Power, Privilege and the Post, an unauthorized biography of the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham, my editor had to remind me repeatedly that Kay was supposed to be the book’s outstanding character, not her brilliant, visionary husband, Phil Graham, a probable manic-depressive who killed himself at age 48 in August 1963.
Yesterday’s startling news that Amazon founder-owner Jeff Bezos is buying the storied Post, the paper’s website, and several weeklies, for $250 million—a tiny slice of his $25-billion-plus net worth—brought to mind the fascinating, Florida boy who took D.C. by storm in the 1940s. On his first date with Katharine Meyer, Phil informed Kay that he would marry her. They married in 1940 with great results for the paper owned and published by her family, if not for the cruelly dominated wife.
Graham and Bezos both had somewhat humble roots. Bezos, was born to a teenage mother in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Graham to a smart but gruff farmer’s son in Terry, South Dakota. Graham’s father later managed a sugarcane plantation in the Florida Everglades and, for a time, housed his family in a houseboat on the mosquito-infested Miami Canal. (He would later become a Florida state senator and through some shrewd investments in Miami real estate, a very rich man.)
Jeff Bezos ended up a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. Graham partied through his college years at the University of Florida, but excelled once he arrived at Harvard Law, where he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review. He became a protégé of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and also his law clerk. Graham was routinely described as the smartest, most charismatic man in Washington. (Graham was also deeply flawed: a heavy drinker, a reckless philanderer, a man with an ugly cruel streak who was publicly dismissive of Katharine, her father’s successor before Phil showed up.)
The two men also demonstrate a preternatural instinct responsible for at least part of their success. Bezos is an avid newspaper reader, but has no experience running a newspaper. Neither did Graham when his father-in-law Eugene Meyer, the Post’s owner and publisher, named him associate publisher in 1946 and publisher soon thereafter. Eugene would say of Phil that he was so smart, that he knew more by instinct than other men knew by training. He turned the paper, which was losing about $1 million a year when he took over, into a financial success. With his single-minded pursuit of the Washington Times-Herald in 1954, he set the stage for the Post eventually to become one of those monopoly newspapers that Warren Buffett called “an unregulated tollbooth.” Phil bought Newsweek in 1961—David Halberstam called it “one of the great steals of contemporary journalism”—he opened foreign bureaus, he was the impetus behind the launch of the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, he bought radio and TV stations when Eugene thought he should stick to print. He wasn’t expected to carry all this off but he did. When Phil made the cover of Time in 1956 he was described as “A Montage of the American Dream,” “an energetic charmer” with “A Lincolnesque look.”
Bezos is also long on instinct, a visionary who saw the path technology would take before others did. He had a huge appetite for risk taking—he gave up a job as the youngest senior vice president at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw to start Amazon in his garage 18 years ago, a time when people still did almost all their shopping in stores. He did more to revolutionize retailing than anything since the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog and the suburban shopping mall.
In terms of politics, the two men appear to differ. Graham was credited by LBJ himself with drafting what became his Great Society program and with pushing Johnson hard to make the civil rights act of 1957 his cause. He was also credited with encouraging JFK to take LBJ as his vice president and pushing LBJ to accept the offer. Bezos has not used his wealth much to affect politics—he seems to lean libertarian and has given relatively small amounts to candidates from both parties—although he and his wife gave $2.5 million to help pass an ultimately successful referendum to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state. But watch out. History shows that owning a newspaper can trigger a man’s kingmaker tendencies. It certainly did for Phil Graham.
Phil’s son and Kay’s successor, chairman and chief executive Don Graham, wrote yesterday in a letter to his employees, that the Post saw revenues declining “seven years in a row.” Circulation, too, was headed in the wrong direction: 832,223 daily circulation in 1993 to 474,767 in 2013, according to The New York Times. Under Phil, Newsweek was flirting with becoming a real competitor to Time; in recent years, it was an exhausted, unwanted title. Had Don shared more of his father’s brashness and outside-the-box strategizing, would the opportunity for Bezos to own a major newspaper have materialized?
Anyone who has watched Bezos turn the book business upside-down can safely bet that he’ll do the same to newspapers; that the days of opening the door to the paper sitting on the front porch are numbered. Bezos told a German newspaper last year, “There won’t be printed newspapers in 20 years.”
Carol Felsenthal is the author of Power, Privilege and the Post: The Katharine Graham Story.