2015 Lecture

Donald E. Graham
Donald E. Graham
Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Graham Holdings Co.

Elected to the board September 11, 1974. 

Donald E. Graham became chief executive officer of Graham Holdings Company (then The Washington Post Company) in May 1991 and chairman of the board in September 1993. He was publisher of The Washington Post newspaper from January 1979 until September 2000 and chairman of the paper from September 2000 to February 2008. 

Graham was born on April 22, 1945, in Baltimore, Maryland, a son of Philip L. and Katharine Meyer Graham. His father was publisher of The Washington Post from 1946 until 1961 and president of The Washington Post Company from 1947 until his death in 1963. His mother, Katharine Graham, served in a variety of executive positions from 1963 until her death in 2001. Eugene Meyer, Graham's grandfather, purchased The Washington Post at a bankruptcy sale in 1933. 

After graduating in 1966 from Harvard College, where he was president of the Harvard Crimson, Graham was drafted and served as an information specialist with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. He was a patrolman with the Washington Metropolitan Police Department from January 1969 to June 1970. Graham joined The Washington Post newspaper in 1971 as a reporter and subsequently held several news and business positions at the newspaper and at Newsweek. He was named executive vice president and general manager of the newspaper in 1976. 

He was elected a director of The Washington Post Company in 1974 and served as president from May 1991 to September 1993. 

Graham is a co-founder of TheDream.US, a national scholarship fund for DREAMers, created to help immigrant youth get a college education.  Previously, he served as chairman of the District of Columbia College Access Program, a private foundation he co-founded in 1999 that has helped double the number of DC public high school students going on to college and has helped triple the number graduating from college. He remains a member of the DC-CAP board.  Since its inception, DC-CAP has assisted over 23,000 DC students enroll in college and has provided scholarships totaling more than $33 million. 

Graham is a trustee of the Federal City Council and of the Philip L. Graham Fund, which was established in 1963 in memory of his father. He is also a director and member of the compensation committee of Facebook, The Summit Fund of Washington, the College Success Foundation and KIPP-DC. Previously, he served as a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board. 

Lecture's Transcript

KAL. Charlie Hebdo.

 When I was 10 years old, my father brought home a blue book.

You could say that I was already a regular reader of The Washington Post. That would be accurate but not quite complete. I was a regular reader of one section of The Wash­ington Post, the one that followed the struggles of two of the worst teams ever to play professional sports, The Washington Senators and The Washington Redskins of the 1950's.

From there, I observed that the Post had a lot of really good comics. Peanuts had joined the paper around 1950, doubling my pleasure in the comic pages. Then I had noticed that there was a fellow on the editorial page drawing cartoons.

So I was ready when the blue book came home—Herblock's Here and Now. It was my introduction to those politicians who had caught Herb's attention in the late 1940's and early 5o's. Herb was a good writer, but I quickly started reading the book the way I sus­pect most others did. I went from cartoon to cartoon.

For me, it was a catch-up course in contemporary history. Why had my parents thought it worthwhile to watch the Army-McCarthy hearings when we were on vacation in 1954? Why did we have those fallout-shelter drills at school?

I was an odd io-year-old, worshipping my father, Phil Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. The book was a little trip into his world.

I am the last of Herblock's Graham-family publishers. The nice invitation to give this lecture tonight said I could take about anything I wanted. But there's no choice for me, If I'm going to give the Herblock lecture, I want to talk about Herb.

Our house was full of the struggles of The Washington Post, 12 years before I was born, my grandfather, Eugene Meyer, had bought the paper at a bankruptcy auction in 1933. Mr Meyer was a very brave guy. He was 57 and while he had made a lot of money on Wall Street, he had never run a business and had never worked on a newspaper. He un­derstood that the Post was losing money, but was a bit naive about it. In the 1970's, I met Richard Paget, who had consulted for Mr. Meyer in 1937. My grandfather had told Paget that when he bought the Post, he believed that by improving the paper he could make circulation grow, then advertising would grow and he could break even after three years. Instead, he was losing more money than ever—expenses in 1937-38 were running about twice revenues.

In 1946, still losing about the same amount of money, thank God, Mr. Meyer went look­ing for a cartoonist. Kay Graham wrote in her memoirs that Herb's predecessor drank himself out of his job. If so, I bless him for it. And I particularly bless Nelson Poynter, the old family friend who was publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, for pointing Mr. Meyer to Herblock.

Herb remembered one aspect of the recruitment. Gene Meyer not only wanted to be sure he would be comfortable With Herb. He wanted Herb to be comfortable with the Post— so he sent him a mail subscription.

Before Herb, there was one writer who made people read the Post—the great sportswriter Shirley Povich, one of the key reasons I had started reading the Post so early. If there was only reason you read the Post, at least he was always there—Shirley wrote seven columns a week. And my memory is that Herb too did seven a week when he first started at the paper. Now there were two reasons people read the Post.

How closely identified was Herblock with The Washington Post? Again, from childhood: an enormous day for all of us came when my dad was pictured on the cover of Time magazine in April 1956. just two years earlier, he'd been the publisher of the third pa­per in Washington in circulation. Now, with the purchase of the Times-Herald, we had shot overnight to being number one in readership, and advertising would soon follow. We mightier might not have been making tiny amount of money.

The resources that came with our new status were what put my dad's picture on the cover of Time. But the background behind his photo wasn't a picture of a press running or of some Washington scene: it was dozens of Washington figures drawn by Herblock: President Eisenhower as a smiling duck on a lake; vice-president Richard Nixon; secre­tary of state John Foster Dulles; defense secretary Charles E. Wilson; attorney-general Herbert Brownell and others I knew only from Herb's cartoons.

And time, noting the Post's role in keeping a Republican administration on its toes, wrote:

"The Post's sharpest cut into the elephant's hide appears daily on the editorial page and in 150 other U.S. papers: the brilliant political cartoon by Herblock, 46-year-old Chicago-born Herbert Lawrence Block, No. x U. S. cartoonist, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner."

My father, who was raised on a houseboat and grew up on a dairy farm in a very different Dade County, Florida, said that it was from Time magazine that he learned in the 1930's that there was a man named Hitler.

It was from Herb that I learned—specifically from that blue book—that there was a Sen­ator named Joe McCarthy. From the day McCarthy raised his voice, Herb pointed at his weaknesses—the shocking claims that were never substantiated, the charges that didn't stand up, the exaggerations, the fear he spread, and the attacks on those who opposed him, McCarthy was a tough guy to oppose. After all, he was alleging that there were Communists in the State Department or somewhere and if you opposed him, you had to make it clear you weren't favoring the Communists.

That wasn't a problem for Herb. Unlike some Democrats in the 1930's, Herb had a pretty clear idea who Josef Stalin was from the get-go. His second Pulitzer was awarded for the cartoon on Stalin's demise—an enormous figure of death, a giant skeleton with a scythe, greeting Stalin, whose sickle drips blood: the caption reads "you a were always

a great friend of mine, Joseph." Herb had been right about Hitler and had no illusions about the Russians. He was a supporter of the Korean War, the Marshall Plan and Tru­man's standing up to Russia after the War. I wasn't surprised that in Haynes Johnson's and Harry Katz's book, published by Herb's foundation and this library, there was a 1937 cartoon mocking the Stalin purge trials—"Under the Hammer and Sickle" reads the cap­tion, while the sickle is poised to cut off the heads of seven tied-up prisoners. A lot of leftist Americans, including some very famous ones, were taken in by those so-called tri­als. Not Herb.

Herb's McCarthy cartoons were hammer blows. It was one thing to write editorials as Alan Barth did and columns as Joe Alsop did about how wrong Mccarthy was. But Herb made him look like a fool. When French cartoonists drew Louis Phillipe as a pear, he had them thrown in jail and then passed a law against drawing cartoons of the king. But surely as he did those things, he knew the game was over—knew that a king who had to pass a law against cartoons was finished.

An elephant on a rickety platform atop 11 tar barrels. The tar barrels were labeled McCarthyism; that was the first use of the word.McCarthy pulls a tar-covered meat cleaver on President Eisenhower who reaches into his scabbard and pulls out a feather. McCarthy, followed around by the ghosts of his own past unproven statements, cries out "stop ganging up on me." The chairman of the committee investigating him draws a screen over your tv set. The screen says "This program has been discontinued temporarily while the committee looks for a way to discontinue it permanently." McCarthy, caught in a spider web of his own making, cries out "I can't do this to me."

It was a frightening time—that's the word Kay Graham used in her book, "The war be­tween McCarthy and the Post was vicious and frightening." And Herb in his book quotes a long passage from Walter Lippman about the damage McCarthy did to the country, and how easy it is to forget how frightening it was. My parents did not forget.

McCarthy warmed Herb up for Nixon and again, he saw from the start what was disturb­ing about him.

By 1971, the year of the Pentagon Papers, I was at the Post as a reporter. And I was with Kay Graham at her farm in Fauquier County when Howard Simons called to tell her about the Watergate burglary.

The memories of Watergate today are preserved by the movie "All the President's Men." I felt when I saw it that the movie made too much of the Post's role, leaving out crucial people like judge John Sirica and Senator Sam Ervin, whose work brought much of the evidence to light.

But there are also two Post people left out of the movie altogether. One is Katharine Graham—the Post portrayed in the movie doesn't have a publisher, though you could say she had quite a bit to do with the story.

And the other is Herblock. The guy who had taught me contemporary history was at his best at that other menacing moment. In preparation for this speech, I went back and read Woodward and Bernstein's first chapters in All the President's Men, their careful book on the subject. Their reporting was excruciating. every scrap of information, fer­reted out of unwilling sources. A week after the burglary, they were barely beginning. But the Post had reported the name of a White House official, Howard Hunt, in the address book of one of the burglars; Hunt's exclamation "Good God" when a reporter called him. Some GOP money had turned up in accounts for the burglars. There were a few other scraps.

On June 23, Herb's cartoon showed a bunch of footprints going in and out of the White House. "Strange," says someone looking on. "They all seem to be connected to this place," Kay Graham, looking through the newsroom, say Herb showing someone the draft of that cartoon. He showed it to her and she said "you're not going to run that in the paper, are you?" It ran the next day.

The cartoons were a drumbeat, quite equal to the McCarthy series. Herb could jump ahead of the reporters, and did. It was then that Kay Graham said his cartoons often caused her to gasp when she read the paper. If you read back in All the President's men, Woodward and Bernstein were nowhere when that cartoon ran. They were very, very slowly starting to pull the pieces of Watergate together. In their book, it was still Chap­ter One. But Herb had pulled it all together.

And when the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service was awarded to the Post, the board mentioned four journalists at the Post by name: Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Roger Wilkins for his editorial writing—and Herbiock.

Herb's work had amazing power, and he had unimaginable longevity. He wasn't a kid when he came to the Post—he had already won a Pulitzer—and he worked there almost 55 years.

Is he the greatest cartoonist ever? He is for me. Thomas Nast is his only competition among American cartoonists, and Nast's work, great as it was, was concentrated in a few years.

Daumier is impossible competition—a great paper who also drew cartoons. Hogarth is a British counterpart.

But Herb ranks at or near the top. It always amused me to think how many people in the Post a few years back could get their name in a media column or a gossip column today. But only one of us was doing work that would be looked at a hundred years from now.

When I once expressed that sentiment in front of Herb, he said: "well, Don, a hundred years from now, I hope people are still saying, 'Herb, that was a good one today."

That, alas, won't happen. He'll have to be content with knowing that when people in the future think if McCarthy and Nixon, many of them will see Herb's McCarthy and Nixon, as I do.

He was the greatest man I worked with and I am grateful for the chance to talk about him.

However, I want to end with a completely pointless anecdote about Herb. I am telling it because I'm hoping that not even Jean knows the story, but mostly because it brings together the two men who were best known and best loved by the readers of the Post in 1946, Herb and Shirley Povich.

Shirley was brought to Washington by the publisher of The Washington Post, but not to work for the paper. He came to caddy for the publisher, Ned McLean, who owned a pri­vate golf course on the site now know as McLean Gardens in northwest Washington.

Years of caddying made Shirley a skillful and clever golfer. The same could not be said of his friend Herb Block. Based on his own testimony, Herb was one of the worst golfers who ever lived. He had only one success at golf, but it was an important one. when a long-ago Secretary of the Interior proposed to build something or other on the site of Herb's beloved West Potomac Park public golf course, an angry Outlook piece by Herb and a round with the secretary persuaded the Interior Department to save West Po­tomac.

But Herb's golf game was truly awful, although he worked hard on it and was always reading golf books and magazines for tips.. So one spring day, Herb and Shirley went out to a golf course for the first round of a new year.

On the ride out, Herb had been telling Shirley about ideas he'd been assembling from his winter of reading. So after Shirley hit a nice drive Herb strode to the tee, took a careful, studied swing, and topped the ball about 30 yards in front of them.

As Shirley told the story: "So he put his club on his shoulder, took a long pause, looked at me and said:

"That Arnie Palmer's full of shit."


Thank you.