9/30/1985 President Reagan and Katherine Graham talking at a private dinner for Prince Franz Josef II and Princess Gina of Liechtenstein in yellow oval room
9/30/1985 President Reagan and Katherine Graham talking at a private dinner for Prince Franz Josef II and Princess Gina of Liechtenstein in yellow oval room

A Remarkable Woman

During my high school and college years the news was dominated by two events; the Vietnam War and Watergate.

As I recall, as a senior in high school I received draft number 130. Though the United States was still participating in the war, it was becoming more and more apparent that the U.S. would be pulling out soon. During my freshman year of college, much to my relief, the war ended.

It was not long afterward that Watergate erupted. It was a very divisive time in our country, reminiscent of what we are seeing in Washington today.

Two years ago, as I was doing the research on the book; The Power of a Humble Life, I read about a remarkable woman who played a crucial role in ending the Vietnam War and exposing the corruption of Watergate. The woman I am referring to is Katherine Graham.

Many people consider Katharine Graham to be one of the most influential women in the 20th century. Born Katharine Meyer in 1917, she was the daughter of Eugene Meyer who brought The Washington Post out of bankruptcy in 1933. Katharine began working for the Post in 1938 and two years later married Philip Graham, who at the time was working as a clerk for a Supreme Court Justice. Eight years afterward, Meyer made his son-in-law, Philip, the publisher of the Post.

As the years went by, Philip struggled with alcoholism and depression. In 1963 he entered a treatment center and eventually was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression. In August 1963, his doctors allowed him to go home for the weekend, where he proceeded to take his life by a self-inflicted shotgun blast.

Katharine was devastated and considered selling the Post. However, she finally decided to succeed her husband as the publisher. The paper at the time was one of many newspapers in Washington D.C., and none had nearly the readership of the mighty New York Times.

Katharine faced her first crisis in 1971 when she made the decision to publish excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, knowing that she and the newspaper staff could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. She understood that the paper could be financially ruined, but she risked it all for the people’s right to know the truth about the Vietnam War. Her decision to print was vindicated on First Amendment, free speech grounds by the Supreme Court.

She showed similar courage when she gave approval to the executive editor, Ben Bradlee, and his reporters to pursue the Watergate story. For a long period of time, The Washington Post was the only newspaper covering the story, and they received a great deal of pressure and criticism. Once again she was vindicated by her courage to make difficult decisions.

Katharine Graham remained the publisher and head of The Washington Post for the next thirty years until her accidental death in 2001. Those who knew her best praised her for two great qualities: courage and humility.

Upon learning of her death, President George W. Bush called her

“a true leader and a true lady, steely yet shy, powerful yet humble.”

Katharine Graham’s funeral service was conducted at Washington National Cathedral. The eulogy was delivered by Senator John Danforth who said this of her:

“Of the many words written this last week, one sentence deserves special attention. It’s from Katharine Graham’s obituary in the Post: “Mrs. Graham was often described as the most powerful woman in the world, a notion she dismissed out of hand.”. . . That is an astonishing statement in this town . . .

St. Paul tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

That is the way believers are supposed to live . . . It is very Biblical and very true that “every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” That is a text for all of us. It was lived by Katharine Graham.”

I read some very interesting words about Mrs. Graham in Pat Williams’ book, Humility. On his radio program, Pat had interviewed the prominent author and motivational speaker, Dr. Sheila Murray Bethel. During the interview, she shared an encounter she had with Katharine Graham back in the late 1990s at a luncheon hosted by Graham. Mrs. Graham’s parties and banquets were renowned for their stellar guest lists because she knew so many presidents, kings, and leaders from around the world.

At this particular luncheon, Dr. Bethel was seated next to Mrs. Graham. Bethel asked her,

“Mrs. Graham, you have hosted all the greatest leaders from around the world. What is the single most important trait of all great leaders? Without hesitation, she said, “The absence of arrogance.”

As she reflected back on the conversation, Dr. Bethel says,

“She had stated it so simply, yet it was such a profound insight. As I watched Mrs. Graham conversing with others around the table, it struck me: This woman is the perfect illustration of the trait she named—“absence of arrogance.” Katharine Graham was one of the most powerful women in the world—yet it was her humility that defined her. Now, whenever I meet a great leader, I ask myself, “Is this leader humble? Does he or she possess an absence of arrogance?”

In reflecting upon his interview with Dr. Bethel, Williams makes this observation:

“I’m here to tell you that the secret ingredient of success, however you define it, in whatever field you seek it, is this trait called humility.”


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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