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Katherine Graham's decades of struggle at the top of the Post

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``Katharine Graham: The Leadership Journey of an American Icon,'' by Robin Gerber (Portfolio, 272 pages, $24.95)

During a visit to President Lyndon B. Johnson's Texas ranch in 1964, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham grew outraged at angry criticism the president directed at the first lady in her presence, and she reminded Johnson that Lady Bird "got you where you are today," writes USA Today opinion writer Robin Gerber in new book "Katharine Graham, The Leadership Journey of an American Icon."

When Johnson continued lambasting his wife about her planning of his birthday barbecue, writes Gerber, "Katharine erupted. `Oh, shut up, er ... Mr. President,' she told a chastened Johnson."

That episode, Gerber suggests, indicated that Graham, who had been verbally and physically abused by her husband, the late Phillip Graham, had by that time found new courage with men and a new sense of entitlement to stand up for herself and other women in similar circumstances.

"She was under attack, subtle but pernicious, from men on many fronts. Her consciousness of the gender stereotyping underlying her treatment had barely emerged, but after years of Phil's abuse, she could identify the oafish, ungrateful, and sexist behavior of husbands toward wives. ... Katharine had started to claim her `estate,' that part of her that had been hidden or unknown even to herself," Gerber writes.

That incident, which seemed to signal dramatic change in Graham, occurred less than a year after Katharine Graham unexpectedly and against the advice of many stepped into the leadership role at the Post after her bipolar husband killed himself with a 28-gauge shotgun.

"With Phil gone, the pent-up energy of Katharine's unrealized desires and ambitions began to drive her actions. That energy combined with a deep sense of duty to the enterprise her husband and father built. Her father intended the paper to pass down through generations of his family, and Katharine wanted to fulfill his dream," Gerber writes.

When Katharine Graham assumed the leadership of the Washington Post, the business world was a man's world and the newspaper her father, Eugene Meyer, and her husband had shepherded toward national prominence was a citadel of masculinity through and through.

Male managers, says Gerber, resented her style and her increasing assertion of authority.

Some simply didn't like the idea of working for a woman. Some referred to her as "Mama," and others made salacious sexual comments about her in whispering campaigns.

She also encountered sex discrimination in the industry organizations to which she belonged and was often the only woman at their gatherings.

Gerber portrays a brilliant, strong-willed woman, dedicated to propelling the Post to the greatness her father had envisioned for it, who defied the diminished expectations for women of her time and proved to be a courageous, values-driven leader and hard-nosed businesswoman.

When Katharine Graham stepped down as chief executive of the Washington Post Co. on May 9, 1991, Gerber writes, she handed leadership to her son, Donald Graham, of a company worth $1.4 billion.

Post stock gained 3,315 percent after she took the company public in 1971, while the Dow only increased 227 percent.

The author quotes Warren Buffett, a major Post stockholder, on the subject of Graham's business acumen: "This spectacular performance - which far outstripped those of her testosterone-laden peers - always left Kay amazed, almost disbelieving."

Buffett, Gerber makes clear, was a close confidant and financial mentor of Graham's. The two may even have been lovers.

In writing this book, Gerber had the benefit of Graham's splendid best-selling autobiography and numerous other books and articles about her. Therefore there is little or no information in it that is not already in the public realm.

She covers Graham's childhood; her education; her early work as a young journalist; her marriage; her displays of courage and strong leadership during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate affairs; and her steering the Post through perilous labor disputes.

Where Gerber excels is in her analysis of the factors in Graham's character and background that enabled her to overcome her insecurities and become the kind of leader capable of making difficult hiring and firing decisions, running the risks inherent in making major acquisitions, attacking sex discrimination with her company and elsewhere and even taking on the federal government on matters of principle.


(c) 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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