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The Post Sale: An Indefinable Sense of Loss

The Post Sale: An Indefinable Sense of Loss

By Lou Cannon - August 7, 2013

They say that your life flashes before your eyes when you’re drowning. I felt that way Monday when a surprise phone call informed me that The Washington Post, where I worked for 26 years, had been sold to Jeffrey Bezos, the Seattle billionaire.

My friend, Peter Silberman, for many years a first-rate editor of various sections of The Post, called later in the day to register his astonishment. Both of us were in a state of shock at what many are characterizing as a sensible business deal. The Washington Post Co. is, after all, a business struggling to keep its head above water at a time when newspapers are floundering. Post stock, of which I have a very small amount, has been surging on the New York Stock Exchange because the company has been selling off other newspaper and magazine properties while keeping its television stations and making various non-journalistic investments.

But stunned we were nevertheless, as Pete explained in words that echoed my sentiments. “Those of us who worked at The Post always believed it was good for society,” he said. “Although it was a business, we thought of it as a public institution. I couldn’t have been more surprised if Congress had been sold to a private bidder.”

Leave aside the fact that lobbyists and the interests they represent try to buy -- or at least rent -- Congress every day. Until Monday, the far-flung Post alumni clung with blind faith to the view that The Post, along with The New York Times, was different from other Big Battalions of the news business.

As the news business turned sour in the last two decades, the Bancrofts, Chandlers, Copleys, Cowles, Ridders and others watched their family-owned newspaper empires implode and then sold the leftovers to the highest bidder. Sad to be sure, but it can’t happen here, Posties told one another. The Graham family will never sell.

For me, the journalistic part of the life-flashing-before-your-eyes experience took me back to when I was still in high school in 1950 and working as a sportswriter and stringer for the Nevada State Journal, in Reno. With time out for a tour in the U.S. Army and a three-year stint as a truck driver, I worked as reporter, editor, and columnist for the next half-century on four dailies, two weeklies, a twice-a-week paper on its way to becoming a daily, and a Washington news bureau. The news bureau and weeklies are long gone, and the other papers were sold long ago by the families that owned them.

After the Brooklyn Eagle folded in 1955, the legendary press critic A.J. Liebling wrote that it was sad when a bad newspaper closed because until then there was always the hope that one day it would become a good newspaper. Maybe so, but I have few lingering sentiments about the papers for which I worked -- except The Washington Post. I joined the paper's national staff on April 1972, five weeks before the Watergate break-in that would make The Post a household name and mark the beginning of the end for President Richard M. Nixon.

Richard Harwood, then the national editor and the man who hired me, was a U.S. Marine and a combat veteran in World War II. He displayed what some considered a barracks-room manner and he could be hard on lazy reporters. But he was kind to old people, children, and those down on their luck, and he was an inspirational leader. Bill Greider, another Harwood hire who had worked with him at the Louisville Courier-Journal, said to me one day that he could understand why Marines had followed Harwood up the deadly beaches in the South Pacific.

I was initially a political reporter at The Post, hired to do one job and assigned to another, common in those days. We had a secret weapon in the form of David S. Broder, the best political writer in the nation.

I knew long before I went to the paper what a fine political correspondent Broder was. What I didn’t know was that Broder, like a baseball player who lifts the batting average of others just by being in the lineup, exercised a quiet influence that brought the political writers on The Post together as a team. He pushed young reporters into the limelight and helped them finish assignments if they struggled. Leading by example, he instructed us to share information, in the process obliterating rivalries. We became proud, as Broder was, to see items and quotations we’d obtained appear in The Post under another reporter’s byline.

Harwood and Broder were just two of the many journalists who made it great fun to work there. Haynes Johnson, Bill Peterson, Helen Dewar (and much later Ann Devroy) were four of 40 others I could name. The six I mention here are all gone from this world.

I had been at The Post two or three days when the editors, responding to pressure from Broder, who was in the Midwest somewhere, decided to send me to Atlantic City where Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was speaking to the United Auto Workers convention. It was late at night, and I didn’t have any money. This was before ATMs. Harwood thought he had the combination to the office safe and tried in vain to open it. What to do? He took money from his wallet and instructed the other editors there to do the same.

They were J.D. Alexander, my assignment editor, and Mary Lou Beatty, the political editor, both of them also now deceased. Pretty soon there was a pile of money on the news desk, which I stuffed into my wallet. I had no clothing with me except for a bathrobe and a few toiletries in a gym bag. One of the editors made a plane reservation and I took a cab to National Airport to fly on a small plane to Atlantic City.

I have hated small planes ever since crash landing while a passenger in one of them, and the plane to Atlantic City was buffeted by heavy turbulence. I fought airsickness. After sleeping a few hours at a fleabag hotel on the Atlantic boardwalk, I was awakened by the sound of an explosion. My first thought was that someone had bombed the UAW convention, but it was merely a planned implosion of an old hotel. I must have looked pretty silly standing in the lobby in my bathrobe.

It turned out that Kennedy had addressed the convention a day earlier -- Broder was furious with the editors for sending me after the Massachusetts senator spoke -- but it turned out not to matter much. I kept running into people who told me newsworthy information. The best of them was Leonard Woodcock, then head of the UAW, whom I knew slightly and for some reason chose to confide in me the revelation that he was giving up on Sen. Ed Muskie, then the shaky front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and shifting his allegiance to Sen. Hubert Humphrey.

I filed three stories that day; the next day back at The Post, Howard Simons, the managing editor (also now long deceased), came over to me, and said, “It seems like you’ve already been here for a long time.” I thanked him and said I hoped I would be.

During the next 26 years, I broke my share of stories, made my share of missteps, and won several awards. I did two stints in the western bureau in Los Angeles -- now closed because of cost-cutting -- and covered presidents from Nixon to George H.W. Bush. They often didn’t like what I wrote, particularly Nixon, but not only him. Ronald Reagan, whom I later praised for his skill in negotiating with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was particularly angry when I wrote about a Reagan flight of fancy in which he imagined he had photographed a Nazi death camp.

The Reagan team made a half-hearted attempt to obtain a retraction but already knew from experience that the great Ben Bradlee wouldn’t budge. Bradlee grilled reporters privately about their sources but invariably backed them to the hilt.

I’d learned how readily Bradlee would go to the mat for us in 1976 when Reagan was trying to wrest the Republican presidential campaign from President Gerald Ford. In July, shortly before the GOP convention, I wrote, from sources inside the Reagan campaign, that Reagan didn’t have the delegate votes he needed and that one key member of his campaign was already angling for a spot on the Ford team. The Post bannered the story, which was accompanied by a picture of Nancy Reagan blowing out candles in the picture. I was inadvertently part of the picture, standing just behind Nancy.

Reagan was livid. He denounced us on national television, and his top aide did not speak to me for years. Bradlee was worried about me. To show his support he walked arm in arm with me through the newsroom, showing to everyone else at the paper that he stood behind what I had written. Then, sotto voce, he said to me: “Be careful. They really don’t like that you nailed them and will try to discredit you.”

One of the reasons Bradlee could back his reporters with such confidence was that our iconic publisher, Katharine Graham, backed him. I thought then and still do that she was the most courageous publisher in the country, as she demonstrated when Attorney General John Mitchell was making crude threats and vowing to re-examine the licenses of Post television stations in retaliation for the unrelenting reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal.

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Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.


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