I enjoyed this book on three levels. First, it offers a sneak peek into the “who’s who” in American business, politics, and society from the 1930’s to the ‘60s and beyond. Katherine Graham and her family traveled in powerful circles. Every page turn reveals a fascinating new relationship or acquaintance. (The old photos are fun too!)
Second, if you’re even remotely interested in the newspaper/media business you must read this book for it chronicles the history and values of The Washington Post and the larger role of the press over decades in America. Grounded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guarantees our freedom of speech, Katherine’s father built the Post on a belief system that has been eroded in recent years. He wrote:
A newspaper must be a commercial success but, at the same time, a newspaper has a relation to the public interest which is different from that of other commercial enterprises… The citizens of a free country have to depend on a free press for the information necessary to the intelligent discharge of their duties of citizenship. This is why the constitution gives newspapers express protection from government interference… It is also possible for the public interest to be defeated by the way a newspaper is conducted since the principal restraint upon a newspaper owner is his self-restraint.
We’ve all lost restraint—newspaper owners, consumers, and the government. Whether you are a media insider or not, it’s truly fascinating to read this book and reflect on the “then” and “now” of the media industry and the shifts that have occurred in American values and beliefs about the role of the press, and the value we place on reporters and their employers. Commercialism, consumerism, and sensationalism—the drive to provide entertainment have rocked one of our country’s most trusted and sacred institutions. We need to pay attention to the shifts. Do we like where we are? Where we are going? Each of us is creating our collective reality by our actions every day.
Finally, as the title implies, Personal History is one woman’s truth. I have tremendous respect for Katherine Graham. This is a book of self-reflection, of coming to terms with oneself, and sharing the tremendous highs and heart-wrenching lows of a life fully lived. I was particularly taken by her transformation from subservient daughter and wife to leader of The Post. The transformation itself wasn’t so interesting—we see that all the time. What was interesting was her reflection on it and how her perspectives changed as she was given more opportunity to share her gifts with the world without living in the shadow of others.
Personal History is a book to savor in quiet moments. Its true worth is revealed not at first reading, but upon reflection over time.