The Washington Post is a celebrated gladiator slaying foes and entertaining crowds in the fierce arena of political news. How easy to forget (or to never know) that it was once a lightly armed combatant, a small family-run newspaper struggling to hang onto the wheels of its humble chariot.
How did The Washington Post rise to Russell Crowe-Gladiator status? It began by acquiring two powerful weapons: a prospectus for its first public stock offering and “The Pentagon Papers,” each so lethal that one was capable of killing off the other and obliterating the newspaper in the process. That’s the drama–the crisis and the opportunity–behind the story that’s told in Steven Spielberg’s new movie The Post. And you won’t need to read the fine print to figure out that it’s also the story of why a free press matters.
The year is 1971, pre-Watergate, and President Nixon is two-and-a-half years into his first term. As things turned out, he might have wished he’d never run for re-election, but Nixon isn’t the bad guy here, even though it’s his Justice Department that sues to stop first The New York Times and then The Washington Post from continuing to publish “The Pentagon Papers.” On second thought, Nixon isn’t the only bad guy here. He didn’t start the Vietnam War; he inherited it from the Presidents who preceded him dating all the way back to Truman–Democrats and Republicans both. But this story isn’t as much about the villains as it is about the good guys, which brings me to the first of two unlikely heroes.
At forty, Daniel Ellsberg had a good job, a new wife, and two kids from his first marriage. He was brainy smart–graduated first in his high school class, full scholarship to Harvard and later a Ph.D. from Harvard, too. (That’s not in the film but seemed worth mentioning.) He signed up and served in the Marines in the late 50s in places other than Vietnam, and when he got out, his first few jobs changed his thinking about the war effort in Vietnam. He worked twice for the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research company frequently employed by our government, but he also worked directly for the government–in the Defense and State departments during LBJ’s administration, even spending time with the troops in Vietnam. Early on he thought the war was a good idea but changed his mind when he saw first-hand what was really going on. Then came a top-secret study ordered by Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary. Ellsberg worked on it for the RAND Corp. “U.S. Decision Making in Vietnam, 1945-1968” revealed that the U.S. wasn’t winning the war and never would. And yet American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians were dying by the thousands, and many of the soldiers who made it home were disabled or sick with PTSD or exposure to toxic Agent Orange. The Presidents all knew we couldn’t win the war, but what did they do? Lied about it and sent in more troops. Why? They didn’t want to look bad by admitting defeat. Ellsberg had had enough. If some young American men were willing to go to prison by refusing to honor their draft cards, he was willing to be put behind bars, too.
Ellsberg decided the American people–the families of fathers and sons actually fighting the war–deserved to know the truth. It took him 20 months to secretly photocopy the 7,000 pages that became known as “The Pentagon Papers.” First he showed the study to several congressmen opposed to the war. They did nothing. Next he showed it to the powerhouse New York Times, which decided to publish. The Washington Post got wind of the story as it was breaking and tracked down Ellsberg, just as The Times was ordered by the court to cease publication.
The second unlikely hero of this story is Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. The paper was hemorrhaging money, and she needed the funds from a public stock offering to keep it going and grow it stronger. A lot of what I know about Graham I learned from her autobiography Personal History, published 20 years ago. It won a Pulitzer in 1998, and, yes, it was that good.
Katharine Graham grew up rich and privileged, but her life was no ice cream sundae with a cherry on top. Her beautiful mother, born poor, had married rich, but she was self-absorbed and almost indifferent to her four children. After college and a couple of jobs reporting for newspapers–including The WP–Katharine married Phil Graham, a charismatic and brilliant Harvard law grad, born poor like her mother. Katharine’s father eventually turned the running of the newspaper over to Phil, a paper her dad had bought out of bankruptcy in 1933. She adored Phil and he seemed to adore her, at least until his mental illness kicked in. Bi-polar, he had a couple of nervous breakdowns, fell in love with somebody else, asked Katharine for a divorce and ownership of the newspaper, and then, in the midst of all this turmoil, he killed himself. Katharine hadn’t worked in years, apart from raising their four children and supporting him in the Washington social scene.
Meryl Streep’s portrayal in the film captures Katharine’s insecurities, complexities and her growing resolve to do the right thing–even when faced with possible prison time for publishing “The Pentagon Papers” as well as financial ruin if the stock offering doesn’t go through. (All the lawyers advise her not to publish.)
The Supreme Court decided the combined case against The Times and The Post in a 6-3 decision in favor of the newspapers. Justice Hugo Black, writing his opinion, said, “Our founding fathers wanted a free press to serve the governed [i.e. you and me], not the governors.”
“Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.” Justice Hugo Black
Daniel Ellsberg wasn’t quite as fortunate–initially. The Supreme Court didn’t protect him from being charged under the Espionage Act, and he was facing potential prison sentences of 115 years. Until the court found out that Nixon’s people had broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst (no need to wonder why he needed one) in an effort to discredit him. Daniel’s case was thrown out of court.
Three cheers for a Free Press: then, now and always!!!