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Graham says memoir reflects her aim to be honest, frank

January 28, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Katharine Graham has written the book on her life but don’t ask her to write her epitaph.

``Too hard,″ says the 79-year-old woman who led The Washington Post Co. through the turbulent years of the Pentagon papers, Watergate and beyond.

In an interview to discuss her new memoir, Mrs. Graham projects a reserve and composure that seem far removed from the Katharine Graham who lays bare in ``Personal History″ her long struggle to overcome feelings of inadequacy.

In person, she takes back phrases that in retrospect sound imprudent, quickly dispenses with questions that don’t suit her and remarks approvingly on the fact that the reporter and photographer who come to see her are women.

As for her memoir, which is packed with major 20th century figures _ presidents, celebrities, noted journalists _ drawn to human scale, she seems surprised that those around her find it so revealing.

``People say it’s the most unusually frank book,″ she says. ``I do begin to worry it’s excessive.″

Mrs. Graham says she wrote the 625-page book in part to document the accomplishments of her parents and husband in building up The Washington Post Co. empire. However, it also paints Agnes and Eugene Meyer as distant parents and Philip Graham as a dominating if charming spouse, whose manic depression led to suicide in 1963.

``Basically, I’m very frank and try to be honest,″ Mrs. Graham says in her office suite at the Post. ``That’s sort of the way I am.″

Although she writes of the feelings of inadequacy she felt upon taking charge of the Post after her husband’s death, it was Mrs. Graham who gave the go-ahead to publish the secret Pentagon papers and who stood behind the editors and reporters breaking the Watergate story in the days before concrete evidence emerged to back them up.

(In the book, she acknowledged she had some uneasy moments during Watergate. ``I sometimes privately thought: `If this is such a hell of story, then where is everybody else?‴ ... ``No matter how careful we were, there was always the nagging possibility that we were wrong, being set up, being misled.″)

Still regal in her bearing although moving with a cane after hip surgery, Mrs. Graham speculates that the greatest historical significance of her memoir may lie in its detailed account of the intimidation and threats the Post received from the Nixon administration as its reporters unraveled Watergate.

Tucked in the corner of her office is a wooden wringer that was presented to her to memorialize Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell’s scream that ``Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer″ over one particular day’s Watergate revelations.

(She recounts the threat with remarkable detachment in the book: ``It was quite a temper tantrum on Mitchell’s part _ and especially strange of him to call me Katie, which no one has ever called me.″)

Still chairman of The Washington Post Co.’s executive committee, Mrs. Graham says she remains in touch by ``umbilical cord″ and phone if not a regular fixture in her terrace-bordered office.

``I either say what I think when they ask _ or sometimes when they don’t ask,″ she says of the company now directed by her son, Donald Graham.

As for the future, Mrs. Graham says she looks forward to spending more time promoting education programs in the troubled District of Columbia, learning to use computers (she calls herself ``an idiot″ on the electronic age) and, she hopes, returning to the tennis court.

But first comes her book tour. ``I really am a little bit concerned because I’m so not used to it,″ she says somewhat apprehensively. ``I wish sometimes every reporter had to be covered because sometimes they don’t know how it feels.″

The book, published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc., is due in book stores next month.

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