#152 Katherine Graham Washington Post

Summary Notes


In this episode, the host delves into the life and legacy of Katharine Graham, the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the publisher of The Washington Post, as chronicled in her autobiography "Personal History." Graham's story, from her privileged yet emotionally challenging upbringing to the tragic suicide of her husband Phil Graham, who had been running the Post, reveals a woman thrust into a leadership role amidst personal turmoil. Despite her lack of business experience and struggles with self-confidence, Graham's passion for the newspaper industry and her determination to maintain the Post as a family enterprise drove her to take the helm. With the guidance of investor Warren Buffett, she gained invaluable business insights and overcame insecurities, ultimately leading the Post through pivotal moments like Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. Graham's journey underscores the transformative power of embracing one's passion, the impact of mentorship, and the importance of persevering through self-doubt to achieve professional and personal growth.

Summary Notes

Phil's Desire to Visit the Farm and Subsequent Tragedy

  • Phil expressed a strong desire to visit the farm as a break from the hospital.
  • There was a disagreement among the doctors about the advisability of this trip.
  • The presence of liquor, sleeping pills, and guns at the farm was not considered.
  • Catherine was optimistic about Phil's recovery and supported the idea of going to the farm.
  • On August 3, Phil and Catherine went to the farm, had lunch, and listened to music.
  • Phil later went to a separate bedroom, where he fatally shot himself, leaving Catherine traumatized.
  • Catherine regretted letting Phil out of her sight and realized the farm visit was likely planned to access the guns.

"Phil very much wanted to go to the farm for a break from the hospital. And had started to work on the doctors to obtain their permission."

This quote indicates Phil's strong desire to leave the hospital environment and his active efforts to persuade the doctors to allow him to visit the farm.

"But no one ever asked me if there was liquor or sleeping pills at the farm, nor did I think to mention the guns we had there."

The lack of consideration for potential risks at the farm, such as the presence of guns, is highlighted in this quote.

Catherine Graham's Autobiography and Its Discovery

  • Catherine Graham's autobiography "Personal History" is the subject of discussion.
  • Jeff Bezos recommended the book and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
  • Catherine Graham is featured in Warren Buffett's biography "Snowball."
  • The book details Catherine's life and her rise to become the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
  • Catherine took over the Washington Post after her husband's suicide, despite lacking business experience.
  • The book is described as reading like a personal diary with candid insights into her life.

"He read this book, said it was a fantastic book, and winds up going, won the Pulitzer, I think, in 1998."

Jeff Bezos praised the book, which also received the Pulitzer Prize, indicating its high regard and impact.

"Catherine Graham is the first ever CEO of Fortune 500 Company, a female CEO of a Fortune 500 company."

This quote emphasizes Catherine Graham's groundbreaking role as a female CEO in a major company.

Early Life and Family Dynamics

  • Catherine was the fourth of five children, somewhat shielded from demanding parents.
  • Her upbringing was marked by luxury but also a lack of close personal relationships.
  • Her father was a successful investor and entrepreneur, and her mother was described as selfish and egotistical.
  • Catherine's mother is compared to a Disney evil stepmother, with a focus on her own life rather than her children.
  • Despite the challenging family environment, Catherine learned resilience and the importance of not giving up.

"As the fourth of five children, I was oddly shielded from the rigors of living with parents who demanded perfection and from some of the eccentricities of our curious upbringing."

This quote reflects Catherine's position within her family and the mixed blessings of her upbringing.

"The fatigue of the climb was great, but it is interesting to learn once more how much further one can go on one's second wind."

Catherine's mother's diary entry teaches the value of perseverance and pushing beyond perceived limits, a lesson that would influence Catherine's life.

Self-Perception and Lack of Self-Esteem

  • Catherine's classmates saw potential in her that she did not recognize in herself.
  • She struggled with self-esteem and did not envision a specific future for herself.
  • Catherine aimed to adjust to life rather than create her own path.
  • Her lack of self-esteem persisted into adulthood, despite her later accomplishments.

"Apparently, my classmates didn't see me the way I saw myself."

This quote highlights the disconnect between how Catherine perceived herself and how others perceived her potential.

"I was, I thought, realistic about my own assets and abilities."

Catherine's self-assessment was harsh and limited, reflecting her low self-esteem.

Catherine's Relationship with the Washington Post

  • Catherine had a deep love for the newspaper industry and the Washington Post.
  • Phil's psychiatrist pointed out that both he and Catherine cared too much about the Post.
  • The Post became Catherine's primary focus and passion after Phil's death.
  • Catherine's life was divided into two halves: before and after Phil's suicide, with the latter being more fulfilling.

"Much later, the depth of my caring was pointed out to me by Phil's psychiatrist, who told me that Phil and I both had a problem. We cared too much about the Washington Post."

This quote reveals the intense emotional investment both Catherine and Phil had in the Washington Post, which became a central part of Catherine's life.

"I told him in one of the great understatements of my life that I feared there was little he could do about that."

Catherine's response to the psychiatrist shows her unwavering commitment to the Washington Post, which would shape her career and legacy.

Inner vs. Outer Scorecard

  • Warren Buffett admired his father's inner scorecard, which meant living by one's own standards.
  • Buffett's mother, in contrast, was concerned with outer perceptions, which he believed led to unhappiness.
  • Catherine Graham initially lived by an outer scorecard, influenced by societal expectations.
  • The concept of inner versus outer scorecards is central to understanding Catherine's transformation and eventual personal fulfillment.

"It's the difference between an inner and an outer scorecard."

This quote introduces the concept of living according to one's own values versus being swayed by external opinions, a theme that resonates throughout Catherine's life story.

Acceptance of Gender Roles and Self-Limitation

  • Catherine Graham reflects on the gender-based expectations that limited her aspirations.
  • She recognizes her deep love for the newspaper industry but initially suppresses it due to societal norms.
  • Catherine struggles with the idea that she lacks the skills to run a business, a role traditionally assigned to men.

"Of course, I don't have the skills. I can't run a business. I can't do anything. This is what men do."

This quote illustrates Catherine's internalization of gender roles that suggest business management is a male domain, leading her to doubt her own abilities.

Parental Influence and Advice

  • Catherine's father provides her with empowering advice, focusing on principles rather than direct instruction.
  • Her father's confidence in her judgment contrasts with her mother's tendency to belittle her accomplishments.
  • The advice emphasizes self-reliance and the application of principles in one's own life.

"What parents may sometimes do, in a helpful way, is to point out certain principles of action... I have so much confidence in your having really good judgment."

This quote from Catherine's father highlights the importance of guiding rather than controlling, and it shows his belief in her ability to make sound decisions.

Mentorship from Warren Buffett

  • Catherine receives direct mentorship from Warren Buffett, learning how to run a business.
  • Buffett's mentorship eventually leads her to become less reliant on him, gaining confidence in her own abilities.
  • The lessons from Buffett and her father both stress the importance of applying learned principles independently.

"It built her up. It gave her more confidence, and she wind up buying something at a good rate and wind up being a good deal."

This quote reflects the positive impact of Buffett's mentorship on Catherine's growth and self-assurance in business dealings.

Internal Fears and Aspirations

  • Catherine expresses doubts about her abilities in a letter from college, revealing a deep-seated fear of failure.
  • She admits a love for the newspaper industry but feels it is an unattainable goal due to being a woman.
  • The letter shows her internal conflict between desire and perceived limitations.

"I doubt my ability to carry a load like the Washington Post."

This quote exemplifies Catherine's self-doubt and the perceived barrier to achieving her aspirations due to gender expectations.

Phil Graham's Influence and Challenges

  • Phil Graham's mental health issues and infidelity profoundly impact Catherine's life.
  • His role in the Washington Post's operations includes innovative approaches to advertising and learning from competitors.
  • Phil's struggles with alcohol and his eventual suicide have a lasting effect on Catherine and the business.

"Phil has some serious problems, manic depression. He was extremely troubled, but he also was not... a good husband."

This quote acknowledges Phil's personal struggles and the negative aspects of his behavior, which affected both his personal and professional life.

Overcoming Obstacles and Business Strategy

  • Phil Graham's proactive approach to increasing ad revenue and learning from biographies of successful publishers is highlighted.
  • The Washington Post's growth and success are partly due to Phil's strategic thinking and resilience in the face of setbacks.
  • Catherine and Phil's efforts to keep the business within the family and their navigation of competitive challenges are discussed.

"Phil said, you know, they put their company together when they were in their thirties, now they're in their sixties, and I'm in my... Think we can make it another way."

This quote demonstrates Phil's determination to succeed and his ability to draw inspiration from others' success stories to overcome challenges.

Phil Graham's Mental Health and Impact on Family

  • Phil Graham exhibited erratic behavior that was initially attributed to alcohol but was later understood as signs of manic depression.
  • His mental health issues were hidden and not discussed openly, leading to a lack of awareness among those closest to him.
  • The day of his suicide, Catherine Graham was optimistic about their future, not realizing the severity of his condition.

"I never suspected that Phil was either ill or depressed." This quote highlights the lack of awareness and understanding of mental health issues at the time, contributing to the shock of Phil's suicide.

Washington Post's Early Struggles

  • The Washington Post faced a decade or more of struggles to become viable.
  • Catherine Graham reflects on the importance of enduring hard times to appreciate success.
  • The fear of becoming complacent like their competitor, the Washington Star, was a motivator for the family.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the struggle to survive was good for us." This quote emphasizes the belief that overcoming financial and operational struggles was beneficial for the company's character and resilience.

Catherine Graham's Personal Insecurities

  • Despite her social position, Catherine Graham felt insecure, shy, and less confident as she aged.
  • She believed that people were only interested in her because of her marriage to Phil, not for who she was.
  • Her insecurities were exacerbated by Phil's mental illness and the pressures he faced.

"Despite my pleasure in the life I was leading during these years, I can now see that I was having problems I didn't acknowledge." The quote reveals Catherine's retrospective understanding of her personal challenges and insecurities during her life with Phil.

Health and Work-Life Balance

  • Phil Graham did not prioritize his health, working excessively which may have contributed to his mental health decline.
  • A family friend's letter emphasizes the importance of health over business achievements.
  • The advice to not follow in the footsteps of Phil's father, who also neglected his health for business, went unheeded by Phil.

"There is no greater wealth than health." This quote, from the family friend's letter, serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of health over professional success, which Phil Graham unfortunately did not heed.

Leadership Transition after Phil's Death

  • Following Phil's suicide, there was an expectation that the Washington Post would be sold.
  • Catherine Graham decided to take over the company, despite her lack of experience and self-doubt.
  • Her decision was driven by the knowledge of a new generation and her desire to keep the company in the family.

"Sometimes you don't really decide, you just move forward. And that is what I did, moved forward blindly and mindlessly into a new and unknown life." This quote reflects Catherine's determination to lead the company into the future despite the uncertainty and challenges she faced.

Catherine Graham's Business Acumen Development

  • Catherine Graham acknowledged her lack of knowledge in business and journalism.
  • She was inexperienced with financial terms and professional relationships.
  • Despite her challenges, she was driven by her passion for the Washington Post and commitment to family.

"I cared so much about the paper and about keeping in the family that despite my lack of knowledge and feelings of insecurity, I felt I had to make it work." This quote shows Catherine's dedication to the Washington Post and her family, which fueled her determination to succeed despite her insecurities.

Encounters with Political Figures

  • Catherine Graham's interactions with political figures, like Lyndon Johnson, were intense and sometimes uncomfortable.
  • She learned that making mistakes was normal and not unique to her, which helped alleviate some of her distress.

"I made mistakes and suffered great distress from them, partly because I believe that if you worked diligently enough, you wouldn't make mistakes." This quote captures Catherine's initial belief that hard work could prevent mistakes, a notion she later realized was unrealistic.

Self-Doubt and Imposter Syndrome

  • Ten years into running the Washington Post, Catherine Graham still struggled with self-doubt and imposter syndrome.
  • She internalized societal beliefs about women's intellectual inferiority, which added to her insecurity.
  • The public nature of her role increased her fear of making visible mistakes.

"My expectations far exceeded my accomplishments." This quote reflects Catherine's harsh self-criticism and the pressure she felt to live up to her own and others' expectations.

Warren Buffett's Role in the Washington Post

  • Warren Buffett's investment in the Washington Post was a turning point for the company and for Catherine Graham.
  • Buffett's advice and confidence in her leadership were significant in improving her self-assurance and the company's performance.
  • Buffett's letter to Catherine explained his investment decision, emphasizing his belief in her and the company's potential.

"Writing a check separates a promise from a conversation." This quote from Warren Buffett underscores the importance of action over words, as his investment demonstrated his genuine confidence in Catherine Graham's leadership.

Conclusion and Legacy

  • The book "Personal History" by Catherine Graham encompasses not only her personal growth and business success but also decades of political history in the United States.
  • Graham's story is one of overcoming tragedy, self-doubt, and societal expectations to become a respected leader in the media industry.
  • Her relationship with Warren Buffett and the impact of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers are also significant elements of her legacy.

Phil's Recording Experience

  • Phil reflects on the challenging experience of recording a three-hour-long episode in one sitting.
  • He acknowledges the difficulty and suggests that if he could do it again, he would record multiple times and edit together.
  • Despite the challenge, he praises the writer he was discussing and emphasizes the value of the content.

"Imagine sitting by yourself talking for 3 hours straight. If I could do it again, I would have recorded it multiple times and edited together because it was so difficult."

This quote illustrates the difficulty Phil faced while recording a lengthy episode and his thoughts on how he could have improved the process.

Investment Insights from Warren Buffett

  • Phil discusses Warren Buffett's investment in Walt Disney, highlighting the stock's undervaluation based on earnings.
  • Buffett's approach to investment is revealed through his focus on asset values, management capabilities, and an additional dimension of being the best in the field.
  • The quote "Writing a check separates conviction from conversation" is highlighted to emphasize the action over mere discussion in the context of investment.

"Writing a check separates conviction from conversation. I recognize that the post is gram controlled and Graham managed, and that suits me fine."

This quote demonstrates Warren Buffett's philosophy on investment, emphasizing the importance of taking action (writing a check) when one is convinced of a company's value, as opposed to just talking about it.

Catherine Graham and Warren Buffett's Relationship

  • Catherine Graham describes the early stages of her relationship with Warren Buffett and how he became an important mentor to her.
  • Warren Buffett's assistance in explaining financial concepts and offering emotional support played a significant role in building Catherine's confidence and understanding of her business.
  • Buffett's advice on leadership and enjoyment in work is shared, highlighting the balance between maintaining authority and finding pleasure in one's work.

"I think this was the real beginning of my knowing how much Warren would mean to me."

This quote captures the moment Catherine Graham realized the significant impact Warren Buffett would have on her professional life and personal development.

Mentorship and Teaching

  • Warren Buffett is portrayed not just as an investor but as a mentor and teacher.
  • Catherine Graham details the intensive business education she received from Buffett, including studying annual reports and learning his business philosophy.
  • Buffett's unique approach to learning from historical financial statements is mentioned, illustrating his deep interest in understanding business evolution over time.

"He brought with him to our meetings as many annual reports as he could carry and took me through them describing different kinds of businesses."

This quote describes how Warren Buffett used real-world examples from annual reports to educate Catherine Graham about various business models and impart his investment philosophy.

Personal Growth and Independence

  • Catherine Graham speaks about the personal growth she experienced through her interactions with Warren Buffett, including overcoming insecurities.
  • Warren Buffett's and Charlie Munger's personal philosophies are discussed, with a focus on their desire for freedom and independence rather than material wealth.
  • Munger's orangutan theory is introduced, which suggests that the act of explaining ideas to another, even an unresponsive listener, can clarify one's own thoughts.

"Warren summed up our learning relationship by suggesting that I seemed to go around as though I was seeing myself through the distorting mirrors of a carnival fun house."

This quote reflects Catherine Graham's initial distorted self-perception and how Warren Buffett helped her gain a clearer, more accurate self-image.

The Value of Autobiographies

  • Phil advocates for reading autobiographies as a way to engage in one-sided conversations with historical figures and learn from their experiences.
  • Catherine Graham's autobiography is recommended for its insights into her life, her relationship with Warren Buffett, and her reflections on personal history and growth.
  • The book is praised for its ability to connect readers with the minds of people from different times, demonstrating the magic of writing and reading.

"It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person."

This quote from Carl Sagan, shared by Phil, captures the essence of what makes books, particularly autobiographies, a powerful medium for connecting with the thoughts and experiences of others.

Reflections on Aging and Legacy

  • Catherine Graham discusses the motivations behind writing her book, including the desire to share her life story and the influence of her parents and husband.
  • She reflects on the challenges and benefits of aging, emphasizing the importance of focusing on the present and future rather than dwelling on the past.
  • The book's publication at the age of 79 is mentioned, with Graham expressing gratitude for her life and the ability to continue working and enjoying new experiences.

"Now that it's out of my system, I intend to live in the present. Looking forward to the future."

This quote signifies Catherine Graham's resolution to embrace the present and future, moving beyond the past and her own written reflections on it.

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