John C. Danforth: In Celebration of the Life of Katharine Graham
Of the many words written this last week, one sentence deserves special attention. It’s from Katharine Graham’s obituary in the Post:
“Mrs. Graham was often described as the most powerful woman in the world, a notion she dismissed out of hand.”
Let’s reflect on this sentence in the context of where we are: we are in a church.
This splendid cathedral is the perfect place to honor a great person. But, however splendid, it’s a church. This is a service of worship, and this part of the service is the homily. A homily testifies both to the person we remember, and the faith we proclaim.
So let’s think of Katherine Graham and the faith of the church. Especially, let’s think about the notion she dismissed out of hand.
I don’t know that Kay said much about religion. But, in our faith what people say isn’t nearly as important as how they live. Kay Graham lived the way a believer is supposed to live.
Jesus said, “In my father’s house are many rooms”—big rooms—in the King James version, “mansions.” That’s the opposite of our sectarian pigeon holes. There’s all kinds of space to live faithful lives, and Kay lived a faithful life.
She dismissed out of hand the notion that she was the most powerful woman in the world. That is an astonishing statement in this town. It may even be a first. No one in Washington dismisses the notion of his own power, ever. It’s just not done. It may never have been done by anyone else in the history of Washington.
The idea in Washington is to claim power you don’t have, not deny the power you do have.
Kay said, “It is certainly the publisher’s responsibility to see that the paper is complete, accurate, fair and as excellent as possible.” But she did not lord it over people. In her word, the idea that she would tell an editor what to print and what not to print was “crazy.”
A lot of people have said how unassuming Kay was. Her greatness was simply there. It wasn’t something to be thrust on people.
I don’t recall which world leader was the guest of honor at the first dinner party we attended at her home. I do recall Kay ringing a glass to make her welcoming remarks and Lally whispering to me, “She hated this part.” She did not want to be the center of attention, even at her own party in her own home.
She was the opposite of what we see so often: people elbowing their way to the front. In Washington, especially, a lot of people strut. Kay did not strut.
Instead of grabbing power for herself, Kay empowered others. At the Post, for sure—by letting the editors make decisions.
And she empowered the nation. If knowledge is power, giving the public knowledge is giving the public power.
American democracy isn’t esoteric. We can learn everything we need to know about government, if only we take the time to read a good newspaper. The Washington Post is a very good newspaper.
If you serve in Congress, the first thing you do each morning is read the Post. Then you go to the Capitol and hear from others what they have read.
The Senate Intelligence Committee hears secret testimony in a bubble room with steel doors. I can’t remember ever hearing anything in that room I hadn’t first read in the Post.
The Post opens the doors of Washington to the American people—even the steel doors. That gives enormous power to the public to control government. It’s the great legacy of Kay Graham.
These, then, are some thoughts about Kay. She was not taken with her own power. She didn’t call attention to herself She empowered others and gave them credit. She empowered all of us to be better citizens of our country.
In sum, she lived as a believer is supposed to live.
The model for Christians is the Lord who had everything, even equality with God, but did not exploit it for himself. St. Paul says Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a servant.
St. Paul tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
That is the way believers are supposed to live.
St. Paul says that because Jesus did not exploit his position, God has highly exalted him. It is the paradox celebrated in every church funeral. The Lord who gave of himself, even unto death, is the risen Lord. We do not attain the victory of life by selfishness. Victory is for those who give themselves to causes beyond themselves.
It is very biblical and very true that “Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” That is a text for all of us. It was lived by Katharine Graham.