Ex Post, factos

Sam Smith

Whatever happens to the Washington Post under its new owner, it won’t be the paper whose story over the past decades would, from time to time, cross my own.

It began in the 1940s when two young boys went to public elementary school together. One later became a mainstream journalist and was the son of a man who would become managing editor of the Washington Post. The other became a journalistic rebel and editor of this journal.

My relations with the Post were never neat. I admired Post managing editor Alfred Friendly Sr. greatly but visiting his house as a young radio reporter, I was shocked to hear him tell how he had discussed with the White House how to handle the story of Walter Jenkins, the gay White House aided just found sexually engaged at the YMCA. I didn’t think journalists cut deals like that.

And I got along pretty well with Don until the day I told him what I thought about the pressmen’s strike. It was always a little tough after that.

I even dated his sister Lally – mother of the current Post publisher – a couple of times, which is how, I suppose, I got to go to one of the most remarkable events of my life.

Just before I left for my first assignment as a Coast Guard officer, a party was given at a farm in Middleburg, Virginia for Liza Lloyd Mellon. Prior to the ball, I was invited to the farm of Phil and Katherine Graham.

Arriving at the Grahams about an hour before sunset, I found drinks being served on a lawn overlooking dark green hills. There were only a few debutantes around but there were Mr. And Mrs. John Kenneth Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Bobby Kennedy, the William Paleys and Joseph Alsop. In a letter later I noted that “Mrs. Paley looked like the eleventh best dressed woman in the United States trying to make the list of the ten best dressed women in the United States. This was quite unnecessary since she is already on it.”

On a hill near the Mellon’s home were about a score of brightly colored tents of medieval design, sleeping quarters for the male guests. Each tent had a wooden raised floor, 15 cots, and an ashtray for every occupant. Several of the tents had been made into heads with showers and electric outlets for shavers included. Another tent housed two separate catering operations. There was room in this canvas city for 268 male souls. The local Episcopal rectory had been renovated for the women.

The main house contained not only the Mellons but an art gallery whose properties ranged from Renoir to Pissarro to Picasso. A large society orchestra alternated with Count Basie’s band until six a.m. The fastest omelet maker in France, flown in for the evening, was equally indefatigable. A half-hour of fireworks and a brief visit by Jacqueline Kennedy (who seemed more interested in Rousseau, Pissarro and Picasso than in the other names present) gave a redundant gloss to the evening.

Towards six am we wandered towards a large yellow tent to rest. My old grade school buddy, Al Friendly Jr, crawled onto a cot still in his white dinner jacket, pulling the covers up as if he bedded down in this fashion every night, and went to sleep.

By eight I was up for breakfast: a bottle of beer and scrambled eggs. One of the caterers told me he had never seen anything like this, either. As our minute Agincourt came to life and spirits returned, we took off again for the Grahams and a swim in their pond. Upon arriving on the second floor to change into a swimming suit, I found Joseph Alsop crawling on his knees searching for something in the hall. He got up, mumbled, “I can’t seem to find his shoes” and returned to his bedroom.

After a morning in the sun, we went back to the Mellons for lunch. A hefty buffet had been laid out and twin pianos played for the benefit of those still strong enough to dance. As I left at three-thirty, the omelet maker was still hard at work.

By the late 1960s things were alot different. I was editing an alternative paper and Graham, just out of the military, came around to my office to discuss what he was going to do with his life. One of the options was to join the police department. I attempted to discourage him but to no avail. He took the job and ended up in my own precinct and with my own office on his beat. He and his partner would show up occasionally to chat, a bit embarrassing for the editor of a 1960s underground publication. I assumed Graham was filing reports about me with someone. In any case, Officer Don Graham would continue to ignore my advice in his later employment as publisher of the Washington Post.

I might have ended up at the Post myself, because I was offered a job that I turned down – afraid that I would have to resign from the 1960s. Over the years I would have friends and non-friends at the Post. Bill Raspberry and Coleman McCarthy were more than kind to me; others seem to think I was a nut.

One of the columnists for the DC Gazette (forerunner of the Review) was Tom Shales. In one of his columns he wrote, “Of course, the Post is so riddled with flaws and shortcomings, it is hard to know where to start, and I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t. From its snobbishly inadequate under-coverage of the District itself, to the helter-skelter disorganization of national and international news within the paper, the Post is a compendium of journalistic ambiguity and short-shifts to the community one assumes it is supposed to serve.”

Shales would later be hired by the Post, eventually becoming its Pulitzer Prize winning TV critic, but would, for some time, continue writing his Gazette column under the pseudonym of Egbert Sousé . . . until he is discovered and ordered to cease.

I even wrote an occasional op ed piece for the Post, but with the arrival of the Clintons that all ended. An article I wrote in May 1992 suggesting that the Democrats dump Clinton while there was still time was not well received by my liberal colleagues. Earlier that same spring I ran into Don Graham on 15th Street. He asked me whom I was supporting in the Democratic primaries. When I said Jerry Brown, the publisher of the Washington Post grabbed my arm and waved it in the air shouting to the cars and pedestrians, “I’ve found one! I’ve found a real live Brown supporter!”

As I continued to cover the Clinton scandals, I was dropped as a guest by Fox Morning News. A Washington Post reporter told me casually that, yes, she guessed I was on that paper’s blacklist. There was an end of invitations to C-SPAN after two appearances were canceled at the last minute, presumably by someone more powerful than the host who had invited me. My speech during the first protest over Bosnia was the only one deleted from C-SPAN’s coverage of that event – even a folk singer saying that she was the “warmup band for Sam Smith” was left in. I received a long phone call from the host of a local Pacifica talk show berating me for what I written about Clinton, I was banned from the local NPR station and was graced with mocking suggestions by other journalists that I was a conspiracy theorist and becoming paranoiac. They didn’t bother coming up with any proof.

From 1967 to today. I or the Review have been cited 110 times in the Washington Post, but only two of those times were in the past decade. When you fall out of grace with the Post you fall hard.

One other thing. In 2004 I gave up our print edition because of what the Internet was doing to traditional publishing. It only took Don Graham nine more years to catch up with me.

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