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A Big Bipartisan Birthday Bash in D.C. : Even President Reagan Celebrates With Publisher Katharine Graham

July 02, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Media stars Mike Wallace and Art Buchwald chartered a plane from Martha's Vineyard to attend. Malcolm Forbes came from Manhattan in his helicopter, bearing a birthday gift bottle of 1916 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) hobbled in on crutches after knee surgery. Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot flew in from some foreign land. One-fourth of the Supreme Court ambled in.

It was the kind of special homage usually paid only to the President at an Inaugural in this town. But Tuesday night, the honored guest was Washington Post Co. chairman Katharine Graham, celebrating her 70th birthday at a glittery dinner hosted by her four children in the cavernous Departmental Auditorium. President Reagan was there, too, but not as the center of attention. He was dancing with Graham, dining with her and toasting her.

'Very Kindly Person'

Reagan lauded Graham as a "sensitive, thoughtful and very kindly person," and added, Humphrey Bogart-style:

"Here's looking at you, kid."

In his tribute to Graham before the throng of 600, Buchwald said, "There's one word that brings us all together here. And that word is fear. "

Indeed, even those who have not had the best of times on the pages of the Washington Post--such as embattled lobbyist Mike Deaver and former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane--strode in wearing tuxedos and big photographer-directed smiles. Henry Kissinger, who certainly was not a fan of the Post during the Watergate era, arrived and said, "I really am very fond of Katharine Graham."

Whether you call it fear or respect, one never would have said such a thing 21 years ago when Graham was the honored guest at another party that would go down in history: Truman Capote's masked ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

At that time, Capote was introducing a shy widow to New York society, one who had lost her powerful husband, Philip L. Graham, to suicide three years previously after his long bout with mood swings in the days before a medication, lithium carbonate, was available to control the illness.

Graham's death in 1963 left homemaker-mother Kay Graham, in charge of a publishing empire that included Newsweek magazine and the Washington Post. Over the years, friends and foes marveled as Graham underwent a transformation from an inexperienced widow to one of the toughest and most successful media managers in American history.

It was under Graham's direction that the Post effectively toppled President Richard M. Nixon with the Watergate story and became one of the most influential and financially successful newspapers in the country. Graham herself may be the most successful businesswoman in the country, one of the few to appear regularly in the upper spheres of the Fortune 500 list.

"I think she's made women very proud," television reporter Barbara Walters said on her way in. "She started her career after being a wife and mother and did such a good job that she's one of the most admired women in the country. And deservedly so."

Comparing Then and Now

Arriving at the party, Graham was asked how she would compare the Kay Graham of the 1966 party with the Kay Graham of the 70th birthday party.

"I wouldn't," she replied.

Her sentiments on turning 70?

"Ambivalent," she said. "Nobody likes to be that age."

But the turnout--West German First Lady Hannelore Kohl, Cabinet secretaries Caspar Weinberger, James Baker, Elizabeth Dole and Malcolm Baldridge, CIA Director William Webster, media giants Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times, Otis Chandler of Times Mirror and William Paley of CBS; business moguls Roger Smith of General Motors, John Akers of IBM, Akio Morita of Sony and Donald Peterson of Ford--made the landmark birthday a bit easier to tolerate. Graham was wearing an Oscar de la Renta and dining with Oscar de la Renta from a menu of salmon, beef filet with cucumber sauce, summer vegetables, birthday cake, sherbet and strawberries. She danced with Secretary of State George Shultz. "It's nice to have so many friends," said Graham, who had spent her actual birthday, June 16, in the quiet of Yosemite National Park.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn., who used to argue with Graham over stories when he was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson, reflected on the party Wednesday morning, saying, "I don't think that, other than the President of the United States, anyone could have brought together that kind of a party except Katharine Graham. It was an aggregate of the best and the best-known, and it was, in a strange way, unstuffy. It was warm and congenial and people mixed easily."

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