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Legendary Washington Post chief Kay Graham dies

BOISE, Idaho (CNN) -- Katharine Graham, who led the Washington Post to journalistic fame by supporting the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate coverage, died Tuesday. She was 84.

Graham fell on a sidewalk Saturday in Sun Valley, Idaho, and suffered critical head injuries that required emergency surgery; she never regained consciousness.

Graham was attending a business conference for executives at Idaho's Sun Valley resort. She died Tuesday morning of internal bleeding with her family at her bedside, a spokeswoman for St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center said. A service is planned for 11 a.m. Monday at Washington National Cathedral.

Graham's appearance on CNN's Larry King Live in 1997, and peers lauding her Tuesday (July 17)

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Former First Lady Nancy Reagan remembers Katharine Graham on CNN's Larry King Live

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Henry Kissinger recalls Graham as his "good friend" despite their differences  
Message board: Remembering Katharine Graham  

Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Washington Post at a bankruptcy sale during the Depression and later made her husband, Philip Graham, its publisher.

After her husband committed suicide in 1963, Graham took over the paper and with only minimal experience in the business led it to a place in journalism history.

First she published the Pentagon Papers, the secret government study of the Vietnam War, at a time the Nixon administration was trying to block it in court. A year or so later, in 1972, she was steadfast in her support when two metro staff reporters -- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- broke the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to President Nixon's resignation.

"Watergate is a particular incident that happened that you couldn't imagine like it again," Graham once said.

Her role in that story was the support she put behind her editor, Ben Bradlee, and the reporting team that kept scooping the opposition in the weeks and months leading to the finding of the "smoking gun" disclosures that forced Nixon from office.

"I used to go down there and say, 'Are we being sure we're being fair, we're being accurate? Are we sure we're not being misled so somebody can cut us off at the knees?' And Ben's answers were very good to that," Graham said.

"I did my best to learn, but I made many mistakes. It was very hard ... hard on me; hard on people around me."

Bradlee once said of Graham: "She learned very well and very fast. You know she learned the way the rest of us learned, by making mistakes and not being scared of saying so."

Graham won her own Pulitzer Prize three years ago with her memoirs -- titled "Personal History." Her high school yearbook predicted she would "become a big shot in the newspaper racket."

Katharine Graham
Graham took over the Post after her husband's death: "I did my best to learn .... It was very hard ... hard on me; hard on people around me," she recalled.  

Bradlee praised Graham Tuesday for steering the Post "on a course to excellence that can't be beat. She was the most famous publisher of her day, not only the most famous, but the best. She was a star, one of a kind."

Carl Bernstein echoed that sentiment. "She took a newspaper that was not the best newspaper in the city at the time and she turned it into this amazing instrument that stands for the best in journalism," he said.

President Bush praised Graham as "the beloved first lady of Washington journalism."

"She was a true leader and a true lady, steely yet shy, powerful yet humble, known for her integrity and always gracious and generous to others," Bush said.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Graham "a symbol of integrity, courage and of high quality."

"She was one of the greatest citizens of our country of the past half-century," said Robert McNamara, defense secretary under Kennedy and Johnson who was a major Vietnam policy maker during the period chronicled by the Pentagon Papers.

"Kay was an extraordinary person," said former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. "As a bereaved widow, [she] surprised everyone with her strength to take over the Washington Post to make it one of the world's great newspapers. She is greatly admired, of course, everywhere in the very competitive world of politics and publishing."

Howard Kurtz, media writer for the Post and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," said a "pall was over the newsroom" as news of her death spread. He called Graham a "remarkable woman" who was "willing to roll the dice" and play ball on the "largely male turf" of newsroom executives.

"She was a gutsy woman who came to work even at the age of 84," Kurtz said.

He said she would be most remembered for two events: publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 even after the New York Times was told it couldn't, and for hiring Bradlee and backing him up during the Watergate scandal.

Cronkite praised her for "letting Bradlee do his job" during Watergate, adding "it took a lot of courage for her to do that."

"The publisher has to be the moral force of the newspaper," Cronkite said. "She carried herself as a queen ... and she was a queen in her own field."

Walter Isaacson, chairman and CEO of CNN News Group, said: "Mrs. Graham was an important and remarkable person in our profession and all of us lucky enough to know her are deeply saddened by her untimely death."

His predecessor, former Los Angeles Times Publisher Tom Johnson, called her "one of the most remarkable leaders in the history of the American media. When courage was needed, she had it. When support for her journalists was expected, she never wavered."

Today, Graham's son, Donald, carries on the family's legacy as board chairman of the Washington Post Co., a position his mother held for 20 years.

• The Washington Post
• Watergate Supersite
• Watergate 25 years later (Washington Post)
• The Pentagon Papers case (FindLaw)

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