As the owner and publisher of the Washington Post in the current move, “The Post,” Katherine Graham, as played by Meryl Streep, is an important participant in the real-life drama of the Post’s publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers. The film also has glimpses of her involvement in the Washington social scene, including friendships with John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and Nancy Reagan among many others. Below are photographs of Graham herself and of Meryl Street as Graham.
U.S. Preparation for War, 1941
In or about late May 1941 Katherine’s husband, Phillip (“Phil”) Graham, was finishing clerkships for U.S. Supreme Court Justices Stanley F. Reed (1939-40) and Felix Frankfurter (1940-41) and finding his next position in the midst of the increasing threat of the U.S.’ becoming involved in what became World War Ii. In that search Phil met with Robert Lovett, then Assistant Secretary of War for Air, who suggested Phil see about working for HH, who was President Roosevelt’s principal assistant.
That June Phil met with HH, who was in failing health, at his bedroom/office in the White House. HH immediately asked, “Why the hell aren’t you in the Army?” Phil responded that the Head of Naval Intelligence had advised him to wait a few months before deciding how to become directly involved in the war effort. Eventually HH suggested that Phil talk with Oscar Cox about working for him at the Lend-Lease Administration while spending three days a week with HH.
Phil already had tentative arrangements to work for Cox and did so shortly thereafter. Cox said that working directly for HH probably would not have worked out. According to Cox, “HH was a peculiar cuss, worked very irregularly, and probably would never get a real assistant.”
While at Lend-Lease, apparently in August 1941, Phil (age 26) and Joe Rauh, Jr.,(age 29), the latter of whom later became a prominent civil rights lawyer, sent a memo to President Roosevelt advising immediate and significant increases in U.S. production of bombers for the war. HH immediately responded: “You shouldn’t bother the President with things like this and besides it isn’t true.” Phil and Joe were worried that their Washington careers were over so they went to see Bob Nathan, director of research at the Office of Production Management and learned that U.S. production of bombers was even worse than they had thought.
That same summer, on a Sunday afternoon, Phil and Katherine went for lunch at the Virginia log cabin owned by Burling. Also present was Robert Patterson, the Undersecretary of War, and according to Katherine’s memoir, “the arguments on preparedness were being waged at the top of everyone’s lungs. Of course, I worried that Patterson was unused to this mode of discourse and would think that everyone arguing was insane, and when we got home I told Phil that their manners in front of this august figure had been appalling.” (Emphasis added.) Whose manners was she referencing? The Burlings? Everyone at the gathering except for Mr. Patterson?
Personal Involvement with Mr. Burling
In the Fall of 1959 while attending the Washington Semester at American University I called Mr. Burling to thank him for his generous donation to Grinnell College for its new library that is named in honor of his mother. At his invitation, I joined him at his law firm for an enjoyable conversation over coffee and then after being picked up by his personal chauffeur, at his Cabin on a Sunday afternoon. Little did I know at the time that such a Sunday afternoon had become a famous Washington institution. I do not recall our conversations other than my talking about my studies at Grinnell and AU, but I do remember how Burling, then 89 years old and clad in a wool plaid shirt, vigorously chopped wood on a beautiful fall afternoon. (Now I wish I had been journaling to document these meetings.)
Edward Burling’s Death
On October 3, 1996, Edward B. Burling died at age 96 in Washington Hospital Center. According to an editorial in his honor in the Post that Graham may have helped write, Burling’s “greatest diversion was a primitive log cabin that he built some 40 years ago on the shore of the Potomac near McLean. During the ‘30s and ‘40’s the cabin served as a meeting place for scores of scholars and diplomats and leaders. ‘They would gather to chop wood, eat well, and settle the problems of the world,’” said one of his law partners.
His obituary in the Post also mentioned that his introduction to politics came when he sat on a rafter at the 1896 Chicago convention of the Democratic Party and heard William Jennings Bryan deliver his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. Later Burling supported Teddy Roosevelt’s presidential candidacy in 1912 for the Progressive Party (a/k/a the Bull Moose Party), and subsequently Burling often described himself as the sole survivor of that Party. A few months after the end of World War I, Burling co-founded what became the prominent Covington & Burling (“C&B”) law firm (n/k/a Covington). He strongly opposed FDR’s New Deal and often joked that the law firm’s success was due to those measures. He was a lifelong Republican yet was a strong supporter of Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election against Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee.
The very unusual Post editorial about Burling that was simply entitled “Edward B. Burling” said he was the city’s “grand old man of the law [who from] the days when he was graduated from Harvard Law School in 1894, with one of the best records ever made there, he had been an outstanding legal scholar. And with the law as the base of his operations, he also exerted a substantial influence in the fields of business, government and community relations.”
The editorial also stated that at the C&B law firm the “scholarly and retiring Mr. Burling, who made a specialty of cultivating and training brilliant young lawyers, was chiefly responsible for keeping the firm’s performance at a high level of professional excellence.”
The Burling cabin captured further comment in the editorial. “For many years his cabin on the Potomac . . . was a center of cerebral ferment on Sunday afternoons. Following a morning tramp through the woods and a hearty meal he loved to join in lively debate with judges, lawyers, government officials and others in the quiet surroundings of ‘The Cabin.’ These sessions will long be remembered by a vast number of his associates and friends in high places.” The conclusion of the editorial stated, “His great achievement was not merely longevity, but a sustained flow of energy and ideas and a passionate interest in the problems of humanity. His monument is already built in the minds of his associates and in the annals of this world observation post.”
Inspired by my brief encounter with Mr. Burling, his generosity to our alma mater Grinnell College and my interest in history, I later conducted research about him and wrote his biographical sketch in The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law (p. 85) and a short article about him for The Grinnell Magazine and a longer essay that is on file with the College’s Archives. These matters will be explored in subsequent posts.
 Obituary, Edward F. [sic] Burling, dies at 96; Founder of District Law Firm, Wash. Post, p. B4 (Oct. 4, 1966); Editorial, Edward B. Burling, Wash. Post (Oct. 5, 1966).
 Edward Burnham Burling, Grinnell’s Quiet Benefactor, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2009, at 21; Edward Burnham Burling, The College’s Quiet Benefactor (April 2008)( 18-page essay and bibliography; on file in Grinnell College’s Special Collections and Archives). The last of these has citations to the sources.