Personal History

One of my pastimes of the long, depressing spring (which was, sadly, not nearly as depressing as this summer is turning out to be) was to read, for the first time, Katharine Graham’s rightfully acclaimed memoir, Personal History. While reading it, Barbara Bush died. At the same time, accolades and admiration continued for The Crown and praise for the House of Windsor continued in the lead-up to the Royal wedding.

I thought about Graham, Bush, and the British Royal Family a lot as a consequence. In this moment of political turmoil, it’s interesting to turn back to these conservative figures who embodied (and continue to embody) the meaning of conservatism: the desire to preserve the culture of the past.

No feminist at first, Graham was slow to come into her own power. She was slow even to realize the damaging and dangerous hold her charismatic but mentally unstable husband had over her. Raised to imagine herself a wife and helpmeet, she continually describes her content at being one. Even when her women friends take her aside and fête her because they worry that her husband puts her down too much, she professes herself astonished at this observation, one she claims to have been new to her. Yet, in her husband’s final illness and then, after he committed suicide, she realized how profoundly committed she was to the success of The Washington Post. The rest, you probably know: Watergate, bravery, friendship with Warren Buffet, the Black and White Ball (she was the honoree), a long and prosperous old age.

When I was young, people talked about these figures, these stately women who slowly rose to authority, with derision. The cool ones were the men on Harleys, the women who ran away. I love rebels, too, but it makes sense to me now that when we talk about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, it’s not as a precursors the sexual revolution, but as spoiled fascists whose abdication was not merely the abdication of a stupid formality but the abdication of adult responsibility. It might indeed be a new kind of awful to be born so privileged that your future was set forward for you—as a monarch, as the publisher of a newspaper, as the bearer of your family’s name and legacy. But I think it makes sense that in this moment, when almost no one bears that kind of burden, we are interested anew in the people, maybe even particularly the women, who accept that mantle with all its limitations and all its possibilities.