The Post depicts the story of The Washington Post journalists and their attempts to publish classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers, regarding the 30-year involvement of the United States government in the Vietnam War.
Eugene Meyer, a successful investor and speculator purchased the newspaper in a bankruptcy auction in 1933. The post was the fifth newspaper in a five-newspaper town, had a circulation of 50,000 and it was losing a million dollars a year. Eugene reinvigorated the paper before appointing his son in law Phillip Graham as publisher in 1946.
Phillip Graham attended Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review and earned a magna cum laude degree in 1939. In 1939–1940 he was law clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice Stanley F. Reed, and the following year he was clerk to Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had been one of his professors at Harvard.
In 1940 Phillip Graham married Eugene Meyer’s daughter Katherine (played by Meryl Streep in the Post). In 1948, Eugene Meyer transferred his actual control of the Post Company stock to his daughter and her husband. Katharine Graham received 30 per cent as a gift. Phil received 70 per cent of the stock, his purchase financed by his father-in-law.
During their marriage Katherine handled all domestic matters, whilst paying all the families living expenses from her own trust fund so Philip could pay back the debt he incurred buying even more Post stock.
Philip was by all accounts an astute businessman who broadened the company’s holdings with the purchase of radio and television stations as well as the news magazine Newsweek. The Grahams cultivated a social network that included Presidents and leading political figures in Washington DC. A heavy drinker Phillip suffered a severe manic episode in the late 1950’s. Following this episode he suffered bouts of depression that punctuated his often-brilliant abilities.
In 1962 Phillip began an extramarital relationship with a Newsweek Journalist. In 1963, at a newspaper publishing convention it was reported that he appeared on stage at a dinner inebriated, manic or both. His doctor was flown in by private jet; Philip was sedated, bound in a straitjacket, and flown back to Washington; Where he was committed for five days to a psychiatric hospital.
Phillip announced to his friends that he planned to divorce his wife and immediately remarry his mistress, and indicated that he wanted to purchase sole control of the Post Company.
Phillip told people that he planned to cut Kay out of the Post and hand it over to his mistress. He changed his will to leave a third of his estate to his mistress and the remainder to his children. Then he changed it again cutting the children’s share to one third and increasing the mistress’s to two thirds. His lawyer realised that Philip was not of “sound mind” and completed file notes stating that Philip was mentally ill, when he was preparing the Will.
In June, in a fit of depression, Philip broke off his affair and returned home. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and formally diagnosed with manic depression (bipolar disorder). On August 3, 1963, Philip appeared according to Katherine to be “quite noticeably much better”; he was allowed to leave the hospital for a weekend at the families farmhouse where he committed suicide with a shotgun.
Katharine Graham’s lawyer challenged the legality of Philip’s last will, written in 1963. The judge admitted Philip’s 1957 Will to probate, which left 55% of the voting control in the Washington post company to Katherine.
In June 1971, The New York Times started publishing the Pentagon Papers. After a few days, a federal judge imposed a temporary restraining order, on the Times
The Washington Post editors were eager to get their own copy of the Pentagon Papers. However the Washington Post Company was preparing to list on the stock exchange, raising legitimate concerns that the company could face harsh retribution from federal regulators if it published the Pentagon Papers while The New York Times was restrained from doing so.
The Post obtained its own copy of the Pentagon Papers the editorial staff and reporters urged Katherine to publish the papers, but the lawyers concerned that the company including its newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations was at stake advised a more cautious approach. In her Autobiography Katherine recalled that after deliberating the risks of publication
“Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.”
The United States Supreme Court, in a decision now considered a major triumph for freedom of the press voted 6 to 3 in June 1971 against restraining publication of the Pentagon Papers on the ground of endangering national security.
This may not have happened if Philips Will of 1963 was admitted to probate.