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The Captain Ahabs of the Washington Post

From the Scrapbook

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06
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In fact, the Post’s extensive coverage over the past four years of the Cheney-Whittington episode stands in curious contrast to its relative lack of interest in the shotgun death, in 1963, of Philip Graham, the Post’s publisher and husband of its proprietary heiress, Katharine Graham. Philip Graham was deeply disturbed, had been hospitalized during psychotic episodes, and evidently committed suicide. But there was an enormous legal battle after his death over the status of his will—contested by his widow—which, of course, set the course for the Post’s subsequent history, and affected not a few prominent lives and careers. 

Now that Paul Farhi is between assignments, how about the full investigative treatment?

The Culture of Complaint

The Scrapbook has been dipping into the new collection Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (Public-Affairs) and can highly recommend it. A tip of our homburg to editor Steven R. Weisman for including this letter of complaint from the late senator to Brooks Brothers, dated November 24, 1980:

Sirs: As a customer of thirty-five years standing this spring (I bought my ensign’s outfit from you!), I hope you won’t mind this friendly “return.” [The ensign’s outfit refers to Moynihan’s Navy duty from 1944-47.] As I have gotten older, with less time available for shopping, and somewhat more credit, I have taken to buying socks, shirts and sundries in rather large quantities. Such is your quality control that they tend to go on seemingly indestructible and then collapse in the manner of the one-horse shay [a reference to Oliver Wendell -Holmes’s poem, The Wonderful “One-Hoss Shay”].

In just such a manner a complete wardrobe purchased for India [where Moynihan served as U.S. ambassador from 1973-75] lasted four and one-half years and then disappeared in a fortnight. The point of the tale is that last spring before a trip to the Middle East, I stopped at your downtown store and stocked up on various items. I bought one dozen socks, one of which I enclose. All of them developed holes within a month. Of the kind you will see. This is something I know you would want to know about, and which I would like made up for in whatever manner you think best.

The Scrapbook has written such a letter now and then and must acknowledge that Moynihan’s is a classic of the form: light-hearted as well as aggrieved, testifying to the general excellence of the company’s products (this one regrettable lapse aside), and intimating that as a client of long-standing who buys in bulk, he should deserve some loyalty in return. We like to think a suitably abashed Brooks Brothers executive apologized and credited his account at least for the amount of the socks, if not more. Alas, as with almost all such collections of correspondence, the letter in reply is lost to history.

Coincidentally, we note that a survey of 2,000 Britons publicized in the Daily Mail of October 8 found that “over-50s” tend to “write an average of 2.9 letters of complaint per year, rising to 3.5 for the over-60s, compared to just 1.8 by those in their 20s.” Our guess is that the numbers are lower, if similarly distributed by age, in the United States. 

The letter of complaint, in short, may be a dying form. Instead we have the rise of the retailers’ pre-emptive strike: the extremely annoying “customer feedback” forms that the cash-register clerks foist on us with increasing frequency, not to mention automated email requests following our online purchases insisting that we take a couple of minutes out of our busy day to fill out a survey describing our “customer experience,” because “your satisfaction is our highest priority.” The Scrapbook would like to know who we can complain to about this trend.



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