Saturday, November 29, 2014

On Religious Extremism and Misunderstanding Faith

Considering how effortlessly religious dogma has become intertwined with political ideology, how can we overcome the clash-of-monotheisms mentality that has so deeply entrenched itself in the modern world? Clearly, education and tolerance are essential. ― Reza Aslan
As the son of a Lutheran minister and the father of two Jewish daughters, I have been intimately connected to religion and faith for most of my life. I have attended many worship services in churches and synagogues and have attempted to educate myself on the diverse religions and tapestry of faith that make the world a uniquely interesting place. I am sensitive to misunderstandings and assumptions made by people of one faith about people of another. Ignorance abounds on all sides. But never is this truer than when discussing Islam and terrorism.

A casual follower of the news could be forgiven for believing that Islam is synonymous with violence, or that all Muslims are extremists who advocate terror and violent jihad. The videotaped beheadings of American journalists and reports of the slaughter of innocents in villages and towns overrun by ISIS forces in recent months were horrifying and shocking. Emotional responses and outbursts are entirely understandable. Indeed, these acts of terror had the intended effect of provoking an American military response and drawing us back into a civil war we hoped was behind us.

ISIS is just another link in a long list of Arab and Muslim terrorist groups. From the “Islamic State” to al-Qaeda and Boka Haram, thousands of self-proclaimed Muslims boast of carrying out God’s will as defined by their extremist interpretations of the Quran. Some of the most oppressive societies on Earth are in Muslim-majority countries. Saudi Arabia, certain provinces in Pakistan, and the Taliban regions of Afghanistan are among the worst oppressors of women and violators of international human rights. And while all major religions have fundamentalist, rigid, and oppressive elements, it does seem that Islam must contend with religious extremism to a far greater degree.

And yet, I am deeply troubled by the manner in which Islam is so often painted with an unfairly broad brush, as if all of the world’s Muslims share the hateful ideology and deranged notions of jihad espoused by the radicals of ISIS. To brand all of Islam with the ideology of the extremists is not only wrong, it is counterproductive, disdainful of religion in general and Islam in particular, and does nothing to promote peaceful dialogue and understanding.

While much anti-Islamic sentiment stems from the right, none other than liberal comedian Bill Maher has contributed to the recent voices of religious bigotry. Last month, Maher criticized President Obama for contending in a speech before the United Nations that Muslims who adopt the ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS are “betraying” true Islam, “not defending it.” Obama suggested that “Islam teaches peace” and embraces “a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder.” He called on Muslims worldwide to “offer an alternative vision” to the propaganda that coerces some “to travel abroad to fight their wars” and pledged that the United States would “increase efforts to lift up those who counter extremist ideology, and seek to resolve sectarian conflict.”

Maher insists that Obama is wrong, and that it is time to call Islam what it is: a religion of hate and violence. Of course, Maher is a zealous anti-religionist, an equal opportunity critic of all religion, Christianity and Judaism included. So, it has been amusing to see some on the right embrace Maher’s statements concerning Islam, while ignoring his overly-broad generalizations of Christians as essentially anti-science morons who believe in fairy tales. Maher’s view of religion is black-and-white; he leaves no room for a nuanced understanding of faith and ignores the many expressions of Christianity that fully embrace science and evolution. He seems not to understand or care about the more sophisticated scholarship historically associated with Catholic and mainline Protestant theology.

His view of Islam is no better. Maher grossly oversimplifies complex events in which religion is but one element, and often a sideshow at that. So intent is he to blame religion that he fails even to properly acknowledge that the forces of extremism are most prevalent in regions of extreme poverty, where violence and oppression have simmered for centuries and where violent upheavals are motivated as much by politics, geography, and economics as by religion. His blanket condemnation of Islam, without distinguishing the peaceful voices of moderation from the radical voices of extremism, is pointless. It obscures an important and necessary dialogue about the role of religion in society, the problem with religious fundamentalism, and the need to better reconcile the modern world with scriptural passages that are so often misinterpreted and misapplied, or viewed literally, without historical context, and without attempting to reconcile conflicting passages.

While extremist ideology is and has been a particularly acute problem within certain Islamic communities, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not extremists. The religion of Islam embraces more than 1.5 billion people around the world – people from every race and nationality (Americans included). Large Muslim populations exist not only in several Middle Eastern countries, but also in such diverse nations as India, Turkey, Tunisia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, Kosovo, Albania, and other parts of Asia, and north and central Africa. In the United States, two members of the House of Representatives – Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andres Carson of Indiana – are Muslim. And while the United States has yet to elect a female President, there have been seven female heads of state of Muslim-majority countries.

As author and religion scholar Reza Aslan has noted, many “critics of religion tend to exhibit an inability to understand religion outside of its absolutist connotations. They scour holy texts for bits of savagery and point to extreme examples of religious bigotry . . . to generalize about the causes of oppression throughout the world.” The Quran, the Torah, and the Bible each require a large degree of interpretation to make sense of their many conflicting passages, and to render them meaningful in modern times. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the same God that commands Jews to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) also orders them to kill the Amalekites: “Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:3). In the New Testament, while Jesus told his disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), he also told them that he had “not come to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34), and that “he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). And the same Quran that warns believers “if you kill one person it is as though you have killed all of humanity" (5:32) also commands them to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5).

How we reconcile conflicting passages and religious doctrine with the modern world says far more about us than our religion. American slaveholders frequently justified slavery by citing certain passages in the Bible, while  Christian abolitionists presented alternative scriptural passages to passionately condemn slavery. Many passages in the Bible were used for centuries to justify a patriarchal understanding of the relationship between husbands and wives, and men and women. But an alternative vision of feminist inspired theology in the 20th century has led many Christian and Jewish denominations to present a more egalitarian face to religious institutions. The same sorts of conflicts contained in verses within the Quran are being debated today in certain Muslim circles as part of an ongoing Islamic reformation.

In Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, it is necessary to distinguish how the faithful behave from how the faith teaches them to behave. If you are inclined towards violence and misogyny, you will find scriptural passages to validate your beliefs in both the Quran and the Bible. If you are a peaceful, non-violent person who believes in equality and has compassion for your fellow human beings, you also will find plenty of supporting verses. While one can find passages in the Quran that, interpreted literally, prescribe violence in defense of the faith, there are also numerous passages which ordain justice, mercy, charity, and tolerance.

To simplistically generalize about people of faith and conclude that the worst and most extreme elements of a particular religion represent the entire religion, is the very definition of bigotry and prejudice. Christians in particular should be careful not to paint Islam with such a broad brush. To say that the violent acts of Islamic extremists is the true face of Islam is no different than pointing to the actions of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Christian extremist group in northern Uganda accused of widespread murder, abduction, mutilation, and child sex slavery, as the true face of Christianity. Or claiming that centuries of Jewish persecution by Christians in Europe, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, accurately reflects true Christianity. Or that the people of the Westboro Baptist Church who hold signs at funerals that say things like “God Hates Fags” is somehow an accurate reflection of Christianity.

Fundamentalism is, and always has been, opposed to compassion, understanding, and pluralism. It is true of Christian fundamentalism and Jewish fundamentalism. In the case of Islamic fundamentalism, it is manifested in its oppressive treatment of women and the use of violence to achieve religious and political goals. While fundamentalism must be opposed everywhere, it should not be confused with the fundamental tenets of the religion. Just as there are liberal and conservative, progressive and fundamentalist versions of Christianity, there are “enlightened” and fundamentalist, moderate and reactionary versions of Islam.

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a complex religion with a wide variety of interpretations. I believe it imperative that we attempt to better understand the diverse factions of Islam so that we may better engage with the moderate and peaceful voices of the faith, and offer our support in its ongoing struggle with fundamentalism and extremism. There is no shortage of Islamic statements condemning terrorism, and a recently published letter from 120 leading Muslim scholars to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, states unequivocally that ISIS’s use of Islamic scripture is illegitimate and perverse.  As suggested by Reza Aslan, “What is most desperately needed is not so much a better appreciation of our neighbor’s religion as a broader, more complete understanding of religion itself.”

Monday, November 17, 2014

The New Republic and Modern American Liberalism

Liberalism wagers that a state . . . can be strong but constrained – strong because constrained. Rights to education and other requirements for human development and security aim to advance equal opportunity and personal dignity and to promote a creative and productive society. To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported a wider social and economic role for the state, counterbalanced by more robust guarantees of civil liberties and a wider social system of checks and balances anchored in an independent press and pluralistic society. – Paul Starr, The New Republic, March 5, 2007.
The New Republic is 100 years old this month. For a bi-weekly journal of opinion and the arts with an intellectual flare and a small subscription base, this is quite an accomplishment. Founded in 1914 by Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly and inspired by the reform impulses of Theodore Roosevelt then vibrating through American society, for the past century The New Republic has engaged in a vibrant debate over the essence of a good society and what makes life worth living. Although distinctly liberal in origin, it has in its philosophical leanings evolved, shifted, varied and, at times, contradicted itself in a manner to be expected of a journal that takes ideas and democracy seriously.

I first discovered The New Republic in the summer of 1981 when I was 22 years old. Only a month earlier I had graduated from Wittenberg University and been baptized into the “real world” of full-time employment, living in Houston and working as a financial accountant for a Texas-based oilfield services company. The job was dull and uninspiring, but one afternoon I wandered into the lobby of the 29th floor and noticed on a glass coffee table a magazine that looked unlike any other I had previously seen. The cover story immediately caught my attention. It concerned the rise of the New Right and the perils of Christian fundamentalism, matters of particular relevance to life in Texas and which explained, in part, America’s rightward tilt during the Reagan years. As I began reading, I was impressed immediately by the journal’s clear and eloquent prose, its understanding of history, and its pragmatic liberalism. It was beautifully written and filled with high-quality essays and articles on politics, society, religion, literature, and the arts. It was refreshingly liberal, but not ideological, and I soon learned that its editors despised dogmatism and were as critical of the far left as of the far right.

Each week that summer I searched out a new issue and read it cover to cover. I devoured every editorial, every article, every word. The writing was intelligent and accessible, offering commentary on everything from the continued relevance of John Maynard Keynes to the origins of the Enlightenment. It was lively and stimulating and introduced me to issues of which I had previously paid little attention – Israel and Zionism, the plight of Soviet Jewry, the historic struggle against South African apartheid. It explained and placed in context the internal debates within the Democratic Party over foreign policy and America’s proper role in the world, and the ideological divides within the Republican Party. The editors and contributors wrote sensibly on civil rights, civil liberties, education and the environment. And in the “back of the book” as it was called, one found intellectually engaging book reviews and essays on art, film, music, history and literature. I was hooked.

By the time I started law school at George Washington University in the fall of 1982, I was a loyal reader and subscriber. One day, hidden away in a quiet cubicle on the third floor of the Gelman Library, I wandered into the periodical section and discovered bound volumes of every past issue of The New Republic. Here I escaped into slices of history. I read essays by Walter Lippmann, Edmund Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Alfred Kazin, and James MacGregor Burns; editorials that addressed what were then contemporary issues of urgency – the two world wars, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, the later struggle for civil rights at home and, eventually, the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. I would return to this cubicle and venture into the periodicals time and again over the next three years, taking needed breaks from my legal studies.

For much of the past 33 years, I have continued to read and subscribe to this journal. It has inspired, educated and infuriated me – sometimes all at once. But it has always made me think. For more left-leaning liberals, The New Republic is a difficult partner, for it deviates too far and too often from what some might consider traditional liberal orthodoxy. On foreign affairs, military policy, and America’s response to perceived Soviet aggression (in the 1980’s) or Islamic extremism and international terrorism (since 9/11), the magazine’s editorial and published voices have sometimes drifted towards the neo-conservative camp. I have on occasion disagreed with the editorial proclamations of the magazine on these issues and have at times been perplexed by its choice of authors, but intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas is the very essence of liberal debate, a concept sometimes lost nowadays in elite intellectual circles on the left and the right (college campuses included).

Since its founding a century ago, The New Republic has been at the forefront of helping to define, mold, and influence American liberalism. As Editor Franklin Foer explained to The New York Times in 2011, The New Republic “invented the modern usage of the term ‘liberal.’ And it’s one of our historical legacies and obligations to be involved in the ongoing debate over what exactly liberalism means and stands for.” For me, it has been an essential resource in formulating and refining my own philosophical and political leanings.

As Princeton University professor Paul Starr, a contributor to The New Republic and the co-founder of The American Prospect has noted, liberalism is notoriously difficult to define, for it is not an ideology so much as a practical assessment of how to build a free, fair, and prosperous society. The liberalism espoused by The New Republic in the early 20th century was based partly on the belief that, as the country evolved from an agrarian based economy to one dominated by the modern corporation, and as American life became increasingly complex and dependent on the technological and industrial revolutions of the modern era, less relevant became Jeffersonian notions of libertarianism and individualism. The reforms and protections needed required a more Hamiltonian vision of American government, stronger and more centralized to properly and effectively address the many areas of neglect and exploitation that had resulted from unfettered capitalism and rising inequality.

At the turn of the 20th century, when Teddy Roosevelt was President, the United States enacted a series of progressive reforms intended to counter the excesses of the industrial age. Laws were enacted that restricted the use of child labor and exploitative working conditions, improved workplace safety, opposed monopolistic and unfair trade practices, and protected and preserved millions of acres of national parks and forests. Twenty-five years later, during the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt helped bring about much needed reforms to the banking and securities industries, created jobs through public works programs, and established social security insurance. The building of roads, bridges, tunnels, and, in the 1950’s, the interstate highway system, mobilized the nation’s commerce and connected every region and segment of the country. The War on Poverty and the civil rights laws in the 1960’s ended Jim Crow, created medical insurance for children and the poor, provided public housing and expanded the reach of education. Laws governing clean air, clean water, and food safety; laws against discrimination in the workplace; expansion of health care insurance, safe air traffic control  – these are just a few practical examples of how liberal reforms have made American life safer, fairer, and more secure.

Liberals believe that government can be used for good, to harness expert knowledge to solve problems in a way that will allow American prosperity to spread and grow fairly and equitably. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy said in a speech before the New York Liberal Party that, if by the term “liberal” one means “someone who cares about the welfare of the people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, their civil liberties . . . then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.” To Kennedy, a liberal was also one who believes “in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. . . . For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.”

Kennedy understood that, while “the fight to eliminate poverty and human exploitation is a fight that goes on in our day,” liberals accept the fundamental tenets of the free enterprise system and a certain degree of inequality. They understand that government is a human endeavor, and thus imperfect. It does not always get things right, or properly balance competing interests. Kennedy, as a practical liberal, remained open to further reforms and modifications and sought to allocate resources to the areas of greatest need. He was a liberal in the way I am a liberal and The New Republic is a “liberal” magazine. Liberals wish to address imperfections and injustices, but we are reformers, not revolutionaries. We do not endorse the concept of the superstate. “I abhor the waste and incompetence of large-scale federal bureaucracies,” said Kennedy in a 1960 speech cited favorably by The New Republic. “I do not favor state compulsion when voluntary individual effort can do the job and do it well. But I believe in a government which acts, which exercises its full powers and responsibilities. Government is an art and a precious obligation; and when it has a job to do, I believe it should do it.”

Authentic liberalism – not socialism, not left-wing radicalism – but the liberalism as generally articulated in The New Republic has developed with an understanding of how policies work in light of political, social, and economic realities. Experience shows that some government programs are more effective than others at achieving intended goals. The debate over the direction of modern liberalism must therefore be premised on how public policy works in practice not theory. As Paul Starr wrote in an April 2007 issue of The American Prospect:
Modern liberalism has never been ruled by a theory in the way that free-market conservatism and Marxian socialism have been. A pragmatic emphasis on experience and evidence – on how things work in practice – has been critical in making liberalism work. . . . Liberalism regards the well-being of the least well-off as a central criterion for a just society, and it seeks to provide individuals with some degree of protection against risks beyond their control; but it accepts inequalities insofar as they are to everyone’s long-run advantage, and therefore aims for sustainable growth with widely shared gains.
The struggle to define liberalism will continue to be fought on the pages of The New Republic for years to come. The arguments will undoubtedly shift from left to center and back, and labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” will not always apply. But it is an important debate because modern liberalism has brought about more forward progress in American society than any other political movement. And as we advance into the 21st century, the debate is one that will influence how we choose to allocate limited resources for the benefit of all of our citizens; remain true to our immigrant history as a light among the nations and still protect our national security and economic interests; address the stark environmental threats posed by climate change; remain united among an increasingly divided electorate; decide when to exert American military force; and define our proper role in the world.

There are no easy answers to these issues and no simple solutions. But I will remain engaged in the debate for as long as I am able to learn, think, listen, and question. And I have The New Republic to thank for helping me stay informed and engaged with the world for most of my adult life.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Quintessential Editor: Ben Bradlee (1921 - 2014)

When I read last week of the death of Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post from 1965 to 1991, I felt like I had lost a friend. I did not know Ben Bradlee and was never so much as in the same room as him. But he is among a very small group of men whom I have admired and respected from a distance, and perhaps even envied, if just a little. “Nobody’s had that kind of fun,” Bradlee once said about his own life. “It’s illegal.”

Bradlee engendered enthusiasm and a zest for life. He was style and substance. He possessed the gruff street smarts of an international jewel thief and the elegance of an upper crust Harvard man. He combined grace and sincerity, intelligence and unpretentiousness. He was, as Douglass Cater of The Reporter once said, “Humphrey Bogart in a button-down shirt.” He swore like the ex-sailor he was, and especially disliked pompous asses, liars and phonies. And I always liked that about him.

He inspired a generation of young reporters, men and women who entered journalism because of the Pentagon Papers, or Watergate, or after watching All the President’s Men. Bradlee epitomized what it means to be a news reporter – tough but fair, willing to take risks but careful with the facts, never willing to sacrifice the truth for a political or social agenda. He was all about getting the story and getting it right. “There’s nothing like a good story,” he once said. “If it’s true, and if you’ve got it, and you can get some more, you’re in business.”

In The Powers that Be (Laurel, 1979), David Halberstam wrote of Bradlee that, “if someone were looking for a dashing, somewhat rakish journalist, then Bradlee was perfect for the part.” Perhaps “more than anyone else in contemporary journalism, [Bradlee] was good at the theater of his profession, the style, the timing, the sense of his audience, whether it was the larger audience outside or his peers inside.” He was not interested in politics in the classic sense and prided himself on his political neutrality. He was interested in the tactics of politics, but deeply suspicious of journalists committed to political causes. He loved a good story, one filled with human frailty and imperfection, drama and sex appeal. And he believed, like Walter Lippmann, that journalism must not only provide the facts and breaking news, but must also explain things, embrace ideas, and place the news in context.

Bradlee became famous in 1971 when he presided over The Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000-page study commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The historical import of the documents was explosive, for they proved that many of the government’s official pronouncements about American involvement in the war were, in fact, incomplete and untrue. The Post was caught by surprise when The New York Times published the first three installments of the classified material secretly obtained from the Harvard educated defense analyst and anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg. But after the Nixon administration took The Times to court and convinced a federal judge to enjoin future publication of the Pentagon Papers on the grounds of national security, Ellsberg released the documents into Bradlee’s possession.

The decision to publish the Pentagon Papers put the Washington Post Company at great risk. The company was days from a public stock offering and its lucrative television licenses were vulnerable if the paper committed a felony, which many of its lawyers claimed it would be doing. Publishing the papers after a federal judge had already ruled that their release potentially violated the Espionage Act of 1917 would make The Post’s decision to publish all the more egregious. Bradlee nevertheless insisted that they had no choice but to defy the government and publish documents that were of great historical significance and which most certainly did not undermine national security (a determination later vindicated by virtually everyone who has examined them since, including the Nixon administration’s lawyer who argued the case before the Supreme Court). To not publish was safe, but it would leave The Times out to dry and strengthen the government’s hand. Katherine Graham sided with Bradlee.

So, the day after The New York Times became the first newspaper in U.S. history censored by the federal government, The Washington Post picked up where The Times had left off. Two weeks later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for The Times and against the Justice Department (The Post won its own legal battles in the federal district and appellate courts in Washington, DC). The First Amendment, freedom of the press, and the United States were the winners, thanks in part to Bradlee’s determined and unbending grit and devotion to principle.

Watergate, of course, is what really made Bradlee famous, although to this day, many picture Jason Robards in All the President’s Men whenever Bradlee’s name is invoked. The Watergate story, like the Pentagon Papers, was about exposing government cover-ups and concealment of the truth. It concerned the arrogance and abuse of power, matters of far greater interest to Bradlee than the political and moral dimensions of what started out as a third-rate burglary at a luxury condominium. “It was a helluva story,” said Bradlee, “that’s what it was. And it was waiting for somebody to turn the key – and Bob and Carl did that.”

For me, however, it was Bradlee’s role as the hard-nosed editor and skeptic that made The Post such an important player in that drama. Bradlee insisted on fact checking and double checking, and he pushed Woodward and Bernstein to make certain they had reliable sources, corroboration, and unassailable facts. It is an ethical standard honored more in the breach in today’s world of internet "gotcha" journalism, which seems interested only in publishing first and confirming later. As flawed as the mainstream press is, and there is no question they make their share of mistakes, there is a reason I put far more trust into what is written in The New York Times and The Washington Post and similar bastions of professional journalism than I do in the many varieties of advocacy, caused-based journalism on the internet. Those sources have their place in a vibrant democracy, but it is the loss of standards that has hurt us the most, and Bradlee did not stand for it.

Although he was a far more skilled editor than writer, over the years I have read and enjoyed two books by Bradlee. Conversations with Kennedy (W.W. Norton and Company, 1975), based on Bradlee’s personal notes and reflections of his off-the-record talks and friendship with John Kennedy, is a rare and candid window into the relationship between two fascinating men who played important, if highly different roles in modern American history. And A Good Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995), Bradlee’s memoirs about his life and times in the world of journalism, is a penetrating behind-the-scenes look into the seminal events of the twentieth century and the workings of a modern American newspaper. Bradlee was not an eloquent writer. He avoided flowery prose and did not expound on political theory or journalistic principles. He wrote much as he spoke, with clarity, intelligence, and bluntness. But you could not help but like him. And he sure did live an interesting life.

Bradlee recognized that he “had been dealt an awfully good hand by the powers that be. A hand that gave me a ringside seat at some of the century’s most vital moments.” His life was not always easy; he survived polio as a teenager and more than three years on a destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II. But so much of his life after that benefited from good luck and good fortune. He landed a job at The Washington Post only after he skipped an interview with The Baltimore Sun simply because it was raining so hard when the train stopped in Baltimore that he decided to head straight to Washington instead. It was pure fortuity that he and his first wife, Tony, bought a house in Georgetown a few months before Senator and Mrs. John F. Kennedy purchased a townhome a few doors away. He was in the right place at the right time when Katherine Graham was looking for an editor to help transition The Post from a good paper to a great one. “I have thought hard about the role of luck in my life,” reflected Bradlee, “and come to the simple conclusion that I have been wonderfully lucky.” And I like that he recognized that fact.

In reading about Bradlee since his death, I have developed an even greater appreciation for the man and his journalistic instincts, his charm and humor. He could be a tough taskmaster as editor, but according to Martha Sherrill, who spent a decade writing for The Post’s Style section, Bradlee “despised overstepping and sensationalizing. He hated the cheap move that covered up a lack of legwork. And when an ordinary citizen – not an elected official or public person – was being written about, he insisted on sensitivity and compassion.” Sherrill wrote about how once, at an annual retreat for The Post management team, Bradlee introduced the father of a young woman who had been the subject of a negative news story. Bradlee wanted the paper’s top editors to understand how a Washington Post story affects, in real life, the people who are the subjects of its stories. “Tell me again why we’re running this?” Bradlee would ask whenever someone’s job or reputation was at stake. “Tell me again why we need to ruin this person’s life?”

When I moved to Washington in 1982 to attend law school, I began reading The Washington Post nearly every day. It was a great all-around paper, with crisp writing, a strong core of journalists who comprehensively covered U.S. and world news and national politics. It also had decent local coverage and a good sports section, and by then had mastered the Style section, which under Bradlee’s leadership encouraged more creativity than was typical of a daily newspaper. He allowed his reporters to write freely and originally about culture and society and how people conducted their lives. “We wanted to look at the culture of America as it was changing in front of our eyes,” Bradlee explained in A Good Life. “The sexual revolution, the drug culture, the women’s movement. And we wanted it to be interesting, exciting, different.” And it was.

My New York friends often disparaged The Post, as if it was a second cousin to The Times, but they were wrong. Sure, The Times was a more somber paper, its international coverage second to none, but it was not a hometown paper and its writing was often dry and uninteresting. The Post could do almost everything The Times did without sacrificing a sense of style and service to the local metropolitan area. Bradlee’s touch was all over it. And I loved it. When in 1995 I moved to the Philadelphia area, I missed the newspaper as much as anything else about Washington.

Being a newspaper reporter or an editor is often a mundane, exhausting job. To the people who worked for him, Bradlee made it seem fun. At Bradlee’s funeral service on Wednesday at the National Cathedral, long-time reporter Walter Pincus told the story of how he once walked into Bradlee’s office to ask for a raise. Bradlee had his feet on his desk, paper and pen in hand as he leaned back in his chair, his face intently focused on his work. When Pincus was through making his case, Bradlee never looked up, but simply replied, “You should pay me for all the fun you’re having.” As Pincus said at the funeral, “He was right.”

I cannot but help sense that the death of Ben Bradlee is an end of an era in American journalism. Like Bradlee, I also appreciate a good story, one that captures the human dimensions behind the larger political and social events. But his insistence on good journalism, on fact checking and objectivity, his commitment to transparency and the search for truth, raised the bar for all of us. And it made us more careful with accusations and allegations. He improved our standards and added style to our lives. He is gone now, and the world is a little smaller. I will miss him.