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.

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