When a newspaper could bring down a president

A new book captures why Ben Bradlee and the 'Washington Post' were so good together: good enough to bring down a sitting president for his violations of the public trust.
Crosscut archive image.

Ben Bradlee in 2010

A new book captures why Ben Bradlee and the 'Washington Post' were so good together: good enough to bring down a sitting president for his violations of the public trust.

Media junkies will savor Jeff Himmelman's thoroughly researched, fact-and-gossip-filled biography of longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Yours in Truth (Random House), published this month.

Himmelman had been a trusted editorial assistant to Post Watergate star Bob Woodward, who in turn introduced him to Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn Bradlee, for whom he became an equally trusted editorial aide before he undertook the biography. Ben Bradlee gave Himmelman the same instructions as an editor would have given any reporter he trusted: Do independent research, comb through my files and other sources, check your facts, go where they lead you.

Himmelman revered Bradlee but took seriously his instruction to proceed objectively. There are a few passages that might have upset the Bradlees, including those dealing with Ben Bradlee's relations with his three wives and several children. Some also show Bradlee as sometimes opportunistic, superficial, and self-involved. (These qualities, it must be said, exist amply in even the most admired political and media figures.) But the overall portrait drawn is favorable and sympathetic.

My Depression-born generation of poor kids, following right behind Bradlee's Greatest Generation, characterized people such as Bradlee as "hot shit" — a mainly envious characterization describing those with social status and connections, good looks, physical grace, and ready access to a world of classy girls, convertibles, tailored shirts, and later careers built on Ivy League networking.  But some hot-shitters, such as Bradlee, strove and performed at academics, sports, or work, and had more to them.

Bradlee was born into a prominent Boston family and schooled at St. Mark's and Harvard before World War II, for which he volunteered immediately after college graduation. He served as a destroyer officer in the Pacific. After the war he resolved to have a career outside his comfortable, white-shoe path of the pre-war years. He chose journalism and jumped in with the same competitiveness and determination which his eigth-grade coach is quoted as saying he had seen in him as an undersize footballer years earlier. He entered his chosen career with old-fashioned ideas about the people's right to know and journalism's responsibilities in our society, which never left him.

After a few starter jobs, Bradlee found his ultimate sponsor in Philip Graham, the Washington Post publisher who hired him in 1948.   After a back-and-forth to other jobs, Bradlee convinced Graham to purchase Newsweek, where Bradlee then worked for a time as Washington, D.C. bureau chief. Bradlee got a huge finder's fee for the Newsweek acquisition, which made him financially secure thereafter.

When Graham brought Bradlee back to the Post, he was on track to get the No. 1 editor's job he'd always wanted. He got it in 1968. He disposed of competitors not just by using his elbows but by prodigious commitments of time and energy. He became familiar with all aspects of the paper's operations. He was ambitious but he also loved what he was doing and had found his natural place in life.

I had a front-row seat for the show. In my government and political roles I often was in contact with Post editors, columnists, and national reporters and was a periodic Post op-ed contributor. Then, during the 1975-6 strike of its pressmen, I worked closely over many weeks as a consultant to Katharine Graham and senior managers, including her son and publisher-in-waiting, Don Graham. I observed Bradlee's role close-up. (This is one place where Himmelman's account errs; he mischaracterizes the Post's posture toward its unions and employees. Katharine Graham's memoirs have it right).

Bradlee's management style was that of many high-energy, action-oriented executives and perhaps derivative of his Navy destroyer experience. He hired the best reporters and editors he could find and gave them running room. He could be demanding and sometimes pitted newsroom rivals against each other. But the overwhelming majority of newsroom stars and workaday types admired him and enjoyed working for him immensely. ("Ben tells me," Katharine Graham once told me, "that he inspires the staff by walking through the newsroom several times daily and showing himself" — a familiar style in sports and the military).

The Post's collective energy and ambition reached culmination in the Woodward/Bernstein Watergate revelations later dramatized in the 1976 Academy Award-winning film, All the President's Men, based on Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstein's non-fiction book of 1974. The paper and Bradlee rode high. President Jimmy Carter, elected in the wake of the scandal, is quoted as joking a little later that "the only time they play Hail to the Chief in this town is when Ben Bradlee walks into the newsroom of the Washington Post." Yet the film, featuring Jason Robards as a profane and gutsy Bradlee, caused turmoil within the Post.

Editors and staff felt Bradlee was given undue credit and those who had done the real work were shorted or left out altogether. Bradlee's deputy, Howard Simons, became particularly bitter on this point and the two never repaired the resulting split between them. It was commonly remarked that, after the film, Bradlee had begun playing Robards. Yet it had been the film's directors, not Bradlee, who had decided to portray events with the Bradlee/Robards character at center stage. Even so, the character appeared only 17 total minutes on-screen.

Later Bradlee's practice of hiring talent, and giving it leeway, would deal him and the Post a hammer blow. Janet Cooke, a black reporter, was hired on the basis of educational and journalistic credentials that seemed almost too good to be true. As it turned out, they were not true. Nor was a series she authored in 1981, featuring a drug-addicted black child, which proved to be entirely fictitious.  Bradlee was forced to return the Pulitzer Prize it had won for the Post. Several Post editors had doubted Cooke and her work before the series' publication but none had taken their doubts directly to Bradlee. The episode drained energy and morale from the paper. Bradlee began to cede authority to other editors, among them the less colorful but solid Len Downie. Then-publisher Don Graham named him to succeed Bradlee on his retirement in 1991.

There was an important sub-theme to Bradlee's tenure at the Post. It was his relationship with Katharine Graham, who found herself in charge after her husband's suicide (Philip Graham suffered from manic-depression). Bradlee had been her husband's protege.

She was not initially disposed to trust him. But, as it turned out, they were a perfect match. Kay Graham was subject to bouts of self doubt. But Bradlee was a person who was seldom in doubt. He reinforced her own good instincts toward the paper's editorial integrity and independence. She was notorious for becoming enamoured, then disenchanted with senior executives at the Post. But her confidence in Bradlee grew and never wavered. Himmelman's book publishes exchanges of letters and memos between them, some embarrassingly gushy and over the top. But they accurately reflect the feelings they had for each other and for the Post.

Bradlee's life also was linked less centrally with that of fellow Harvard Bostonian John F. Kennedy. Bradlee and his then-wife Tony were Georgetown neighbors and became friends of then-Sen. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline. The book contains anecdotes about the relationship, some unflattering to all involved. When JFK became president, the relationship changed. They used each other — Kennedy to plant rumors and news, Bradlee to get scoops on competitors.

Even though Bradlee was identified publicly as a close JFK pal, over time, it appears, Bradlee came to feel somewhat patronized. During the course of his research, Himmelman found JFK also had made a sexual pass at Tony Bradlee. Ben Bradlee had been unaware of it at the time.

There is the related story of the unsolved murder in 1964, months after JFK's assassination, of Tony's sister, Mary Pinchot Meyer, who had been sleeping with the famously womanizing Kennedy. She previously had been married to CIA executive Cord Meyer. After her death, CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton broke into the Bradlees' garage to search for notebooks that had belonged to Mary. Ben Bradlee was angry and chased him off. But, eventually, the Bradlees turned the material over to Angleton.

A controversy about the biography relates to Bob Woodward's distress that Ben Bradlee's files showed that Bradlee, at the time of Woodward's and Bernstein's Watergate coverage, sometimes doubted the more colorful details of their reporting, although never the main facts and conclusions. Himmelman also discovered that Woodward-Bernstein dissembled when they denied having contact during their investigations with a Watergate grand juror. Bradlee's reaction, in a three-way meeting with Himmelman and Woodward before the book's publication, was to tell Woodward to forget it.The matter was several decades old and the issues were secondary.

But Woodward has pressed the matter publicly — and thus drawn attention to the issues that distress him — since the book's public release.

I learned for the first time, reading the biography, that Bradlee as a young man had gambled frequently and had become enraged because supposed friends had not paid their gambling debts to him. Older friends had finally convinced him to let the matter drop, although Bradlee continued to remember exactly who owed how much to him. I suddenly had a flash memory of a related incident

My business partner, Frank Mankiewicz, and I officed in a building next door to the Post. One Monday morning, finding himself short, Frank asked if I could lend him a few hundred dollars until later in the week. We went to the bank in our building's first floor, where I withdrew the cash and handed it to Mankiewicz. Bradlee came up behind us in the teller line. He was wide-eyed when he saw me give hundred-dollar bills to Mankiewicz. "May I ask," he said, "if this is a payment of a gambling debt?" Yes, we told him straight-faced, we always wagered on weekend NFL games. "Sounds good,"  Bradlee said, "how can I get in on this?" It occurs now that Bradlee wasn't kidding and liked the idea of action where the losers paid up.

There were daily-newspaper journalists of greater gravity and intellect in Washington, D.C. during Bradlee's time there. Max Frankel of The New York Times, Peter Lisagor of The Chicago Daily News, Chuck Bailey of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and others come to mind. But I always thought Bradlee and the Post were uniquely suited to each other. His relationship with Kay Graham resulted in a trust-based bond between ownership and the newsroom which pushed the paper into first-rank status. The two, together, made a truly historic decision to challenge a sitting president, Richard Nixon, with investigative journalism that eventually led to his resignation.

Bradlee, 90, has outlived all but a few of his peers. He is quoted at one point in the book as saying "I regret nothing." He probably does regret some things in his personal and family life, but he should have few regrets about his leadership at the Post. There he gave all he had and demonstrated what competitive newspapering ought to be. You just gotta say, Ben Bradlee had a heckuva run during a time when daily print journalism ruled and when, in the capital, the Post ruled.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.