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Ben Bradlee Had a Talent for a Specific Kind of Trouble

He sold himself as an outsider while he was in many ways the consummate insider.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee

An English friend of mine once remarked that Americans seem to decide early on what role they should play and then play it for the rest of their lives, as if they were characters in a movie. This is true at least of the American who wrote A Good Life. Ben Bradlee’s memoir has the appeal of a B-movie, which offers the soothing predictability of its main character in an otherwise unpredictable world. The stock type—the salty, lovable, crusading editor who has a wink for all the girls and a drink for all the boys—remains a stock type regardless of what is going on around or inside him. War and peace, marriage and adultery, friendship and betrayal, truth-seeking and star fucking: he describes all experience in the same tone because the play is merely a backdrop. The actor’s the thing.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was born in Boston in 1921, into an upper-class family in which everyone seems to have been sent to prep school, then to Harvard. Polio ended his career as a schoolboy athlete, indifference ended his career as a scholar. He left Harvard for the Pacific theater in World War II, an experience that largely defined his subsequent outlook: for the rest of his life, whenever his passions ran high, he wrote and spoke in military metaphors. (“The denials were exploding around us like incoming artillery shells.”) In 1942 he married for the first time, and noticed immediately that love life was less exciting than war life. He would always feel more strongly toward the men on his various battleships than toward the women in his life. Yet he would remain a vocal and enthusiastic heterosexual through two more marriages and countless one-night stands.

After the war Bradlee went looking for a career. He seems to have preserved into adulthood an adolescent sense of destiny which, naively but admirably, he nurtured and made grow. He spent a few years flirting with the Foreign Service, where he discovered that “the cover-your-ass crowd frowned on balls and initiative,” and he finally settled on a career in journalism. He was, in rapid succession, a reporter on a New Hampshire newspaper, Newsweek’s Paris correspondent, a reporter in Newsweek’s Washington bureau, President John F. Kennedy’s journalistic confidante, Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, the managing editor of The Washington Post and, finally, from 1968 until his retirement in 1991, the Post’s executive editor. As editor of the Post he would publish the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate journalism that would force Nixon from the White House. Not much worth writing about happened after Watergate, but by the end of his career he had made his name as the finest newspaper editor of his generation.

That is the short version of Bradlee’s life as Bradlee tells it, charmingly. The book reads less like a formal memoir than an oral history. Reading it you have the sense that Bradlee is speaking to you, and that he’s coming completely clean. At the same time he tells you almost nothing about the twenty years of his life that followed the movie version of All the President’s Men, sixteen of which he spent running the Post. He includes a chapter on the Janet Cooke scandal, but devotes just a page or so to the Carter years, and even less to Reagan and Bush. The result is that at the end of his memoir we have no idea how Bradlee spent most of his career. The reader is left to imagine the salty, lovable, crusading editor going on about his business more or less as Jason Robards did in the movie, and the reader is more or less happy to do this. In Bradlee’s high spirits, his sense of fair play, his love of novelty, his low threshold of boredom and his delight in a good story, you can see a born newspaperman at work. What you cannot see, unless you know a bit about Washington journalism, is that Bradlee is different in important ways from the crusading character of his imagination.

There are two kinds of journalism in Washington, and they have so little in common that they should go by different names. One kind of journalism—the crusading journalism glamorized by the movies and the memoirs—is characterized by a willingness to challenge people in power and let the pieces fall where they may. The crusader relies more on his wits than on his friendships with important people. Often as not he is a neurotic character, with poor hygiene, unpleasant mannerisms and no social antennae. Far from agonizing whether to summer in the Hamptons or the Vineyard, he rarely notices the change of seasons. The crusading journalist does not worry whether he is asked to the Grahams or the Harrimans or the Kennedys for dinner. He knows he will never be asked, unless he becomes too famous for them to ignore. Until then, he cannot be trusted with their secrets.

The other kind of journalism—access journalism—is a slow dance between print and power, with the journalist cast in the role of the reluctantly submissive female. The access journalist is forever deciding whether to protest when, during the waltz, the hand lands on his bottom. The trick for the journalist is to keep the powers-that-be interested without acquiring a reputation for loose behavior. Once a journalist is widely believed to be owned by his sources, he (or she) ceases to be valuable even to his sources. Access journalists are dealmakers at heart. They strike deals with their sources, with their employers, with themselves. But they are not without firm principles: loyalty to friends, a belief in keeping secrets, a willingness to give back to the system as much as they have taken out.

Whereas the crusaders noisily argue that the access journalists are corrupt, the access journalists secretly believe that the crusaders are hopelessly out of it. (If you’ve never dined with Jupiter, how can you describe Olympus?) They are right, to some small extent. And access journalists do serve a useful social function. They recount important events accurately, when it serves the interests of important people to have events so recounted.

There are few pure examples of either type, of course. But most journalists can be classified, like most belly buttons, as outties or innies. The miracle of Ben Bradlee is that he has sold himself to the public as the perfect outtie while he was in many important ways the consummate innie.

Bradlee’s wonderful persona, his winning mixture of authenticity and shtick, seems to be the main cause of the confusion. He is known, with reason, as a troublemaker, but A Good Life shows that his talent was for a very specific kind of trouble. All the scraps that he lands himself in have the simplicity of myth, with Bradlee cast as a sort of comic-book superhero fighting villains on every front. “Asshole” is one of Bradlee’s favorite words, and he has a gift for finding the people to whom it applies. No sooner has he sniffed one out than he leaps to drive it back into its cave. He clearly relishes every one of these little victories, no matter how trivial. Here, for instance, is Bradlee’s response to a lunatic in Decatur, Illinois, who has written a letter to the Post insulting to Katharine Graham: “The president of the bank in Decatur, Illinois, is an old classmate and friend of mine. I think I’ll ask him to foreclose on your mortgage.” And this, in response to a letter to the Post accusing Bradlee of being un-American from J.C. Turnacliffe, P.O. Box 1971, St Paul, Minnesota: “Dear Asshole, I suspect I did more for my country in the war than you did. I spent four years in destroyers in the Pacific Ocean. My theatre ribbon has ten battle stars in it.” And this, about his brief encounter with striking Post workers:

All the craft unions honored the pressman’s picket line and refused to come to work. Crossing a picket line when your friends are picketing is tough. Crossing this picket line was a pleasure. Sally [Quinn, his third wife], by my side this time as we went to work, drew special, vulgar, and noisy attention, and I managed to control myself only by putting my right hand in my pants pocket--except for a conspicuous middle finger.

How can you not like a guy who is willing to drop his job editing a national newspaper to call yet another lunatic who writes letters to the editor an asshole? This is Bradlee at his most typical and adorable. There are dozens of stories in this book that ring the same adolescent, pugilistic tone. The world as Bradlee finds it breaks down not into people with power, who need to be watched at all times, and people without power, whose interests need to be guarded; but into people of unassailable virtue who are on your side (Edward Bennett Williams, the Graham family, JFK) and assholes who are not. Putting down this book you can’t help but feel fortunate that, in addition to everything else, Nixon fell in squarely with the assholes. (“I never got behind that stagy, programmed exterior to anything like an inner man that I could understand or laugh with,” Bradlee writes.) Bradlee is drawn again and again to stories in which there are good guys and bad guys. He tells them so well because he, obviously, is the good guy.

This is all part of the good life, of course. My point is only that this comic- book worldview is less heroic in journalism than it is in war. Most of the time the boys’-club view of the world actually serves the interests of people in power. Watergate was the remarkable exception. The rule was the morally more ambiguous system of back-scratching and influence peddling that came to define Washington during Bradlee’s tenure at the Post. There were a lot of people in Washington worthy of Bradlee’s scrutiny, such as Edward Bennett Williams and Clark Clifford, but most of them weren’t assholes. Most of them were Bradlee’s friends.

To put it differently: the moment the story ceases to be black and white and turns shades of gray, Bradlee gets uncomfortable. Hence we are greeted here with the astonishing sight of the managing editor of The Washington Post avoiding the Vietnam debate. “I concentrated on trying to discover what was going on in Vietnam,” said Bradlee, “on trying to determine who was telling the truth about Vietnam, before it occurred to me to find out where I stood myself ... at that time the op-ed page came under the jurisdiction of the managing editor, and at least theoretically that gave me a chance to run columns by writers who expressed my own views. But my own views were essentially non-political.” (The italics are mine.) This kind of political abstention may seem like the soul of a newspaperman’s objectivity. But it is also, in itself, a political opinion, especially in a man who controls an op-ed page. That opinion is: whatever the people who are calling the shots say is right. This, needless to say, is likely to lead to more dinner party invitations from the people who are calling the shots.

Bradlee seems never to have reconciled his desire to hang around with powerful and famous people with his desire to get to the bottom of things. At the beginning of his career he clubbed around with fellow journalists, but he soon moved on to Washington fixers and politicians, and finally he ended up with Hollywood luminaries. (“One of the new friends Sally quickly added to my life was Norman Lear ... the more you see him and talk to him, the more you want to see him and talk to him. And hug him. My friend Norman is an All-Pro hugger.”) In his defense, Bradlee’s relentless celebrity-chasing and name-dropping is about as inoffensive as it can be. But it is perfectly inconsistent with remaining dangerous to established interests. Indeed, one way to view Bradlee’s career is as an answer to the question: How dangerously honest can you be and still remain cozy with the in-crowd?

The best example of his confusion was Kennedy, about whom he seems to have been more than characteristically naive. Compare this from Bradlee’s 1975 memoir, Conversations with Kennedy:

We had once again [become] part of the “in” crowd—we kept telling ourselves—that got asked to come after dinner at the White House.... The females imported from New York for the occasion had been spectacular again, and at one point Kennedy had pulled me aside to comment “If you and I could only run wild Benjy”.

To this passage from A Good Life:

Thirty years after his death, and after hundreds and hundreds of revelations, and scores of assessments and appreciations, new material has convinced me that Kennedy screwed around. A lot.

One feels that Bradlee was compromised not by his friendship with Kennedy but by that aspect of his character that led him to lust for Kennedy’s (and other power brokers’) friendship. He sees that he has cut a deal, and that he’s being let in for keeping mum. What he can’t quite grasp is how valuable it is for Kennedy to have a leading Washington journalist as a character witness. The problem here—from the point of view of the outtie—was not that Bradlee hung around with Kennedy, but that he was rightly identified by Kennedy as someone with whom it was perfectly safe to hang around.

If nothing else, A Good Life teaches us something about journalistic courage, to wit, that journalistic courage is not as simple as battlefield courage. It is telling that the most famously brave editor of his generation feels safer hopping in a chopper and taking a few rounds of enemy fire than he does taking a stand on the war. Journalism that seems conspicuously brave usually is not. When the whole world is praising you for your bravery, your circulation is shooting through the roof and everyone who matters to you socially and financially approves of what you are writing, you may be on to something, but you are not brave.

The Post’s Watergate coverage, of course, was conspicuously brave; and Bradlee’s version of the story replicates the movie version, complete with veiled death threats and incoming artillery shells. But as the shells are exploding, the awards, the women and the praise seem to be piling up down in the trenches. “Mr. Bradlee,” Clark Clifford (the voice of permanent Washington) cooed into the phone one day in the middle of Watergate, “I would like to tell you something. I woke up this morning, put on my bathrobe and my slippers, went downstairs slowly, opened the front door carefully, and there it was. And I looked up to the heavens, and said, `Thank God for The Washington Post.’”

Access journalists tend to have a fairly conventional and self-serving notion about bravery in journalism, for the very good reason that it makes it easier for them to avoid serious combat duty. Often the bravest journalism does not expose crime or grotesque abuse at the top, but more subtle abuses among people who might directly affect the journalist’s interests. Bradlee’s friend Edward Bennett Williams described the business of way-laying presidents far more succinctly than Bradlee ever does. “I’ve been in this city for thirty years and for thirty years I’ve watched respectable and responsible journalists tell the Congress and the executive branch to go fuck themselves,” he told Bradlee when Bradlee consulted him about publishing the Pentagon Papers, according to Evan Thomas’s biography of him. “What’s Nixon going to do? Put every major editor and publisher in jail? Nixon doesn’t have the balls to go after you.”

There’s something a little sad about Bradlee’s book, but it is so relentlessly upbeat that it took me a while to put my finger on the source of the sadness. A Good Life is a portrait of a vanishing world—the world of the old-fashioned innie. Watergate showed that there was a kind of journalistic arbitrage in attacking a sitting president. (Shrewd access journalists have exploited the arbitrage ever since.) But the Post’s coverage of the event, and the movie about it, dealt Bradlee’s world a serious blow. His friendship with Kennedy, for instance, was a more ambiguous professional asset after Watergate than it was before. The world had changed in some way that made an outlook upon it that once seemed noble and true seem more than a little compromised.

Bradlee has no interest in writing about that world. Perhaps this is why. Even as the man’s celebrity rose, his persona was in retreat. It is interesting to compare how Bradlee wrote about Kennedy in 1975 with how he copied it out in 1995. In the earlier book, Bradlee describes waiting in Washington with the Kennedys for the results of the West Virginia vote:

We walked catty-corner across New York Avenue and Fourteenth Street to the Plaza Theater, which then as now specialized in porn. This wasn’t the hard-core porn of the seventies, just a nasty little thing called Private Property, starring one Katie Manx as a horny housewife who kept getting raped and seduced by hoodlums. We wondered aloud if the movie was on the Catholic Index of forbidden films (it was), and whether or not there were any votes in it either way for Kennedy in allegedly anti-Catholic West Virginia.... Kennedy’s concentration was absolute zero, as he left every twenty minutes to call Bobby in West Virginia. Each time he returned he’d whisper “Nothing definite yet,” slouch back into his seat and flick his teeth with the fingernail of the middle finger of his right hand, until he left to call again.

And here is how Bradlee edited his copy twenty years later:

So we went across 14th Street to the Plaza Theater, which then specialized in porn films. Not the hard-core stuff of later years, but a nasty thing called Private Property, starring one Katie Manx as a horny housewife. (For the record, I later found out that Private Property was on the Catholic Index of forbidden films. I never reported anything about that particular night at the movies.)

This passage is more heavily rewritten than most of his chapters on Kennedy, which mainly are just copied into A Good Life from Conversations with Kennedy. What has happened to strip the event of its detail? Why the nips and the tucks that take the life out of the scene? What intervened, in America, between 1975 and 1995? Two things, really. A scruple about women’s sensibilities, which was never one of Bradlee’s distinguishing features; and a scruple about journalism’s proximity to power, the whole field of journalistic ethics, which now prefers its tortured reasonings to a Bradlee-like “fuck-off.”

Bradlee is a born storyteller, and so his book is a pleasure to read. But the world is stealing the man’s material from him. He still wants to be liked, but he has only these stories, and they are not as entertaining as they used to be. As he retells his favorite war stories for the last time, he is forced to wonder who might be listening and what they might be thinking. Thus do even bloodless revolutions devour their children.