Jason Robards Jr. as Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men (1976)
"He took The Post, then affluent and filled with underutilized potential, and made it a formidable national newspaper worthy of a head-to-head competition with the [New York] Times. He did it in a way that made the paper itself a joyous place to work. The paper reflected his personality. He was exuberant, competitive and combative if challenged. He made The Post a magnet for young reporters looking for a chance to play in a very high-stakes game."
I don't know that I would have thought to write about Ben Bradlee, the longtime top editor of the Washington Post
, who died yesterday at his home ("of natural causes") at age 93, if Howie hadn't sent me a link in case I planned to. Once I started thinking about it, it occurred to me that there must be something to say about an editor who presided over a major newspaper for a long period of time (26 years, for the record) and is remembered for, you know, his practice of journalism
Okay, there's also the fact that he got played by Jason Robards Jr., in one of his classiest performances, in the film version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men
. (Of course nobody made out better in the movie than Woodward, who turned into Robert Redford. Bernstein had to settle for Dustin Hoffman -- a great actor, but you know . . . .)
THE TIMES THEY HAVE A-CHANGED
That Bradlee's tenure at the Post
is remembered almost entirely for his journalistic record is partly a tribute to Ben B, but much more a reminder of what's happened to both journalism generally and newspapers in particular in the decades since he handed over the reins of the paper's editorial operation in 1991 to Leonard Downie Jr., his managing editor since 1984. By then, his longtime boss, Katharine Graham, had turned the publisher's chair over to her son Donald. Here's what Robert G. Kaiser has to say in his WaPo obit
about Bradlee's relationship with Katharine Graham, which he describes as having been "critical."
She allowed him to spend money, ultimately many millions of dollars, to build a great newspaper. At key moments — particularly the 1971 decision to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers and later during Watergate — she stood squarely behind him, defying the advice of her attorneys and business advisers and her powerful Washington friends.
Mr. Bradlee “was just what Kay needed — somebody who built her confidence and worked hard at it,” said the late Philip L. Geyelin, who was editor of The Post’s editorial page from 1968 to 1979. “He made her comfortable. He called her up and told her dirty jokes and told her the latest skinny. It was a wonderful relationship. I can’t remember any time they had any quarrel. She was nuts about him.”
Mrs. Graham had said as much herself. In one of the end-of-year letters she and Mr. Bradlee came to exchange annually — warm, intimate notes of mutual appreciation — she wrote: “Over the years, I have been spoiled by you and I hope most of the time, it’s been reciprocated, in sharing the best, most productive, rewarding working combo that I’ve had or even know of. And best of all, it’s been fun.”
She also teased him sometimes and criticized his erratic management of the newsroom, including impetuous hiring decisions that sometimes turned out badly. One year, she sent him a list of 15 names, his hiring “mistakes,” as she called them, and asked how he could avoid such errors in the future. But mostly she sang his praises, as in her end-of-1974 letter to Mr. Bradlee: “The things [about you] that people don’t know — that I know — are style, generosity, class and decency, as well as understanding of other people’s weaknesses.”
When Mrs. Graham died in July 2001, Mr. Bradlee spoke at her funeral. “She was a spectacular dame, and I loved her very much,” he said, looking down on the vast crowd from the lectern at the east end of Washington National Cathedral. Walking back to his pew, Mr. Bradlee took a slight detour to pass her coffin and give it an affectionate pat.
Leonard Downie remained executive editor till 2008, and a lot of his tenure too is remembered for journalism, but by the end the economic realities of running a paper like the Post
were already taking a heavy toll on the operations of the newsroom. Though a lot of questions can be asked about his successors, it's almost unfair to compare their performance, which has been so much concerned with survival -- both their own and the paper's.
has had to contend not just with the catastrophic decline of readership and advertising common to latter-day newspapers generally, but with its relationship to the federal government in a hometown that is so heavily a company town, which also means -- for the hometown paper of the Village -- its positioning in the rightward-lurching political cosmos. Uncharitable observers might utter the word "pandering." (The aforementioned link that Howie passed along was to a Pew Research survey, "Distrust of News Sources
," which found the Post
registering distrust levels of 26 precent among respondents of "mostly conservative" views and 39 percent among those of "consistently conservative" views -- as against, for example, significantly higher New York Times
distrust figures of 33 and 50 percent.)
Now, granted that Ben Bradlee's stewardship of the paper's news operations was a major factor in its prosperity during most of his tenure, it's also true that he didn't have to figure out how to run his operation when that prosperity became past-tense.
"HIS STRENGTHS SOMETIMES BECAME WEAKNESSES"
Ben Bradlee as Ben Bradlee, in 1995
Obviously within the Post
the assignment of the Bradlee obit was a a big deal, even given the revolution that has been taking place since its sale to Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos. Of course one also presumes that the choice of Robert Kaiser wasn't spur-of-the-moment; given the subject's age, one assumes that a basic obit text has been in place for, well, quite a while. Certainly Kaiser qualifies as a company guy -- there's hardly anyone around with truer-blue WaPo credentials. Prior to his retirement early this year, he worked at the Post
for more than 50 years, the last 16 as associate editor and senior correspondent, following his tenure (1991-98) as Leonard Downie Jr.'s managing editor following his accession to the top job.
Kaiser is also a respected writer in his own right, and There are observations I'm still mulling writing about in his somewhat crotchety but often interesting review, in the current (November 5) issue of the New York Review of Books
, of Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
and John Dean's The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It
, titled "Our Conservative, Criminal Politicians
" (available free to subscribers only).
As Kaiser's comments on Bradlee's relationship with Kay Graham show, he's hardly uncritical. Noting that Bradlee's "strengths sometimes became weaknesses," he recalls the Janet Cooke debacle:
The editor who could inspire his troops to do some of the best journalism ever published in America also fell for an artful hoax by a young reporter, Janet Cooke. Cooke invented an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy and wrote a moving story about him. After the story won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, Cooke was exposed as an impostor who invented not only Jimmy but also her own life story.
When they realized that Cooke had concocted an imaginary résumé, Mr. Bradlee and his editors interrogated her and extracted a confession. Mr. Bradlee quickly returned the Pulitzer, then encouraged The Post’s ombudsman, Bill Green, to investigate and report how the incident could have happened. This was the biggest assignment ever given to the in-house reader’s representative. Mr. Bradlee had created the position in 1970, making The Post the first major paper to employ an independent, in-house critic.
Green produced a detailed, embarrassing report about a newsroom where the urge for journalistic impact overrode several experienced reporters’ doubts about Jimmy’s existence. “Bradlee was really hurt” by the Cooke affair, recalled Peter Silberman, who served under Mr. Bradlee as a senior editor.
Kaiser notes too that "Mr. Bradlee had a notoriously short attention span."
He rarely dug into the details of an issue himself, leaving that to the people he had hired. He managed The Post newsroom with a combination of viscera and intellect, often judging people by his personal reaction to them. He or she “makes me laugh” was perhaps Mr. Bradlee’s greatest compliment. He never enjoyed the minutiae of management and spent as little time on administrative work as he could get away with.
"AGGRESSIVE REPORTING" + "ENGAGING FEATURE PIECES"
But Kaiser goes on to credit Bradlee with "cop[ing] successfully with many crises." And the obit begins with him crediting him with having "guided The Post's transformation into one of the world's leading newspapers."
From the moment he took over The Post newsroom in 1965, Mr. Bradlee sought to create an important newspaper that would go far beyond the traditional model of a metropolitan daily. He achieved that goal by combining compelling news stories based on aggressive reporting with engaging feature pieces of a kind previously associated with the best magazines. His charm and gift for leadership helped him hire and inspire a talented staff and eventually made him the most celebrated newspaper editor of his era.
The most compelling story of Bradlee’s tenure, almost certainly the one of greatest consequence, was Watergate, a political scandal touched off by The Post’s reporting that ended in the only resignation of a president in U.S. history.
But Mr. Bradlee’s most important decision, made with Katharine Graham, The Post’s publisher, may have been to print stories based on the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration went to court to try to quash those stories, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision of the New York Times and The Post to publish them.
The Post’s circulation nearly doubled while Mr. Bradlee was in charge of the newsroom — first as managing editor and then as executive editor — as did the size of its newsroom staff. And he gave the paper ambition.
Mr. Bradlee stationed correspondents around the globe, opened bureaus across the Washington region and from coast to coast in the United States, and he created sections and features — most notably Style, one of his proudest inventions — that were widely copied by others.
During his tenure, a paper that had previously won just four Pulitzer Prizes, only one of which was for reporting, won 17 more, including the Public Service award for the Watergate coverage. . . .
Kaiser concludes with the quote I've put at the top of this post from David Halberstam, whose journalistic career of course is mostly associated with the New York Times
but who "devoted much of his book The Powers That Be
to Mr. Bradlee's Washington Post
. (The quote, which Kaiser describes as a "valedictory" is credited to "an interview" -- presumably one conducted by the author, presumably for this obit. Bear in mind that Halberstam died in 2007.)
Labels: Beltway journalism, Washington Post