Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Ben Bradlee (1921-2014): Death of a true media giant

Ben Bradlee (1921-2014): Death of a true media giant

The astonishing life of Ben Bradlee, the man at the helm of the Washington Post during Watergate, has finally come to an end. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes the measure of the great newspaperman's importance.

Back in the late 1970s, the author and his family lived in Surabaya, Indonesia. That city was (and still is, of course) a very big town and it had been the big time for so many of Joseph Conrad’s novelistic protagonists back in the 19th century. Nevertheless, Surabaya was pretty much at the end of the line for so many things back then – not least for international news sources.

This was, of course, long before the advent of the internet. As a result, we were largely dependent on shortwave radio news and telegraphic excerpts from the US press. Shortwave usually meant serious static and that often made it virtually impossible to know if one had tuned in Radio Moscow, Radio Beijing, the BBC or the Voice of America – until those metaphorical “running dogs” pitched up in a newscast, or one heard one of the signature tunes – “The Internationale”, “The East is Red”, “Lillibullero” or “Yankee Doodle”.

Soon enough, this daily audio guessing game became tiring and less than informative. Because the local press had a very limited engagement with events beyond Indonesian politics, we decided the best solution was to subscribe to an air-shipped copy of each Sunday’s Washington Post – the whole thing, including all the classified advertisements, magazines, and all the rest.

And so, in the fullness of time, each edition of the paper arrived periodically, wrapped in a sturdy brown butcher paper wrapper. In deference to the power of this newspaper, we put each edition on the bookshelf and resolved to open the papers in sequence (even if that meant we would read a paper that was already a few weeks old). We read each copy, one a week, over a relaxed Sunday breakfast, preserving the illusion of having just opened the front door and picked up the paper from the front step, moments after it had been delivered to our house.

As a result, as we slowly digested its contents, we felt reengaged with the goings-on in Washington, from the columns and analyses in the Outlook section, to the chatty, sometimes-snarky insider essays in the Style section, as well as the thoughtful book reviews, the news reports – and all the rest. It took hours to drink it all in, and we were often reluctant to stop this print feast.

Reading the paper, it was easy to feel a party to the influence and news flow of The Washington Post at the height of its glory and influence. And that status was very largely the handiwork of its editor, Ben Bradlee, who died on 21 October at the age of 93. Under his tutelage, The Washington Post had been largely responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal and following it through, right to its astonishing conclusion of a presidential resignation. Along with its great rival, The New York Times, The Washington Post had also published the Pentagon Papers (the secret, multi-volume study of the origins and mistakes of the Vietnam War prepared for the Pentagon) and had gained support from Supreme Court decisions to provide all of this information to its readers. At the time of its pre-eminence, The Washington Post had produced Newsweek magazine; it owned television and radio stations; and it had established a potent international network of correspondents around the world, together with a stable of highly-regarded opinion columnists (from George Will and on to the left). Moreover, it was home base for the man who was probably the country’s finest political cartoonist, Herblock, as well as its premier printed political satirist – Art Buchwald. In the process, it effectively ran its crosstown rival, the venerable Washington Star, right out of business.

Its proud, sometimes insouciant, but deeply committed editor, Ben Bradlee, was a scion of the New England WASP elite. His father had been in finance and his family was comfortably taken care of until the Great Depression virtually destroyed that existence. (Bradlee’s father ended up supervising the janitorial staff in a Boston museum after his business efforts collapsed.) Nevertheless, in accordance with family tradition, Bradlee managed to graduate from Harvard University, just as members of his family had done since 1795. With World War II just over the horizon, Bradlee had become a naval reserve cadet, in addition to his classes. He finished his BA (majoring in Greek and English), entered active duty military service with the navy, and married his long-time sweetheart and first wife, all within a few days.

While he was in high school, he had been stricken with polio; but, by carrying out a punishing exercise and rehabilitation regimen, he had reacquired the use of his legs sufficiently to excel in school sports and become fit for military service. But his bout with polio gave him his distinctive gait and a stance in which it always looked like he was heading forward into the wind – and adversity, opportunity and challenges.

At the end of the war, together with a friend, he set up a small weekly newspaper in New England that – soon enough – went under financially. He landed his first job at The Washington Post back in 1948 when a downpour in Baltimore had led him to skip a job interview at a newspaper there, to stay on the train on to Washington and then go to The Washington Post for an interview – and then get a job offer there – instead. Luck always seemed to adhere itself to him. As the AP noted, “He happened to be riding a trolley car past Blair House in 1950 when Puerto Rican extremists opened fire on the presidential guest house while President Truman was staying there. Bradlee turned it into a page-one eyewitness story.”

But he was soon restless at The Washington Post and so left to become the press attaché at the American Embassy in Paris, courtesy of a friend’s quiet word of encouragement to State Department officials. Two years later, he joined Newsweek magazine’s Paris bureau and spent four years there as one of its European correspondents, before he returned to Washington to write on politics for the magazine.

In Washington, made aware of the magazine’s imminent sale, he reached out to the head of The Post, Phil Graham (who was married to Katherine Graham, the daughter of financial wizard Eugene Meyer who had purchased The Post years earlier in a bankruptcy sale) to encourage Graham to acquire Newsweek. In gratitude, Graham gave Bradlee a finder’s fee of several million dollars worth of stock for leading him into this valuable acquisition, and then, shortly thereafter, Bradlee came on board the mother ship as assistant managing editor, then managing editor and, soon enough, as executive editor.

In those heady days, Bradlee and his second wife moved into a home in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington, DC, then just becoming a trendy neighbourhood. As luck would have it yet again, his next-door neighbours were Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, just as the senator was being mentioned increasingly as a potential presidential candidate. It was an excellent example of his sometimes-preternatural ability to turn luck to advantage professionally.

Back when Bradlee had first joined it, The Post was hardly the behemoth it eventually became. It was still losing around $1 million a year for its owner, and the preeminent paper in the American capital was the Washington Star. Opinion leaders and political insiders still read The Star and The New York Times before finally picking up The Post.

But Bradlee had an extraordinary ability to focus on the killer story; to select and groom talent; and to get an entire news organisation to focus like a laser beam on that big story. Bradlee’s rapport with his cadre of reporters has been legendary for decades; and now, with his passing, one after another, the reporters he nurtured during his tenure have stepped up to re-tell tales of Bradlee’s reign in the newsroom.

Watch: Ben Bradlee interview (1996)

Undoubtedly, Bradlee’s greatest journalistic triumph was breaking the Watergate story and unleashing his paper, Jack Russell Terrier-like, until the story reached its culmination and Richard Nixon was forced to resign from office – despite the unrelenting, intense pressure brought to bear upon the paper from the Nixon administration. It was unusual, to say the least, to have had a sitting attorney general John Mitchell threaten publisher of the Washington Post Katherine Graham that if she didn’t call off her journalist dogs, she would, metaphorically, be obscenely and painfully assaulted.

By then, Bradlee and Graham had forged a mutually reinforcing team as editor and publisher, backing each other in adversity. It was a partnership that insured the paper, ultimately, would not retreat, regardless of the consequences. In her own widely praised autobiography, Graham recalled their joint efforts, saying Bradlee had “set the ground rules — pushing, pushing, pushing, not so subtly asking everyone to take one more step, relentlessly pursuing the story in the face of persistent accusations against us and a concerted campaign of intimidation…. Ideas flew out of Ben. He was always asking important ‘why’ questions…. Ben was tough enough and good enough so that for the most part I not only let him do what he thought was right, I largely agreed with him.”

A few years after his two young reporters – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – at the centre of the Watergate coverage wrote their 1974 memoir of their role in those extraordinary events, All the President’s Men, film director Alan Paluka’s version of this story was released, with Jason Robards Jr in his Oscar-winning role of editor Ben Bradlee, paired with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein.

While this author was living in Indonesia, we had showed a copy of this film, outdoors, under the stars, to an eager audience of reporters, editors and student activists – still at a time when President Suharto’s authoritarian regime held sway over that nation. At the end of the film, our audience had risen to give the film a standing ovation, such was the power of the story of The Post’s resolute pursuit of the Watergate story. In reminiscences now being published about Bradlee, the story has been told that Robards’ portrayal of the editor was spot on – except that Bradlee was even more a force of nature than his cinematic image had been.

While from a crusading journalistic standpoint, Watergate (together with the Pentagon Papers) were certainly high water marks, it has also been said that Bradlee considered his revolutionary (for that time) remake of the paper’s stodgy old “Of and For Women” section into an entirely new “Style” section – filled with trendy, adventurous writing on a host of topics light years beyond the old society section that documented weddings and offered childrearing advice – to have been his most creative achievement. Style set off a wave of imitators across the country and around the world. (Incidentally, his third wife, Sally Quinn, had been hired onto that section, and as romance bloomed, friends often asked when they would get hitched. To that, Bradlee had famously replied that they would, just as soon as the Vatican has a Polish pope. Shortly after Pope John Paul II had become pope, Bradlee and Quinn were married.)

During Bradlee’s tenure at the head of the paper, the Washington Post garnered eighteen Pulitzer Prizes, in comparison to a total of four before that, for its entire existence (and none of those had been in recognition of actual journalism efforts). Bradlee sometimes downplayed this success, saying, “Bet me that when I die, there will be something in my obit about how The Washington Post ‘won’ 18 Pulitzer prizes while Bradlee was editor.” He added that such a claim would be bunk and that the real winners had been the reporters – rather than editors or the papers. Still, many others would have said it had been his leadership that had made it all possible.

Watch: Bob Woodward and Karl Bernstein on Ben Bradlee’s legacy (PBS)

Still, it wasn’t an unending wave of success and glory for Bradlee at the top. Perhaps Bradlee’s worst professional moment was when crack reporter Janet Cooke claimed a Pulitzer Prize for her heart-wrenching reporting about a pre-teen heroin addict in a crime-ridden Washington neighbourhood, only to have to confess to having made up the entire saga. Appalled, Bradlee returned the Pulitzer for this serious public failure in editorial control at the paper, and instituted new checks and controls to prevent future lapses of this type.

Looking back over the totality of his time at The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee had artfully and forcefully led a major American newspaper to prominence at a time when a daily newspaper could stake a claim to a dominant place in the national news and intellectual landscape – and even internationally. But this was before the internet, electronic blogs, social media, and the ever-growing plethora of all-news cable and satellite television stations. Years from now, media historians may well judge Bradlee to have been the last great print journalism editor – in a line that reached back to Benjamin Franklin in colonial America – as a man who placed his distinctive stamp on an entire publication – and an industry.

This year, the Graham family that had been so closely identified with The Washington Post – a paper now shedding readers and subscribers from a high water mark of nearly a million daily buyers – sold the paper to owner Jeff Bezos. While this paper is still a major publication capable of serious in-depth reporting, its vaunted international network of correspondents is now a shadow of its former self. The paper is no longer a money-spinner (and, in fact, the family company was making its now much more modest profits from various education and other subsidiaries, rather than the paper that was the core of the company).

Perhaps it was a good thing Bradlee was no longer actively involved with the Post in his final years. Regardless, his monument is an crucial legacy that the press must not be broken by a politician; and that the US Constitution – especially that bit that speaks so eloquently about freedom of the press – remains infinitely more important than the strutting of a criminal president and his minions – and their lies and prevarications. DM

Photo: Ben Bradlee (Washington Post)

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