Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Yours in Truth - A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee

(image from

by Jeff Himmelman

Ben Bradlee comes as close to a god as you will find in Washington, DC.  Presidents enter and exit on schedule, but for nearly three decades Bradlee and The Post identified who was important, where Americans should focus our attention, and why we should care.  He was, by all reports, handsome, charismatic, and loved and feared by those who worked for him.   Most important was his commitment to ferreting out the news and explaining it with as little bias as possible, without concern for how the subject of the reporting might feel about it.  Anyone who lived in Washington, DC, from the late 1960s through the early 1980s knows what happened to The Washington Post during that tumultuous period.  The city’s second best newspaper, after The Washington Star, made history under Bradlee’s transformational leadership putting news reporting ahead of politics, friendship, personal freedom, and even money. 

In 2009, on the recommendation of Bob Woodward of “Watergate” fame,  Jeff Himmelman began the daunting task of writing about the life of Ben Bradlee.  In his own words:

In the permission letter that both Ben and Sally (Ben’s wife)signed when I undertook my book, Ben wrote, “I have given Jeff full access to my archives ... he has our permission to use what he deems necessary for the successful completion of the project.” Ben explicitly instructed me not to pull punches, and he never once told me not to use something I had found, including personal correspondence. When I brought a ( possibly troubling) memo to him (from his files) in March 2011, he said, “Don’t feel that you have to protect me. You and I have a great relationship, and there’s nothing you can do in this book that’s going to change it. So just follow your nose.”

Bradlee, to those who worked with him, was heroic, even mythic, an almost perfect example of leadership and certainly the standard bearer for what journalists aspire to be:  arbiters of unvarnished, unqualified truth.  Just the same he is and was human and made mistakes and misjudgments, some with damaging consequences.  There was no attempt on Bradlee’s part ever to hide or cover up any part of his career.  In his files, Himmelman found volumes of notes and copies of correspondence covering decades of Bradlee’s professional and personal life, as if Bradlee had prepared his whole life for someone to write about him.

Ben Bradlee was a man who seemed to have it all:  good looks, a blue-blood pedigree, some family money, charm, intelligence, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time.  In the late 1950s, Ben and his second wife, Tony, were walking down their street in Georgetown, DC, and introduced themselves to the young senator and his wife who had just moved in a few doors down.  The Bradlees and the Kennedys remained close friends until President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963.  Ben Bradlee, journalist first and friend second, kept detailed notes of his contacts with President and Mrs. Kennedy.  When the President died, Ben Bradlee wrote a heartfelt tribute to him which ran in Newsweek, a magazine which Bradlee had convinced Phil Graham, publisher of The Washington Post to purchase.  Later, Bradlee turned his record of the friendship into a book which was poorly received, most especially so by Mrs. Kennedy.

By the time that Richard Nixon was in the White House, Ben Bradlee had risen in the ranks of the Post to executive editor and this is when his life began to get really interesting.  In 1972, two of his local reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, connected a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel to a secret fund controlled by President Nixon’s re-election committee.  The ensuing investigation and elaborate cover-up led to Nixon resigning in order to avoid impeachment.  During this period, The Washington Post took great risks, essentially betting the company, to bring the facts to light.  Before Watergate, most Americans believed that the President of the United States, and the Federal Government, told the truth.  After Watergate, that innocence was lost forever.

Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of the Watergate story made them famous;  and in 1974 they published an account of the story behind the story called All the President’s Men, which was made into a film in 1976, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, respectively.  The part of Ben Bradlee was played by the brilliantly cast actor Jason Robards, who turned Bradlee from a local hero into a national celebrity.  The story of Watergate, in addition to the scandal inside the White House, was also about the responsibility of journalists to unearth the truth and bring it to light.  Inside the paper, there were conflicts over whether to let the two local reporters continue with the story or whether to turn it over to the national news reporting team.  In the movie, it is the Ben Bradlee character who decreed that “the boys” should keep the story.  The truth, uncovered by Jeff Himmelman, was somewhat different. 

The Washington Post has been owned by the same family since 1933 when Eugene Meyer bought it out of bankruptcy.  Meyer gave the paper to his son-in-law, Philip Graham, in 1946, who ran the company until his death in 1963.  Katharine Meyer Graham, with the support of the Post’s editorial staff, took over as publisher and it was she who stood by Ben Bradlee when the Nixon administration attempted to crush the release of the “Pentagon Papers” (detailing the horrors of the Viet Nam war) as well as the story of Watergate.  Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee were the ultimate power couple in Washington, except that their relationship was entirely platonic.  Just the same, Graham was the most important woman in Bradlee’s life, his closest and most constant friend.  Many in Washington suspected that the two were lovers, but Himmelman found no evidence of that even though Graham was clearly in love with Bradlee, according to almost everyone who knew her.

Following the Watergate era, the Post entered a period of heyday when it rivaled the New York Times in terms of news reporting.  Bradlee’s management style was to trust his reporters and their editors, after all it was only by trusting Bob Woodward’s information from a secret inside source known as “Deep Throat” that the paper was able to crack the Watergate scandal wide open.  In the late 1980s, a young African-American journalist named Janet Cooke joined the staff and she brought the Post a different kind of fame.  Like so many professions, journalism had long been dominated by Caucasian men.  While white women had begun to make inroads, there were very few African Americans on the reporting staff of the Post.  Bradlee began to make a concerted effort to change that and Cooke was one of his most promising hires.  Unfortunately, she was also a pathological liar who fabricated a news story about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy.  Her series on “Jimmy’s World” earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 which Bradlee had to give back when fact-checkers could not verify any part of Cooke’s story.  This was a shameful episode for Bradlee and The Washington Post, but Katharine Graham refused his resignation when he offered it.  

Yours in Truth not only tells the life story of Ben Bradlee, it also examines the nature of truth and how to tell it.  Bradlee’s good friend John F. Kennedy once said, “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”  That statement gets at the essence of Bradlee’s approach to journalism as well as his instructions to his young biographer, Jeff Himmelman.  The love that Himmelman has for his subject comes through on every page even when the truth as he discovered it was uncomfortable, even embarrassing.  Any dilution or veiling of the facts would not have done justice to the legacy of Ben Bradlee.

It was Bradlee’s wife, Sally Quinn, who instigated the biography and brought Jeff Himmelman into their lives.  Bradlee was not enamored of the idea, but eventually agreed to go along after a lot of pushing by Quinn.  According to Himmelman, Sally Quinn is an extremely talented and complicated person who is often surrounded by drama of her own making.  Writing about her and the marriage was clearly akin to walking through a minefield because she is often difficult to be around and apparently has a fragile ego.  Just the same, Himmelman accepted Quinn’s extremely gracious hospitality on many occasions as he sifted through thousands of pages from Ben Bradlee’s archives.  A less courageous biographer might have edited Quinn out to the extent possible or hidden behind superficialities when writing about her, but her relationship to Bradlee is so integral to the story that doing so would have probably have upset her more than what Himmelman wrote.  Himmelman understood that his job was to write the truth as he saw it without regard to how his subjects might react, after all, he was writing about the Master, himself.

Biographers tend to fall in love with their subjects, obsessively, defensively, and blindly, and this is why theirs is one of the most difficult writing tasks, especially when the subject and many of the important people in his or her life are still living. Given Bradlee’s iconic stature, it is easy to imagine Himmelman being a bit intimidated as well as awestruck, but Yours in Truth reveals neither of these weaknesses.  Himmelman took Bradlee at his word and pulled no punches with the result being a fine example of journalism in the great Ben Bradlee tradition.  He may have done his work too well, however, because ever since publication, no one in the Bradlee household will take Himmelman’s calls.  In time I expect that Ben Bradlee will reach out to his young biographer and thank him for this book, because if anyone can handle the truth it is Ben Bradlee.  

Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander all rights reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment