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A Celebrated Editor

The curious case of Benjamin Bradlee

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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Grey Gardens itself is a marvel. .  .  . Like Ben and Sally’s other two homes, it’s ritzy and historic and perfectly restored and all of that, but more than anything it’s just a beautiful place. The gardens take up an entire acre and are as lush as you can imagine, full of archways and hydrangeas and picturesque seating arrangements that nobody ever uses. .  .  . Time spent there is an idyll. You get up whenever you want. .  .  . Evelyn cooks your breakfast to order. .  .  . In the Hamptons, there’s always a party, and Ben and Sally are always invited. .  .  . One of Ben’s favorite aphorisms, taken from the Jewish elders, is “Love work, hate domination, and steer clear of the ruling class.”

Sally Quinn, Benjamin Bradlee, Ali Wentworth, and George Stephanopoulos, 2009

Sally Quinn, Benjamin Bradlee, Ali Wentworth, and George Stephanopoulos, 2009

Getty

One of my favorite aphorisms is: Never cite Jewish aphorisms on the perniciously seductive ruling class when you’re writing an extended mash note to Benjamin Bradlee and his various residences, all of it stuffed with words like “lush,” “idyll,” and “hydrangeas.” I don’t know what Evelyn feels about the whole thing as she cooks my breakfast to order, but personally, as a former Washington Post employee, one of those handpicked by Ben Bradlee to his eternal regret, I felt that Yours in Truth had very little to do with the T-word in the title or, least of all, with the former newspaper editor and his third wife, and far more to do with the aspirations of its author. The Great Gatsby may have been written almost a century ago, but Jeff Himmelman, the author of this lengthy tribute, has spent many years and many, many pages trying to jump into Nick Carraway’s shriveled skin.

But let’s start with the headlines. Bob Woodward, the famed Watergate scandal unraveler and lone remnant of the Washington Post from its glory days still in situ, is really angry with Himmelman, who used to work for him as an assistant. Woodward says Himmelman “shamelessly used” Bradlee in the book, but what Woodward really means is that Himmelman shamelessly used Woodward—sucked up to him for years, in other words, and then tossed him to the sharks, in Woodward’s view. This bears some analysis.

In the book, Bradlee confirms to the author that he always entertained some doubts about Woodward’s veracity in certain details, specifically about how the reporter went about meeting with his chief Watergate scandal source. That source was of course Deep Throat, so labeled because Throat’s words were imparted on rules governing deep background (meaning he couldn’t be named and couldn’t be quoted). In years to come, the world would learn that Deep Throat was actually an FBI higher-up named Mark Felt, and I bet you don’t care a bit whether or not Woodward moved a plant on his balcony 40 years ago as a signal to meet with Throat.

(An aside: Many of us at the Post back then always suspected that certain details regarding the enticing source were purposefully .  .  . muddied, shall we say .  .  . in order to hide Throat’s true identity. For instance, practically all of us suspected he didn’t drink scotch. A similar point can be made about a grand juror who, as Himmelman discovers, in defiance of the law and a judge’s instructions provided material information about the scandal to the Post reporters, and was never mentioned back then in order to protect the source.)

The point is that Woodward cares about all this. He cares deeply, passionately, and insanely because, Woodward intimates to the author, if you start doubting the motile plant on Woodward’s balcony, you start doubting the truth of the whole shebang: Richard Nixon’s culpability, the rationale for his resignation, the involvement of his top subordinates. In other words, Woodward takes himself, as men past their golden moments so often do, a bit too seriously. Nixon didn’t resign because of a plant or a garage encounter; he resigned because he and those he led were all guilty, either of the Watergate crimes or the cover-up, and two young men on the outside had found them out.

So the problem with Yours in Truth is not Woodward’s beefs, which are petty; it’s the truth itself that’s in jeopardy. Ben Bradlee was, very often, a great leader and a brave and innovative editor until after Watergate, when he gave up those qualities for—I don’t know, really. Maybe for “ritzy historical” homes, maybe for the prospect of an eternity at Grey Gardens, maybe for a life where courage and leadership would no longer make demands and be the obstacles to personal happiness they once had been. 

All this abandonment occurred shortly after the more significant Watergate articles had been written (and defended), and also shortly after my arrival at the Post as a Style section writer, so I know a bit about it. Bradlee’s negligence came as a shock, a severe one, and the Post never recovered.

I had been aware of certain Bradlee shortcomings well before I started working at the Post, because during my year at Columbia’s graduate school of journalism I had worked part-time for French television, and in that latter capacity had interviewed Bradlee for a documentary. Naturally, after meeting him—he was already becoming legendary for his daring, as was the Post—I peppered him with letters begging for employment, and each one of these pleas was answered in pretty vague terms until the end of the response, at which point the great editor would always ask, pointedly: When is the program with my interview airing in France? And when can I see the documentary?

He was, in other words, a lot vainer than other famous journalists I had met (the CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, interviewed for the same show, never sent me those queries), maybe a lot more superficial, and underneath everything—the patrician air, the WASPish bearing that Himmelman pants about quite embarrassingly and at length—fairly insecure. Bradlee, I sensed, needed to see himself on television.

What took me aback, what really struck me most forcefully on finally arriving at the Post a few years later, was Bradlee’s calculated and dangerous distance from most things and most people in the newsroom, with the notable exception of the Style writer Sally Quinn who, by then, was his acknowledged girlfriend (she had previously been his unacknowledged girlfriend). You could see Bradlee—the door to his office was made of glass—but unless you worked in the Style section, you didn’t get to see him up close. So I can say for a certainty that, in my five years there, the only time I knew Bradlee to take a stance or hold a strong opinion on anything I or most people wrote—anything at all—was when I interviewed a transsexual former FBI agent. 

“How could you have allowed me to shake hands with her?” Bradlee asked, his voice rising. He wasn’t kidding. He was mad. I had interviewed the transsexual at the Madison Hotel’s restaurant, where Bradlee also happened to be eating. But once back at the Post, when told my subject’s history, the editor stared at the hand that had shaken hers with unfeigned horror. Then he set about editing my copy, and all words pertaining to details of the gender change were as cleanly excised as the ex-agent’s sexual organ. 

Once upon a time, as Woodward recalls in the book, Bradlee was famous for coming up to his favorite reporter, absorbing every last detail “in two minutes,” and then saying, “Where is this coming from? How sure are you?”—as though, Woodward adds, “what you’re doing is blessed.”

Well, that was then.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher, wasn’t the only one struck by the impropriety of his visits to the Style section; but aside from Howard Simons—the managing editor who made no secret of his loathing for Brad-
lee and Quinn both, a loathing that unsettled everyone—Graham was the only one who dared voice her concerns. For the rest, almost all editors fell into line. For years and years, for hours and days on end, Quinn’s every sentence would be parsed, pored over by an array of editors, scrubbing, polishing, buffing her words into whatever they thought Ben might like to read during his drop-bys, or over breakfast.

(Some of this extraordinary treatment faded when Shelby Coffey became Style editor in 1976. So much so, in fact, that Sally Quinn invited me to lunch—a unique experience in our relationship—to beg me to join her in her fierce campaign to unload Coffey. I demurred, but did ask, “What does Ben think of what you’re doing?” She swallowed a tranquilizer before replying: “He told me if I don’t like Shelby I should just quit.”)

Himmelman writes about none of this, for two simple reasons. One, he doesn’t appear to have interviewed, likely by choice, anyone willing to discuss much that would detract from the purity of the Bradlee legend. And two, he can’t bring himself, even when the facts indicate this might be appropriate, to criticize the subjects of his ardor. I imagine that’s what happens when you have a biographer who writes of his subject: “He’s bigger than you are, than everyone is.” And: “I would be content if the picture I have of him grinning and holding my newborn daughter is the only thing that I keep with me for my time spent working on this book.”

Here, for example, is Himmelman’s take on the aftermath of the Janet Cooke affair, a true debacle and, unmentioned by the author, an almost inevitable outgrowth of the fact that the identity of Woodward’s source was never revealed to Bradlee until after Nixon resigned. Cooke was a Post reporter who invented a story about a child heroin addict, her sources never identified, questioned, or verified before publication. It won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize, which, when the jig was up and the enormity of the fabrication discovered, had to be given back. The Post immediately deployed a kindhearted ombudsman, Bill Green, to examine what went wrong. (Evidently, not much: “The Post is one of the very few great enterprises in journalism, and everybody associated with it ought to be proud of it,” was the astonishing conclusion. “Green, you ungrateful son-of-a-bitch, I salute you,” Bradlee commented on finishing the piece, doubtless with considerable relief.)

“That was one for the ages. It ranks high among my private treasures,” the ombudsman later wrote to Bradlee. Himmelman allows this particular treasure to pass untarnished—evidently without realizing, or at least without mentioning, that the Washington Star, significantly, was the first to report on the fabrication.

But aside from the fearful neglect of editors (Bradlee included) in failing to check the unbridled imagination of a new, untried reporter, there were other issues at the Post, unmentioned by Himmelman. Quinn committed a grievous error in 1979, reporting that President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had unzipped his fly in front of a female journalist (he had not). The newspaper had to retract Quinn’s claim after its terrified editors were summoned to the White House the following day. In other words, the very employees who had been pretty much cornered, nudged into accepting without challenge all the aperçus of a favored reporter, found their heads on the chopping block.

And there were other problems, as serious but more general. No one ever expected the Post to top the days of its Watergate revelations. But there was a general feeling, always, that it should be doing something new and challenging—an ambition Bradlee referred to, however obliquely, when I said goodbye to him on quitting the Post for its local rival, the Star, which had offered me a political column.

“They’ll never read you in New York City, kid,” were the editor’s parting words. And they surprised me—not because Bradlee had just dashed whatever hopes I cherished that everyone in New York would be aching to read my columns in the Star, but because no one I knew in New York, outside of a few journalists who skimmed it occasionally, actually read the Washington Post. Bradlee had had his chance to make the Post a national paper, and he had blown it. Simons, the managing editor, had a horror of going national, but Simons could easily be overridden by Bradlee, and often was. Bradlee could do as he pleased. The problem was not simply that he no longer appeared to know what was best; the problem was that he had instincts without vision.

Of course, now that the Post is online, things have changed. People read it—for free. And that brings me to my final point, one that Himmelman never mentions: With every passing day the Post, the daily edition, grows more and more anorexic and malnourished. It contains little that is new, astonishing, or memorable. The writing is often poor. Its average daily circulation numbers have dropped by more than 42,000 since the beginning of this year. Its Sunday edition is down more than 15 percent. Since 2003, two years after Bradlee’s departure, there have been five buyouts, and it now has a publisher, a granddaughter of Katharine Graham, who thought it a good idea to charge lobbyists thousands of dollars in admission to her soirées where they could meet and impress Post reporters at her home.

The sadness of this is not that none of this had to happen—almost certainly it did have to happen—but that the decline began with Benjamin Bradlee, long before the Internet moved in and gobbled up print. The triumph and the tragedy were both Bradlee’s. And the Post’s decline began much earlier than its rivals’, at first imperceptibly, and then markedly. 

What makes me most unhappy these days, as I glance at the Post, is that after glancing at it, I move on. And so does everyone else.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.