A Celebrated Editor
The curious case of Benjamin Bradlee
Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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
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.