A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures
By Ben Bradlee
Simon & Schuster, 514 pages, $27.50
Ben Bradlee, celebrity editor at the Washington Post, has a lot to answer for. And I don’t mean for bringing down Nixon’s presidency, for which he modestly disclaims credit (saying that Nixon destroyed Nixon). I mean for his part in making journalism so glamorous and exciting that—like a bad currency—daily and hourly news is driving the more substantial elements of our culture to the margins. Bradlee himself frequently expresses uneasiness about this, and about the “celebrification” of journalists, but doesn’t seem to understand what it means or what could be done about it.
The advantage in our “culture wars” is obviously held by the forces of “change,” which hardly feel the need for justification, however mindless or pointless the change may seem. And thoughtful people understand that the mass media—and specifically the element of dailiness—have something vitally important to do with this. A society once bound together by a shared culture is now held together—or prodded along—by an information media that fragment reality for the sake of profits. Ben Bradlee was perhaps the single most important person in this development, and would accept a certain amount of credit. He is still sufficiently old-fashioned to think that the dangers from journalism are those of bias and inaccuracy, and justifies himself in those terms. The real danger, however, comes from a news consciousness that, rather than direct our attention to anything significant, seeks merely to give our minds a forward spin.
One hates to be critical of a man who is such good company in this memoir, admitting to errors, embarrassments, fears, and disappointments, as well as including us in his many triumphs. He is not settling old scores or correcting the record in his favor or proving his foresight. He even tones down his famous profanity (comparable only to Nixon’s, he has been told) although he remains a salty old pirate. But he almost invites us to use this very personal memoir as a parable of America’s development since 1945. And when we do, we are led to some disturbing reflections.
Bradlee had a conventional Boston Episcopalian upbringing, complete with private school, athletics, girls (or as he likes to put it, “getting laid”), and some mild carousing. Religious training shows through his prose at several points. Early on, he rejected an ancestral Republicanism, thinking it simply a lack of independent thought, but can still admit having enjoyed breaking the labor unions’ grip on his paper. Essentially, he is a man of action rather than reflection, not entering his business in order to push an agenda but more to stir things up. Or one might say that Bradlee was more of an iconoclast than a radical, assuming the economic and bureaucratic structure while churning over our politics and culture.
A Harvard education did not concentrate Bradlee’s mind as much as his stint in the wartime Navy, and he came out wanting to find a job “that would really make a difference.” The options were teaching or journalism, and it didn’t take him long to decide which was more likely to decide “the battles of history.”
After a temporary job with the ACLU, Bradlee helped launch a small newspaper in New Hampshire and began dreaming of “putting politicians in jail.” When the paper failed, however, he used his French to land a press attache’s job at the U.S. embassy in Paris—a hint of the growing symbiosis of government and press, rather than that boasted confrontationalism.
Switching jobs to Newsweek’s Paris bureau, Bradlee noticed that his wartime marriage was going under, partly because he was so consumed with his work. In the breaking up of families—his own and others—there is a certain amount of talk about guilt, or guilt feelings. But as he admits, newsmen—at least those in the stratosphere of the profession—don’t really have a family life. Bradlee then marks the point at which he was able to break out of his “Puritan legacies about sex and joy,” and how “the world looked differently to me ever since.”
Newsweek allowed Bradlee to move back to Washington, “the sleepy southern town that World War II had made the capital of the free world.” It suited him down to the ground. David Halberstam once described Bradlee as a man without an attention span in a town without an attention span. There is nothing in this memoir to suggest that Bradlee was distressed at Washington’s lack of ideas or ideals. He does not articulate a political purpose (much less a program) behind his activities, except that the news industry should keep the process open and honest. Any hint of deception energizes him.
For example, there was Joseph McCarthy. Like others, Bradlee credits the press with having brought him down. Actually, of course, the press built McCarthy up, and Bradlee unwittingly adds to the evidence of how the Senator’s campaign ballooned with the press’ eager attention. It was the Senate that brought him down. Something a little different would happen to LBJ and Nixon, as fear of the new journalism drove them to acts we all regret.
John Kennedy was a different matter. As Bradlee says, he spoke the same language as journalists, which essentially meant viewing politics as sport. As it happened, Kennedy also moved in next to Bradlee in Georgetown, and their families became as thick as thieves. Jackie used to complain that the couples never had meaningful conversations, since the men were only interested in political gossip. Bradlee would take some flak later when he turned his memories of JFK into a book. And to someone so sensitive to hypocrisy it was a serious shock to discover that JFK deceived him regarding his affair with Bradlee’s sister-in-law. At the time, Kennedy’s “openness” with the press had convinced Bradlee that journalists did not have to check up on him as they did those politicians who seemed “holier than thou.”
Bradlee was disappointed that Newsweek wasn’t making more of its opportunities for making an “impact.” His first major move was to get Phil Graham, owner of the Washington Post, to buy the magazine, and his next move was to jump to the Post after Graham’s suicide. His goal at the Post was to catch the New York Times, and that was to be done by “creating a sense of excitement.”
Events would soon play into Bradlee’s hands. With the Vietnam War came the Pentagon Papers episode, which is the most revealing episode in this book. In a gripping account Bradlee shows how close he came, as managing editor, to wrecking the paper on the legal and financial rocks for a goal—scooping the competition—that would strike most of us as trivial. Bradlee cannot have thought that the story told in the Pentagon Papers would not come out within a matter of weeks, but he could not stand to think that the Times would be talked about while the Post stood by and read about it. Being the center of attention was the point, and for that he was willing to risk a good deal of the Grahams’ money. It worked; the Post moved into the upper echelon. To someone not in the news business, Bradlee’s accounts of the frantic activity that supports five deadlines a day and the lengths that papers will go to in order to scoop rivals by a few hours will seem curious. Until one reflects on the centrality of profits to the news industry—a topic that never arises in Bradlee’s account.
Bradlee does not make a lot of how the news brought an end to the Vietnam War, which was, after all, our longest war. He is waiting to get to Watergate, which was the Post’s finest hour. The story told here adds nothing to the accounts of others, which all attest to Bradlee’s steadiness, courage, and sound judgment in that sometimes frightening scene. Granted, the Post learned of Watergate only after the courts were onto the case, and the lawyers and detectives for the Democratic Party, FBI, Federal judiciary, and congressional committees tend to be forgotten. The movie about the scandal was not about them but about the journalists, to Bradlee’s embarrassed delight.
The aftermath of Watergate was hard on Bradlee. He had created a high-performance craft—the envy of his journalistic peers—that now found itself in the shallows. He had some hopes of Irangate, but was disappointed to find that the country couldn’t get excited about it. There was also some chagrin as he learned more about JFK. Those who have read Conversations with Kennedy will be surprised to find how much less Bradlee now sees in the man. As he admits, “the truth about Kennedy, like all truths, emerges slowly.” It is enough to make one question his favorite quote from Phil Graham, that news is the first draft of history. So many first drafts end up in the wastebasket.
Bradlee has had to confront other unwelcome facts about his business. He can sometimes be brought to admit that “I am less sure today . . . that the public is best served by knowing everything the second an incident happens.” He takes credit for using discernment in deciding what to print and what to withhold, but worries that some editors don’t show such moderation.
It is odd that Bradlee never blames the press itself for the growth of the celebrity culture that he laments. And yet he frankly admits that his constant goal was to have his paper talked about. Stories were important if they “grabbed the town by the throat.” He is vastly enjoying his own celebrity, by this account, but can’t help worrying over the frantic efforts of followers who want to duplicate his success. Saddest of all was the case of Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a story she had entirely made up in the world’s most high-pressure newsroom. It was only to be expected, given the “star” system that Bradlee encouraged, and in explaining it he comes close to a realization of the lamentable effect of his career. Instead, however, he veers away to blame TV for the lack of a necessary “context” for reports.
Bradlee finally does express some dismay at the decline of “truth” in our nation’s life. Newsmakers are increasingly liars, he notes, and agencies like the CIA, which used to be responsible when reporters approached them for information, now make a mess when they “try to make things happen.” One could say the same about the press itself. But this is no more than an aside; Bradlee has no reflections on the giddiness of our politics, the trashiness of our culture, the irresponsibility of our social life. Or the part that a developing news industry played in it all.
C. John Sommerville teaches history at the University of Florida and is author of The News Revolution in England: Cultural Tendencies of a News Consciousness, to be published by Oxford University Press this summer