A Good Life by Ben Bradlee
The Way of the Brahmin
A Good Life: Newspapering and other Adventures
by Ben Bradlee
Simon & Schuster. $14 pp. $21.50
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee is without question one of the great American newspapermen of the century; the word Watergate alone would serve to place him in that not always admirable pantheon. But then there are three words more: the Washington Post. With the active support of the Graham family, whose property the paper is, the Post as we know it is essentially Bradlee’s creation—an immense achievement, and one which flies in the face of the critic A.J. Liebling’s observation that freedom of the press in America consists mainly of the right to own one.
During Bradlee’s tenure as executive editor, which ran from 1968 to 1991, the Post, hitherto a sedate, provincial daily, became what he tells us he had always intended it to be, the only newspaper to be mentioned in the same breath as the New York Times (the center of another vast, family-controlled media empire). Under Bradlee, the Post redefined investigative reporting, feature reporting, gossip; most of all, it may have redefined the role of modern journalism. Along with the Times, the Post became a crusading liberal newspaper—the one Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew loved to hate, until they themselves were no more—and, even more than the Times, the force that politicians and bureaucrats had to face over their morning coffee. As Post columnist Meg Greenfield said at Bradlee’s retirement, “Ben made the Post dangerous to people in government.”
Altogether, then, there is a lot to acknowledge—and a lot to answer for. But quite apart from the issue of Bradlee’s influence, there is also the man himself, who has cut a personal swath to match his journalistic stature. A salty-tongued Boston Brahmin who floated from Harvard via the Navy into journalism; friend and Georgetown streetmate of John F. Kennedy and, in his pre-Post days as White House correspondent of Newsweek, intimate scribe of Camelot; pillar of the Washington power structure, regardless of who was in power, for more than 30 years, Bradlee has been a social lion as well as a corporate tiger, and the most important native exemplar of the journalist-grandee.
With such a trajectory, the field for personal reminiscence could hardly be richer. And so the pity is all the greater that this memoir is a disappointment. Not only does Bradlee have so many predictable things to say, but he says them so predictably. Thus, we learn that the task of journalism is to strike fear and trembling amid the powerful in government; that journalism itself needs more honesty; and so forth. What this book leaves mostly unanswered, in fact almost unexamined, is the question of what makes Ben Bradlee tick. In over 500 pages, he never dips far below his craggy and well-tailored surface.
Instead, we are left with a maze of contradictions, personal and political alike. However deep Bradlee’s distrust of power, for example—a common journalistic prejudice—it seems hardly ever to have been on display on social occasions (except, perhaps, those involving the Nixon and Reagan White Houses). However sweeping his passion for the common man—a passion which has impelled many a journalistic crusade—it rarely colors this work, which is by and large a loving recollection of the status enjoyed and the successful career paths traversed by those Bradlee has known along his way. However strong his liberal opinions, we never learn what, exactly, they are.
Bradlee acknowledges at the outset that something is missing, excusing himself as “a newspaperman trained to stay off the stage and keep himself and his feelings out of the story.” But this leads to even greater puzzlement. The same man who helped to nail the adulterous Senator Gary Hart to the mast is capable of telling us that in his own fabled intimacy with JFK—foursome weekends splashing around in swimming pools, more than 125 interviews collated in Conversations With Kennedy—he had no knowledge whatsoever of the President’s energetic extramarital sex life. Indeed, Bradlee says he was shocked and appalled when he found out the truth, and no more so than when he discovered that Kennedy had had an affair with Bradlee’s own sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot. He goes so far as to state that if the public had known of Kennedy’s involvement with Judith Exner, the one-time girlfriend of Chicago mobster Sam Giancana, the President “would have been impeached.” But having unburdened himself of this thought, he moves swiftly and resolutely on.
Nor is that the end of it. The same Ben Bradlee who in 1971 fought all the way to the Supreme Court for clearance to print the classified Pentagon Papers (on the record of American military involvement in Vietnam) reveals here that he tipped off the CIA’s William Webster in 1986 when a low-level CIA employee wanted to spill the beans about the extent of U.S. penetration of Soviet nuclear systems. And Bradlee the aggressive defender of the press’s First Amendment prerogatives passed along to the CIA in 1981 what he and his editors suspected—correctly—were Russian missile secrets, in part to “combat the constant charge from the morons that the press in general—and the Post in particular—regularly disregarded the interests of the country for a scoop.”
Bradlee was, in other words, anxious to be regarded as a patriot when it mattered—or perhaps when he had something useful to barter with the powerful agencies he more often baited. For if anything consistent emerges from this tale of a Brahmin’s ascent, it is that Bradley’s real obsession has been not with ideology or ideas but with proximity and access: to the wealthy, the powerful, the talented, and the successful. “I like people with style, with flair, with signature qualities,” he writes, “provided they have more than style and flair and signature qualities.” He is, of course, one of them—and also a fan of them, a tireless networker among them, an aspirant to their company.
In that connection, the most interesting stories Bradlee tells here are the early ones: of a childhood in a merchant banking family staggered by the Depression, his father reduced to the role of an accountant; of an education at St. Mark’s prep school paid for by his cousin Frank Crowninshield, founder of Vanity Fair and in-law to the DuPonts; of the support given to his family by his maternal grandfather, a name partner in the law firm of Cravath, deGersdorff, Swaine & Wood. From childhood on, Bradlee was schooled in the reality that connections to the well-placed were what mattered most.
To be sure, it was only in the narrow social circles of Boston that Bradlee could be considered anything of an outsider—but those were the circles that forged his perceptions and his principles (another trait he shared with Kennedy). If his family was pushed out of those privileged confines by the Depression, the story Bradlee tells here is, among other things, a tale of how he himself got back in. It is thus only fitting that the journey should have reached its apotheosis in the part he played in the downfall of Washington’s paramount outsider: that inveterate loner, resentful scholarship boy, and suspicious anti-establishmentarian, Richard Milhous Nixon.
Having come full circle in his Wasp’s progress, Bradlee is not always sure he approves of the changes he helped to cause in American political and journalistic life. He is not happy, for example, about the press’s unceasing invasion of the privacy of the great and good, although he accepts it as one consequence of the rules he helped to write. (As his stories about Kennedy demonstrate, the way to avoid having to publish truly indiscreet things is to make sure never to find them out in the first place.) He is also concerned about the insistence in newsrooms on protecting at all costs the anonymity of sources—journalism’s potential short-circuit of the right of every man to face his accuser; but without recourse to that practice, this autobiography would have been a lot shorter and, in the case of Watergate and “Deep Throat,” it would have been robbed of its central drama.
Bradlee himself paid a price for the practice of relying on anonymous sources when, in 1981, the Post had to return a Pulitzer Prize won by one of its young black reporters after it was revealed that her story about an eight-year-old heroin addict in a Washington slum was a complete fabrication. But the remedies he says he then adopted were little more than a reaffirmation of past practice, with added emphasis on vetting résumés.
It is, in fact, difficult for Bradlee to dislike what he has in such large measure brought about, no matter what misgivings he might harbor. And that is understandable. A book entitled A Good Life is after all not the place to turn for an analysis of what the liberal elitism incarnated by Bradlee and the Post has done to the country, a catalogue that by now would have to include the inevitable reactions to that elitism in the form of 90’s populism and, even, nativism. Such a book, especially if penned by one of the most driven, combative, and talented press figures of the age, would have been a lot more insightful than A Good Life—but that is not this Brahmin’s way.