Speaking of newsrooms….
Yours in Truth: A Personal Biography of Ben Bradlee became a controversial book when it rolled off the printing presses and onto the shelves of the brick and mortar and the internet book sellers. Its release date was May 8th, 2012. Author Jeff Himmelman took fire from a lot of folks for what he wrote. A guy like me, who had lived through the Watergate days, had never heard of the Himmelman book until I heard Terry Gross, of the Fresh Air radio show on NPR, (click —>) who replayed excerpts from an interview she did with Bradlee back in 1995. This rebroadcast was just the day after Ben Bradlee had passed away, at the age of 93, near the end of October 2014.
I had knowledge of Bradlee, the famed Executive Editor of the Washington Post, but that probably didn’t have any kind of depth or clarity until after I had seen the film All The President’s Men which was released in 1976. Following the Fresh Air replay of the Bradlee interview, I re-watched All The President’s Men on Amazon Instant Video. This was the last week in October of this year.
Watching that film led to more research, and I ordered the Himmelman book from Barnes & Noble. I have recently completed the book, and following that, I started to look into reading some book reviews. To my surprise, many of the reviews took Himmelman to task, claiming that he had been openly negative about Bradlee in many instances.
It was also true, that Himmelman at times painted many of the people in the book whose circles intersected with Bradlee in less than ideal terms. People like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Richard Nixon, as well Bob Woodward, the investigative journalist. Bradlee who has married three times made available to Himmelman a near lifetime of files, memos, correspondence, and personal letters = both sent and unsent.
I must also state that Himmelman reported early on in the book that Bradlee had told him point-blank that he didn’t give a fuck about what Himmelman wrote.
Bradlee was a Boston Brahmin – a member of a group of old, wealthy New England families of British Protestant origin which were influential in the development of American institutions and culture. Benjamin Crowninshield (now there’s a middle name you don’t hear very often) Bradlee went to Harvard University. In fact, Himmelman tells us that Bradlee was the 55th Bradlee to attend Harvard. Fifty=five members of one family attended Harvard? Wow – to give you an idea about that – I can’t even name 55 members of my own family on both my mother’s and my father’s sides of the family. And that’s not even considering who attended Harvard.
Bradlee may have been born with the proverbial silver spoon nearby – but he went to school, then enlisted in the Navy early on during World War II. In fact it was just a few days before he shipped out that he married Jean Saltonstall who was also from a Boston Brahmin family. At some point much later, when asked about this marriage, Ben would claim that he couldn’t really explain it. He said, the Saltonstalls may have had a Governor or a Senator somewhere on the family tree, but the family had watered out … in fact no Saltonstall, male or female, had done a goddamn thing in years.
Lest you get the wrong impression, this was NOT the main thrust of the book. Himmelman was not out to shovel shit around. Clearly this was not a book that would slide straight into the tell all, warts and all be damned, fly-on-the-wall book category. We could say that it was slightly unsanitized. And it mattered not if the topic was Jean Saltonstall Bradlee, Ben first wife, or Toni Pinchot Pittman Bradlee, Ben’s second wife, or even Sally Quinn, Ben Bradlee’s third and last wife.
For me the main thrust of the book was the story of Ben Bradlee as the Executive Editor of the Washington Post. First came the Pentagon Papers,
then Ben Bradlee and the Watergate – an ordeal that the country had to live with for nearly two years after Woodward and Bernstein first reported the story of the original break in at the Democratic Party Headquarters in the Watergate Apartment Complex.
The story of the pressure the Post was under. The denials and the non-denial denials that seemingly came from the White House and Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler on a near daily basis.
If you lived through that era, then you know that it didn’t end when Nixon resigned and left the White House. It would linger for a while when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein published their book, All The President’s Men, and then in 1978, that book was made into a movie with Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards who portrayed Ben Bradlee.
All through that period, Ben Bradlee’s star was rising. There’s a famous quote that summarizes what sort of cliff, the Washington Post was stepping off when Graham and Bradlee told Bernstein and Woodward to stay on the story. Of course they did, and the further they got, the more shocking the story became.
Ben Bradlee: goddamnit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story? You guys are about to write a story that says the former Attorney General, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook! Just be sure you’re right.
But pursue it they did. The courage of Bradlee and the Graham did pay off, as did the work of everyone on the story. By the spring and summer of 1974 the pressure continue to mount. More and more people, even within the Republican Party had urged President Nixon to do the right thing.
But Nixon was resistant. Until August 8th, 1974 when Nixon went on TV to address the nation. I don’t recall exactly what he said – but it had to do with being for the good of the country.
In the history of the United Sates, there have been just 8 US Presidents who did not complete a term in office. Three died of illnesses while President, and four were assassinated. One, and only one President resigned.
That was Richard Milhous Nixon who left office on August 9th, 1974.
But this wasn’t the end of the Himmelman book. There was a lot more to tell. and not all of it was good.
Bradlee had been friends with John F Kennedy. The Kennedy’s and the Bradlee’s were neighbors in the 3300 block on N Street in Georgetown. They saw each other socially. On May 18th, 1960, the day of the key West Virginia Primary, a vote that would help propel JFK towards the presidency, the Kennedy’s and the Bradlee’s had dinner together. JFK was so restless, that after dinner, they all went out to see a movie. That was 1960 and it gave one the idea of the how well placed Ben Bradlee was in Washington.
But LBJ always resented that Bradlee, who worked for Newsweek Magazine back then, had backed Kennedy rather than Johnson as the Democrat’s choice to run for president in the 1960 elections.
Years later, in 1964, Ben had written a piece for Newsweek that stated that President Johnson had begun a search for the successor to J. Edgar Hoover as the head of the FBI. Shortly thereafter, Johnson held a press conference to announce that he had reappointed Hoover, essentially in perpetuity (for life). On the way out to deliver that announcement, Johnson pulled Bill Moyers aside. Moyers was Johnson’s close and trusted advisor. Moyers had also been the source for Bradlee’s story. Johnson said to Moyers, You tell your friend Ben Bradlee, fuck you!
Then there was Janet Cooke in 1981. Cooke had written a piece for the Post about an 8-year-old boy who had become a heroin addict. The piece was called Jimmy’s World. Of course the story made headlines in Washington, then nationally, and even internationally. Janet Cooke was ultimately awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the story.
But it was all made up – a fabrication – something that Cooke did on her own.
The net result was that Cooke could not bring Jimmy in, as there was no Jimmy. The Post was under fire because instead of bringing Jimmy to the attention of the authorities as a victim of a drug crime, the Post ran the story, and even when suspicions arose, the Post defended Cooke. So Cooke had to return the Pulitzer Prize. And she resigned from the Washington Post.
Since Ben Bradlee was the Post’s Executive Editor – this happened on his watch. While he wasn’t sacked, it was a low moment in his career.
I guess the biggest thing in the book, that drew the most attention was that there came a point when Bradlee, on the record, stated that “There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.” The reference was about Woodward and his Watergate contact known at the time as Deep Throat. Bradlee made this remark in 1990, and he was still the Executive Editor of the Post. This was 18 years after the Watergate incident, and 16 years after Nixon had resigned. Himmelman has mentioned in the book, that for this statement to come out, so many years later, he had to investigate it.
When author Jeff Himmelman brought this to the attention of Bob Woodward in 2010, Woodward was passionate that this should absolutely NOT be included in the book which was still in progress at the time. Woodward begged Himmelman not to use the Bradlee quote, so then Himmelman went back to Bradlee in the wake of Woodward’s reaction. But Bradlee stood by his quote, and expressed support for Jeff to include it in the book. But with a caveat:
Bradlee was only doubting some of the Hollywood aspects of Deep Throat in the movie, and not in the reporting that went into the Washington Post. While this was not a ringing endorsement, or a denial, or even a non-denial denial, not every one took it the way Bradlee said it.
So Himmelman did include this in the book, and the caveat, and thereby or still incurred a lot of heat, from some, for portraying Bradlee, as interpreted by some, in a ‘bad light’.
My thought was that this book was a fascinating read. If you lived through the Bradlee era at the Washington Post, and were around for Richard Nixon’s ‘political suicide’, then this is a book you should have a look at. Richard Nixon won the election in 1972 by the biggest margin ever in a Presidential vote, Nixon swept every state except Massachusetts, and Nixon also lost Washington DC. So, when he left office, in ’74, there was great disappointment by many as well as jubilation by others.
Just as there was jealousy and disappointment about Ben Bradlee. Toward the end of the book, Himmelman tells us of a notation he found in the files of David Halberstam. Halberstam’s note read: Those who wanted him to be more were always disappointed.
But Ben was as human as all of us. He wasn’t an oracle or a God. If some thought he was legendary, that is what they thought – and in anything, we all know that the your perspective of some one or something will be as different as my perspective was – in the same way as one person looks different than another. If Ben wanted the impact of a story to have more buzz than the substance of the story – that’s who Ben Bradlee was. Himmelman then offered up this fine description of Ben Bradlee in a single line:
‘The secret of Ben is that there is no secret.’
If you are young enough that you came into this world after the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s – and the words Ben Bradlee, Richard Nixon, Watergate, All The President’s Men, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Janet Cooke are just some people and events that you may have read about – ask your parents to see what they remember. Then ask them if they want to read this book.