Yours in Truth: A Personal Biography of Ben Bradlee by Jeff Himmelman

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,

Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post's publisher Katherine (Kay) Graham have jusr received the news the the US Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, had decined to agree with the government's request for an injunction - citing that the government had failed to meet the heavy burden of proof for a  prior restraint injunction. The Post was free to publish the documents.

Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post’s publisher Katherine (Kay) Graham have just received the news the US Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, had declined to agree with the government’s request for an injunction – citing that the government had failed to meet the heavy burden of proof for a prior restraint injunction. The Post was free to publish the documents.

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.

Bradlee and Woodward in 2011 - before the book was published.

Bradlee and Woodward in 2011 – before the book was published.

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.

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5 thoughts on “Yours in Truth: A Personal Biography of Ben Bradlee by Jeff Himmelman

  1. Hi, there. I enjoyed your post, having also read this book, but I think your rendering of Bradlee’s doubts about Woodward’s veracity in relating the details of his interaction with Deep Throat is a bit off.

    When the author writes in the book that “All Ben had ever called into question in the interview with Barbara [Feinman] were some of the Hollywood aspects of the Deep Throat relationship,” he wasn’t, at least in my reading of that language, referring to the Hollywood film, but the Hollywood-like details of signals, as told by Woodward, between the reporter and his source with the use of the flowerpot and whatnot, the cloak and dagger stuff that, on its face, seemed a little over the top. In other words, Bradlee wasn’t sure that Woodward hadn’t embellished a little for dramatic effect, even though he had complete confidence that the fundamental reporting of Woodward and Bernstein had been correct. Woodward went batshit because he feared that any doubt cast by Bradlee might fatally torpedo Woodward’s legacy. (Also, it’s likely that Woodward was especially sensitive to the issue because he’d failed while on watch at the Post as the Janet Cooke fiasco unfolded.)

    The episode in the book concerning the author’s attempt to retrieve the cassette tape of the 1990 Feinman interview, too, is an important detail omitted here. As you know, Himmelman had only seen the transcript of the interview, but after discussing the potential import of it with both Bradlee and Woodward he went to the Post to lay his hands on the actual tape. When he and a Bradlee aide went to the stash of recordings where the cassette in question should’ve been stored, however, they found that it was the only one missing. While no one can prove that Woodward got there first, it certainly raises the question, given how unnerved Woodward had been over Bradlee’s statement in the interview that “there’s a residual fear in my soul that it isn’t quite straight,” referring to the details surrounding the meetings with Deep Throat. (As mentioned in the book, too, if Woodward really did steal the tape, the parallels with Nixon’s obsession with his own tapes, which led to his downfall, are pretty priceless.)

    The thing is, Woodward’s reporting has been called into question a few times in the years since Watergate. In his 2005 book “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987” he claimed to have interviewed former CIA Director William Casey on his deathbed, which would’ve involved somehow sneaking into and out of Casey’s hospital room undetected, highly unlikely according to Casey’s wife. While no one can say that it didn’t happen, of course, one suspects that he might have an overdeveloped flair for the dramatic that’s not quite consistent with the truth, which would be consistent with the concerns Bradlee voiced regarding the reporting of Watergate.

    Finally, Woodward’s 1984 book, “Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi,” drew heavy fire from the comedian’s widow and his friends for being factually inaccurate as well as for heavily focusing on the more lurid aspects of Belushi’s life in an unbalanced way. Another possible example of Woodward going for flash over substance.

    I bring all of this up not to in any way to criticize your review. Nor do I wish to try to exonerate Nixon, who deserved what he got. The newspaper’s reporting of Watergate has been entirely borne out (even though it looks like the two reporters fudged a little in how a source was portrayed), so neither the Post’s nor Bradlee’s legacy is in question.

    Still, while Himmelman didn’t make the dustup over the Feinman interview the centerpiece of his book, it seems to me that it was the most interesting nugget from the read. To my mind, someone ought to more fully look into Woodward’s reporting style, since he’s gotten a lot of accolades over the years for being the reporter’s reporter, and since the stories he and Bernstein wrote had such significant historical import. His behavior in the episode related in this book is highly suspect, and where there’s smoke, there’s probably fire.

    • Hi Mr Willett – Thanks for the comment as well as the clarifications. I am not going to call any of your points into question. Clearly I believe that you know much more about the facts, or how one might read into Himmelman’s words. As far as I can recall – in those days (The Watergate era) I was pretty ambivalent about politics. and the fact that I paid any attention at all to the Watergate events is that I did perceive that as the Washington Post’s coverage that began as a local crime story became an international item (in today’s words – the story went viral) that history was being written. It was an amazing time – like watching the tallest tree in the land slowly fall to ground, and in doing so, many smaller trees would be destroyed.

      I did read the All The President’s Men book when it was first published – but I am no longer in possession of the book.

      While it is true that I won’t be re-opening the Himmelman book any time soon, I would watch the movie again.

      So thanks for stopping by and offering some perspective. I am sure that I appreciate your comment, as will any future readers of this post.

  2. Thank you. And I think it’s great that you wrote on this topic. You put a lot of work into your post, covering a lot of ground, and that’s laudable. I’m just starting out as a blogger, and when I’m writing I sometimes wonder if anyone will read my stuff; I’m always gratified when people do, because I work hard, too.

    The Watergate story is endlessly fascinating to me, not only because of its historical significance, but because of the personalities involved–Nixon, Bradlee (a friend of Nixon’s nemesis, JFK, which I’m sure wasn’t lost on Nixon), G. Gordon Liddy, Deep Throat, Martha Mitchell. And it’s incredible that two young reporters broke the story and then were allowed to hold onto it, even after it became clear that the newspaper’s reputation would ride on it.

    Many years ago, when I lived in the Washington, D.C., area, I discovered that the Library of Congress Annex was, more or less, just around the corner from my apartment. You could go over there and listen to the Nixon recordings (or, rather, some of them). I remember selecting the conversation that was recorded on March 21, 1973, one of the most famous, and hearing John Dean tell Nixon of there being a “cancer on the presidency.” Amazing stuff. It was like being a fly on the wall. You can listen to it online now, of course.

    Here in New York, a few years ago, too, I attended a public event at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, at which I discovered that Carl Bernstein was sitting just a couple of rows behind me. I didn’t approach him, since I’m sure he’s had his fill of Watergate questions over the years, but I certainly wanted to. Woodward and Bernstein were the inspiration for a lot of journalists, myself among them. I do something else for a living now, but I’ve always believed that a free press is one of the keys to good government, and they were my heroes when I was in college, going to journalism classes.

    Watergate was an example of when things worked as they were supposed to, an instance when government was held to account for overstepping bounds because of a watchdog press. Would that would happen more frequently. As Bradlee said in the Himmelman book, Iran-Contra was a much worse scandal, but nobody in the Reagan Administration was really held to account. The public was probably not willing to go through another impeachment of a president so soon after Nixon, and Reagan was a much more likable man than Nixon, too, which helped. Anyway, the times had changed. Ollie North even became a kind of hero for his involvement in Iran-Contra, eventually getting his own radio show. Impeachment came up again during the Clinton Administration, of course, but that was a trumped-up political affair, unworthy of invoking the machinery of government, and Clinton survived, as he should have.

    The lessons of Watergate seem to have been lost over time. Every scandal or supposed scandal has had the word “gate” attached to it since then, and that seems to be Watergate’s legacy, more than anything else. Most people today couldn’t tell you much about original scandal, and why it mattered.

    Anyway, best wishes on your blogging and thank you for responding.

    • Hi again – might you have a first name, or will you stick with the initials? Just kidding.

      I have a very short Bernstein story myself. I was told and I believed that Carl had sublet an apartment or an entire brownstone on the same block that I lived in NY. I was there for a long time. Carl’s stay was short if it had happened at all. I had heard it from my landlord who was friends with the other building’s owner. But I never ran into him. But as a long term New Yorker, celebrity spotting, would become less and less of a story worth repeating.

      I agree that the lessons of Watergate have been lost over time. These days, the bigger the star, the greater the brilliance and flash, the wealth, and celebrity one has, the more eager is the urge to take them down. Not to achieve a correctness, or a leveling off for the betterment of society, but instead as a sporting adventure, and rather like hunting and the mounting of a trophy on a wall.

      These days, I do this blog while living in Sarasota, FL. I miss New York, but not that much, or as much as thought I might when I first came down here in 2008.

  3. Hey, there. My name is Scott. Pleased to meet you. I’ve lived in New York for about 20 years, and these days I’m feeling as if I could leave without too much difficulty. I doubt that I’ll run into Carl again, but you never know. And, as far as other celebrities are concerned, I’m sure I pass them all the time and never even notice. I’m a notoriously bad celebrity spotter.

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