David Remnick has a lovely memoir of Ben Bradlee in the New Yorker which captures the essence of the man (and mentions the one black spot on his record, namely the way his friendship with JFK blurred his journalistic judgement). Remnick is a delightful writer with a good ear for anecdote. Take this, for example:
During his reign, from 1968 to 1991, as the executive editor of the Washington Post, Bradlee took time periodically to dictate correspondence into a recorder. His letters in no way resembled those of Emily Dickinson. He was given neither to self-doubt nor to self-restraint. In his era, there may have been demands by isolated readers for greater transparency, for correction or explanation, but there was no Internet, no Twitter, to amplify them. Bradlee was, by today’s standards, unchallengeable, and he was expert in the art of florid dismissal. His secretary, Debbie Regan, was, in turn, careful to reflect precisely his language when transcribing his dictation. One day, Regan approached the house grammarian, an editor named Tom Lippman, and admitted that she was perplexed. “Look, I have to ask you something,” she said. “Is ‘dickhead’ one word or two?”
In the film about the Watergate saga, All the President’s Men, Bradlee was played by Jason Robard, and many people — including me — thought that he had probably hammed it up a bit. Remnick disagrees:
Younger people watching the actor Jason Robards’s portrayal of Bradlee in “All the President’s Men” can be forgiven for thinking it is a broad caricature, an exaggeration of his cement-mixer voice, his cocky ebullience, his ferocious instinct for a political story, and his astonishing support for his reporters. In fact, Robards underplayed Bradlee. Recently, Tom Zito, a feature writer and critic at the Post during the Bradlee era, told me this story:
“One afternoon in the fall of 1971, I was summoned to Ben’s office. I was the paper’s rock critic at the time. A few minutes earlier, at the Post’s main entrance, a marshal from the Department of Justice had arrived, bearing a grand-jury subpoena in my name. As was the case ever since the Department of Justice and the Post had clashed over the Pentagon Papers, earlier that year, rules about process service dictated that the guard at the front desk call Bradlee’s office, where I was now sitting and being grilled about the business of the grand jury and its potential impact on the paper. I explained that my father was of Italian descent, lived in New Jersey, had constructed many publicly financed apartment buildings—and was now being investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York regarding income-tax evasion. ‘Your father?’ Ben exclaimed in disbelief, and then called out to his secretary, ‘Get John Mitchell on the phone.’ In less than a minute, the voice of the Attorney General could be heard on the speaker box, asking, somewhat curtly, ‘What do you want, Ben?’ In his wonderfully gruff but patrician demeanor, and flashing a broad smile to me, Ben replied, ‘What I want is for you to never again send a subpoena over here asking any of my reporters to give grand-jury testimony about their parents. And if you do, I’m going to personally come over there and shove it up your ass.’ The subpoena was quashed the next day.”
Remnick also quashes the notion that Bradlee was an ideological creature: he wasn’t. What he was, though, was a fierce believer in the First Amendment.
I’m sending the link to Remnick’s essay to my students on our Masters in Public Policy course because we had been talking in class about the decline of the print-journalism era. I was about to append a postcript in Irish — Ní bheidh a leithéad arís ann (We shall not see his like again) — but thought better of it. After all, the Snowden saga suggests that the Bradlee spirit is still alive and well, at least in some corners of our media jungle.