Recently Read: “Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee”

It was Christmastime when I noticed Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee sitting on a featured shelf of some kind at Barnes & Noble. At the time, I had other books in the queue, but being fascinated with Watergate and the film All the President’s Men, I took a picture of the cover and made a mental note to read it later. When I found a hardcover copy at the Strand for $10 in late January, I decided I had to go for it.

yoursintruth-bookGlad I did. I loved this book, for what I learned about Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post from 1968 to 1991 and the man who oversaw much of its Watergate coverage. Loved it for what I learned about Woodward and Bernstein. For the way author Jeff Himmelman was open and honest about his relationship with his subjects (particularly Bradlee and Woodward). Loved it for the way photos, newspaper clippings and Bradlee memos were sprinkled throughout the text.

My knowledge of Ben Bradlee is limited to what I know from Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in the film All the President’s Men, and from some comment Tony Kornheiser once made on his D.C. radio show about Ben being his personal standard for journalism (or something like that. Wish I had cared at the time to write down exactly what he said). Jeff Himmelman made Ben Bradlee come so alive for me that I no longer pictured Jason Robards in my head when reading about Ben. I better understand him as a person, reporter, presidential confidante, socialite, husband, manager and editor.

Even though I now picture Ben Bradlee beyond the way he’s portrayed in film, having that background appreciation for All the President’s Men helped me love Yours in Truth. Himmelman talks a lot about Robards as Bradlee. On page 178, he describes Robards playing a scene in which Ben has to call a White House communications director and smooth out a situation with one of his reporters. Ben has the upper hand. “It’s a great scene in the movie,” Himmelman began. “One that Robards plays with raised-eyebrow perfection.” I cracked a huge smile because I knew exactly what he was talking about. It’s my favorite scene in the movie by a mile. (Apparently, this clip does not exist on YouTube. Rent the movie just for this scene. It’s perfect.)

Aside from getting to know Ben Bradlee, I loved this book because of Himmelman’s commitment to uncovering all the details. This was especially evident in his mission to understand Watergate as completely as possible. When you’re Bob Woodward’s former research assistant and you’re writing about Ben Bradlee, Watergate’s going to come up… a lot. He couldn’t shortchange himself or his future readers with a half-baked understanding of the journalistic episode most central to Ben Bradlee’s career:

In February of 2011, I realized that in order to write believably about Watergate I was going to have to understand the story in a way that I hadn’t up until then. I was going to have to spend as long as it took to read every single one of the newspaper stories and all of the relevant books. In order to know what I had, and what to say about Ben’s role in all of it, I couldn’t just focus on the major episodes that everybody has written about a thousand times.

The research shows. It gave him new insight into the scandal, even if it ended up backfiring in a way. In his meticulous process, he uncovered an unsent memo of Ben’s, in which Bradlee admitted some lingering doubt about the truth of Watergate and Deep Throat’s information, and basically led to Ben and Bob Woodward turning on him after the book’s publication. I’m sure my appreciation for his research commitment is no consolation, but Himmelman’s relentless study of Watergate inspired me to grasp any subject I tackle, even if it’s just a hobby, with the same depth.

An assortment of other favorite parts, lines and anecdotes:

  • I’m a big fan of Pardon the Interruption on ESPN, which features former Post sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (Kornheiser’s daily talk show on the D.C. ESPN radio affiliate is also fantastic), and knowing that they interacted with and respected Bradlee made him seem more real to me. There’s a Wilbon anecdote in the first chapter, but more Kornheiser stuff throughout, including a quote that Himmelman places in a section of memos and thoughts about Ben. Anyone who has ever heard Tony Kornheiser speak can hear in his or her mind exactly how Kornheiser would say this (p. 418):

Tony Kornheiser, June 22, 2011:
I cannot describe to you what I felt, and I’m sure that so many, many others felt, when he walked among us. Ben could have been a king. Ben in that newsroom was King Arthur. I mean, he was.

  • And, as a proud owner of two books that are collections of Kornheiser’s columns for the Post‘s Style section, I enjoyed learning how the section came to be, and that it pioneered the living/lifestyle (from which Style takes its name) section format now used across the nation.
  • There are a couple references, including one in an introductory quote, to a book Ben started but never actually wrote, which would have been called How to Read a Newspaper. Oh, how I wish that book actually existed.
  • A favorite Ben story: In reaction to Bob Woodward’s comments during a TV interview in 1984, in which he said he’d heard an estimate that roughly forty Post employees regularly used cocaine, Ben sent out a statement that cocaine was illegal and anyone found using it would be fired. “Later that afternoon,” Himmelman describes, “a reporter in the Magazine section of the paper remembers Ben making his way across the newsroom, pointing at various reporters as he went, shouting, “Thirty-seven! Thirty-eight! Thirty-nine!” (p. 439)
  • One last favorite Ben story: Longtime Post reporter Larry Stern died unexpectedly in 1979, and there was a reception at the Post office after his funeral. Ben was so upset and at a loss for words over Stern’s death that he threw his champagne glass at a brick wall outside (they were standing in an outdoor courtyard). Everyone around him followed suit, and Ben framed the bill from the catering company for all the broken glasses, hanging it in the newsroom next to a picture of Larry (p. 449-450).

There was so much more to this book than Watergate and little anecdotes from Ben’s life. It chronicled Ben’s path to becoming executive editor, his personal life, his close relationship with JFK, the Pentagon Papers ordeal, how he worked with Katharine Graham, the Janet Cooke scandal, his strengths and weaknesses as a manager, and more. I recommend it to anyone interested in journalism or the Watergate scandal, or to anyone who wants to get to know a fascinating person.

Book image: JeffHimmelman.com

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