Read Lately: “Personal History”

This Memorial Day (in New York City, at least) was one of my favorite kinds of days: A day off, but not one where it’s warm and sunny and I’m filled with guilt about not being outside. It’s cloudy, a little rainy, and I’m sitting on my bed in a mood to write about nothing in particular.

Right now my mind is on Rome. I’ll be there in a week and I’m ready. Well, ready in the sense that I have planned a lot of outfits, acquired lots of miscellaneous toiletry items, and formed a basic outline of what to do each day. But the fact that I’ll actually be walking around Rome in a week hasn’t quite sunk in.

I’m going with my roommate, and my sister will fly down from Germany to meet us. The three of us tackled Munich, Salzburg, and Prague last summer, and while that was a great trip, I’m excited to keep our travels to a tighter range this year; after Rome, we’re just going down to the Amalfi coast. Most of my prep so far has concentrated on Rome, and I’ve been poring over Rick Steves’ Italy guide (if this trip is anything like last year’s, Rick will essentially be our fourth travel companion; we took his book everywhere and had a lot of “well, what does Rick say we should do?” moments). Also consulted: This post from one of my favorite bloggers, and this Conde Nast Traveler article.

In preparation for this trip, though, I had one major task: Finish a book I’d been reading for way too long (it would have been embarrassing to take it on another plane ride). Last weekend, I finally wrapped up Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History. It’s a tremendous book, so filled with detail and vulnerability. The specificity with which she remembered events that were 60 or almost 70 years in the past is impressive. I’ll admit there were times it felt like a slog (a section about the Washington Post’s battle with striking press operators made me feel like I was re-reading A People’s History of the United States). But I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat, because I learned a lot from the way she shared a thoughtful lesson from every experience in life, whether it was her privileged upbringing, the deep personal tragedy of her husband’s suicide, or her learn-as-you-go experience as publisher of the Post.

A few favorite moments, or interesting ideas the book presented to me:

  • Katharine Graham was born in 1917, and was a pioneer as far as women in the publishing world. She talks at length about issues related to this, and openly discusses how she and other women at the Post endured sexism in big and small ways (I remember her talking about how Meg Greenfield, a leader on the Post’s editorial page, was treated with great respect in many senses by her male counterpart, in that he valued her ideas, but she was still the one expected to type up notes from their meetings). But she also talks a lot about how, despite being an industry pioneer, she still came of age in an era where it was ingrained in women that they couldn’t do what men did. And she had a hard time overcoming that. She spent nearly an entire chapter talking about how she came to understand what “feminism” really meant – Gloria Steinem helped educate her – and admitting she didn’t do enough to support female talent at Newsweek, overlooking researchers (a traditionally female role) and not promoting them to bigger writing jobs. One such overlooked researcher? Nora Ephron.

 

  • One thought I kept having: Katharine Graham ruled in a journalism era largely untouched by the pressures of the internet, and she died almost a decade before social media precipitated so much change in media. She always seemed able to look back and honestly assess how she and the Post handled various changes in technology and various unstable times in the country’s history, and I kept thinking about how she would have handled all the issues that would have come up today – yes, the internet, but also Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones. She talked about getting a call from Ben Bradlee on the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, discussing whether they should call a print circulation manager and literally stop the presses. What would she have thought about her paper, purchased by her father in 1933, being sold in 2013 to a man whose other company delivers stuff you buy on the internet to your door in two days?

 

  • Watergate is the reason I knew who Katharine Graham was in the first place, so I was excited to read her perspective on the scandal. I don’t want to say I was disappointed in her Watergate chapters, but they weren’t quite as illuminating as I thought, in large part because Mrs. Graham wasn’t making day-to-day reporting and editing decisions the way someone like Ben Bradlee was. She didn’t really have juicy tidbits about how the story was chased. But, her telling of Watergate gave great insight into Bradlee’s personality and working style, and she shared a few choice anecdotes that are especially satisfying for people with at least a working knowledge of the Watergate tale. My favorite: One of Woodward and Bernstein’s biggest breaks came in the fall of 1972, when they printed that John Mitchell had controlled payments from the Nixon re-election committee slush fund while he had been Attorney General. Famously, when Bernstein called Mitchell to tell him about the story, Mitchell threatened that Graham would “get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Later, a dentist from California fashioned a tiny wringer out of the gold used to fill teeth, and sent it to her. Someone at the paper made a tiny gold breast to go with it, and she sometimes wore them together on a chain around her neck.

I learned a lot from Personal History. There was something alluring about Katharine Graham’s proximity to so many powerful people, her front-row seat to Washington society and practically all the important political events of the second half of the 20th century. She seemed to be unlike anyone else I’d encountered, in real life or in a book, and I enjoyed getting to know her through this work.

For vacation, I have a couple titles ready to go: Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m notorious for biting off more than I can chew, reading-wise, on trips, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll report back.

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Christmas Break Catch-All: Movies, Books, 2015.

Time acts in strange ways. Certain days can last forever, certain weekends are gone with the blink of an eye, certain months can feel like they never even happened. What always seems strangest is when time makes you feel as if you’ve lived whole lives between a point A and a point B, when in reality, that span of time only lasted two weeks.

That’s how I feel about this holiday break. I am lucky to have a job where things slow down around Christmas and the New Year, so I spent a week at home in Oregon and then spent a few days hanging out back in the city.

Before I forget them (though I’m kicking myself for not doing this even sooner because now the Oregon portion of my break seems like a long time ago), here are a few highlights from the holiday…aka a rundown of the books and movies and moments I most want to remember.

1. Me Before You

In my parents’ neighborhood, there’s a house with its own little library out front, where people can take and leave books as they please. I passed it while on a walk with my mom and sister, and I took Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, a book I’d pondered buying before but held off because I was in the middle of something else. I was pages away from finishing Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and this was early in my trip, so I figured I could polish off Moyes’ book in time to return it before going back to New York.

Maybe it sounds dumb, but this book became like a friend to me. I just wanted to spend time with it. Before this book, I’d read the first two Hunger Games books (sounds easy, I know, but fantasy/dystopian books are just not my cup of tea) and A People’s History of the United States, so in hindsight I realize I was probably just overjoyed to have a book I could breeze through. But it was more than just an easy read. It was a delight. Just about every night I was home, I’d stay up late and read it in the light of the Christmas tree.

I’ve had a serious crush on England for the last year and a half, so I loved opening it to find the prologue set in London and the rest in an English country town. All its characters were distinct and developed, and the central romance was sweet – obvious the whole time, but built to in a much more satisfying way than I could have anticipated. Even cynics like myself need a good love story every now and then.

2) New Movies

Since I had some time on my hands the last few days, I wanted to get a jump-start on watching some great new movies in 2015. Instead, I mostly ended up re-watching old favorites (more on that below), but I did watch two movies for the first time and quite enjoyed both: Pulp Fiction and Thank You for Smoking.

Sometimes I view movies as opportunities to understand more cultural references. It seems like I hear about Pulp Fiction a lot, so I thought I’d watch it to expand my pop-culture horizons. I think I need to watch it again and again to pick up on everything, but I love movies where you just get swept into it, where you’re not realizing it but an hour has gone by and you’ve just been enjoying the story. That’s kind of how I felt about Fargo, too. You’re not expecting it, but you’re sucked in.

And Thank You For Smoking. Jason Reitman’s Juno and Up in the Air are two of my favorite movies, but this was the first time I’d watched his debut feature. I don’t know if it’ll become one of my favorites like those other films, but I still thought it was great. Dripping with cynicism, urging its viewers to question everything, filled with the same quick, intelligent dialogue that made me love the other Reitman films.

And since awards season is right around the corner, I saw a few movies in theaters over the break, too: The Imitation Game, Into the Woods, and Whiplash (which was by far my favorite of the three).

3) Old Movies

I’ve taken the last couple days to catch up on random stuff in my life – unpacking, cleaning the kitchen, organizing storage drawers, etc. – and it’s hard to watch new movies while doing those tasks because I can’t devote my full attention to the film. So I re-watched some old favorites, most notably Good Night and Good Luck, LA Confidential (clearly there’s a David Strathairn thing going on) and Manhattan.

The first time I watched LA Confidential was on a bus back to NYC after visiting Boston for a weekend. And I liked it even then. But this time, I appreciated so much more. Like Kevin Spacey. How did I not recognize its true greatness in my first viewing? Spacey’s is my favorite in a movie filled with incredible performances.

Before I went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I turned on Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I first saw it almost two years ago but since then I think I have developed a better appreciation for films and a better understanding of what it is to live in New York. The beauty and intelligence of the opening sequence was apparently lost on me the first time, because I hardly remembered it. Now, I just want to sit and watch it on loop. It’s breathtaking.

Other lines I loved: Tracy joking about not knowing who Rita Hayworth was, then Isaac reprimanding her. “Of course I’m joking!” She says. “You think I’m unaware of any event pre-Paul McCartney.”

And Isaac describing Mary as “the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award.”

4) 2015

It is now 2015, and I can’t say anything feels much different. Maybe that’s good, though. Maybe the years where it doesn’t feel like much will change or improve are the years when big things happen. Or maybe by saying it out loud, I’ve ruined any chance of that. There are 361 more days to find out.

The Great Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee died today. And it got me thinking how I wrote only two months ago about Robin Williams’ passing. In that case, I was mourning the fact that I never appreciated him when he was alive. With Ben Bradlee, it’s different. I don’t feel sad in the same way, because Ben Bradlee had a long life and I was aware of many of his accomplishments. No one is wondering what could have been. But it seems strange to know such a life force is no longer here.

Everything I know about Bradlee comes from All the President’s Men (book and movie) and the Bradlee biography I read last year, Yours in Truth by Jeff Himmelman. He’s a fascinating character to me. A lot of stories being recounted in the wake of his death follow a certain pattern – Bradlee giving unorthodox words of encouragement to a young reporter, with an intimidating yet inspiring air – but I love reading them all. A new one I read tonight was from New Yorker editor David Remnick, who eulogized Bradlee for the magazine and described his encounter with the editor when he was a Post reporter in the 1980s. (“So what’s all this about Moynihan and the booze!”)

I have nothing personal to say about Ben Bradlee, because I never worked for him or even met him. All I know is he made me love journalism because his work brought me to understand what journalism really was. It helped me understand what journalism could do, what it was at its core. He made me nostalgic for a media world I never even lived in, where the newspaper ruled. He vaulted me into a great fascination with the Watergate scandal. Even today, I can’t put a finger on why it captivates me, but I suspect Bradlee’s effect on the story has something to do with it.

It doesn’t feel right to sit here and list all the anecdotes that shaped my perception of Bradlee and made me admire him (I recounted enough of those when I wrote about Himmelman’s book last March), though I could list numerous quotes from All the President’s Men or talk about how Jason Robards thanked Ben Bradlee in his acceptance speech for an Oscar he won by playing Ben Bradlee.

I’ll leave the tributes to people who knew him best, and even though there’s a melancholy air to any remembrance, I feel like with Bradlee it will be more fond recollection and grateful celebration.

Book Commitment Issues (Or, An Ode to Sydney Carton)

I have commitment issues. With books.

For the most part, I start what I finish, but there are certain books I just cannot get through. It’s rarely because I hate them. They might be entertaining, even easy to read, but for some reason, especially over the last few months, I’ve been having a hard time getting to the last page.

I find myself worrying an inordinate amount about this. Is my attention span too short? (Yes.) Am I coddling myself if I only read books I find personally interesting? (Maybe.) Is my inability to finish a book a character flaw? A symptom of a deeper issue? (I certainly hope not.)

I received a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit for Christmas and couldn’t wait to read it. I devoured her Team of Rivals and was excited to learn about an era in American history I wasn’t familiar with – the lives and presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The book is good! I have learned a lot. (And I’ve decided I want to be Nellie Taft when I grow up.) But it’s dense. And I just don’t find the time period or events as fascinating as the ones described in Team of Rivals. I’m beating myself up over this. All history should be interesting! Think how this knowledge will inform your understanding of other events! Character flaw!

The Bully Pulpit and I are taking a break. I know I’ll finish it eventually, but I’m pausing to revisit an old favorite: A Tale of Two Cities. I bought a cheap copy of it last week, inspired by who knows what, and I’m flying through it like I haven’t flown through a book in years.

I have some recollection of characters and plot from reading it in high school, but it’s still a breezy, lovely read. I remember telling myself after the first reading that I would name my first child after Sydney Carton (I blame my mother for this notion; she loves To Kill a Mockingbird so much that my sister’s middle name is Harper). I’ve stood by that claim over the years, but I forgot why I loved the character enough to make it in the first place. I remember his last words almost brought me to tears (spoiler alert – he loves a girl so much that he goes to the guillotine to save her family, because he is selfless and perfect!). But I read things with a more critical eye now than I did as a teenager, so I’m recognizing much more depth to the character. Lines like this – describing pre-guillotine-sacrifice Sydney’s directionless life – put a lump in my throat that wouldn’t have been there in high school:

“Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

Oh, Sydney. How you will redeem yourself.

I’m also appreciating Dickens as a writer, not only for how he crafts the broad plot, but also for how he sets a scene and describes characters’ mannerisms. Books come most alive for me when I can clearly imagine the action in my own head – when I can mentally move the characters around a hypothetical movie set. I can picture all these characters, where they live and work, how they move through the scenery and how they talk to each other. It is vivid. When I was reading the book in high school, I remember my dad telling me how much he loved it and how I should do my best to enjoy it. “Just bask in the presence of the master,” he said. With the added perspective of the six years since my first reading, I finally am.

Recently Read: “Watergate”

The book: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon (2012)

The reason I bought Watergate? I judged the book by its cover. Earlier this year, I was killing time in a Barnes and Noble and noticed it in a “New Paperbacks” section – the cover immediately caught my attention for its bareness, its simplicity, and for the fact that it was about Watergate, the scandal that has long held a strange fascination for me. After spending a couple months jostling amidst gum-covered quarters and cap-less pens in my purse, my copy is no longer in good shape, but just look how visually appealing this cover is:

watergate cover

Watergate is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. It is technically a historical novel, but not in the way I’d originally understood the term. It isn’t fictional events presented in the context of a true historical event; it is true events, presented as fiction. At times, I forgot I was even dealing with history. I became so engrossed in the characters and their lives as they played out in Thomas Mallon’s invented Watergate world that I forgot it wasn’t actually the world in which they happened.

My biggest complaint about Watergate is that it was too long. I’m not brimming with suggestions for what could be cut out, but for me, it dragged in parts of its 429 pages. Some sub-plots seemed designed to distract from Nixon’s inevitable resignation. I still enjoyed it, though, even if it was less for the story itself and more for the way it forced me to rethink the way I think about novels – is that meta enough for you?

I figured there was enough out there – enough imaginary characters, enough true stories that have gone untold – that an author would find it unnecessary to reinvent an already exhausted wheel. We already know how Richard Nixon’s story ends, so why bring it up again and twist things around? I’m not sure Watergate helped me answer that question, but I like that it forced me to ask it in the first place.

Despite my complaints about its length, it wasn’t just the novel’s structure that kept me engrossed. It was also how Mallon wrote. His descriptions of characters’ physical movements and inner thoughts allowed me to visualize every part of a scene.

Other assorted Watergate tidbits, from characters to themes and turns of phrase:

  • This book made me realize how much of my fascination with the scandal was tied to the journalism. Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee & Co. were barely mentioned in this book – but they were my Watergate heroes, not Sam Ervin and Elliot Richardson! At first, I kept waiting for a juicy scene to take place in the Washington Post newsroom. Once I realized that would never happen, I learned to look at Watergate from another angle: The scandal was a product of Richard Nixon’s own ineptitude, not of Woodward and Bernstein’s heroics.
  • In Mallon’s Watergate world, the men are insecure fraidy cats who just so happen to be in power because they’re men; you get the sense it’s the women who could have really run the show, if only the pathetic men weren’t holding them back. Pat Nixon especially is very careful in her considerations and calculations during the scandal – and she never says it outright, but Mallon makes it pretty clear she’s smarter than her husband. Pat wound up being my favorite character. Her feelings seemed the most developed. She wasn’t a dynamic character in the context of this book, but she’s portrayed as being quite different from the smiling lady on Nixon’s arm she may have seemed during the 70s (I honestly don’t know much about how Pat Nixon was perceived during her tenure in the White House, but I got the feeling that Watergate made her out to be the rebel she was not in real life.) She’s smart, understands all facets of the issue, and…gasp! has a lover. (I know. It sounds soapy. But that sub-plot really works.)
  • Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, is a prominent figure in this story. I’m still not sure I totally connect the dots with Alice and the other characters (a review from Slate helped me understand Alice’s place, though, when it discussed the way this novel sheds light on those at the scandal’s periphery rather than on its major players), but her sharp tongue provided some of my favorite lines in the book. “It will be an intense pleasure to lie to the Washington Post,” she tells Nixon on the night of his resignation, offering to decry his use of a quote from her father that she suggested he use in the first place. “That’s one more thing you and I share.”

I made many more notes on phrases I particularly liked, minor themes I noticed and more, but I won’t dissect them all here. Overall, though I felt lost in the sea of characters and sub-plots at times, I’d definitely recommend the book to someone who has a degree of familiarity with the scandal and wants to look at it – and storytelling in general – through a new lens.

Related P.S.: Watergate was in the spotlight last week with CNN Films’ Our Nixon, a documentary composed of Super 8 movie footage H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin filmed during their time in the White House. Like Watergate the novel, it provides a new look into the Nixon White House and the Watergate scandal. The whole time I watched, I kept thinking of  the Newsweek blurb on Watergate’s front cover, describing how the book portrayed Nixon as “comical, pitiable, tragic.” That’s how these home movies make him look, too. The videos and their revelations about Nixon as a person and administrator are depressing and mystifying. I’m not sure if CNN plans on releasing or re-airing the program, but it’s worth a watch.

Missed My Stop

Tonight, I had dinner with friends after work in Manhattan, then hopped on the 7 train back into Queens. My apartment is half a block from a local 7 stop (the 7 runs some express trains from Manhattan to Queens during evening rush hours). Maybe this train switched from local to express in the middle of the ride without my knowledge. Maybe it did make the local stops and I just didn’t notice. But when I looked up, we were well past the one I needed.

All because of a chapter in my current book, “As Time Goes By” by Derek Taylor, who served two stints as press officer for the Beatles. (Yes, I’m back on a Beatles kick after the Beatles class I took last spring term. Well, actually, I was never really off the Beatles kick. Now it’s just spread to books.) A couple months ago, I landed on Derek Taylor’s Wikipedia page, which said he wrote an informal memoir in 1973. It was an Amazon impulse buy. I wasn’t really sure what to read after “Yours In Truth,” and this seemed like something easy to pick up off the shelf.

If I try too hard to summarize the chapter that kept me on the train, I’ll talk it to death and ruin the story. But it was beautiful. At least if you love the Beatles.

Each chapter relays a short, specific anecdote from Taylor’s wild career in the 60s, working as a publicist for bands like the Beatles, the Byrds and the Beach Boys, and for individuals like Mae West. (The subtitle of the book, if it gives you any idea what a crazy decade Derek Taylor had: “Living in the Sixties with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, Allen Klein, Mae West, Brian Wilson, The Byrds, Danny Kaye, The Beach Boys, one wife and six children in London, Los Angeles, New York City and On the Road.”)

This particular chapter was titled, “England, 1968.”

In England, 1968, Derek and Paul McCartney go up to a town in the northern part of the country so Paul can work on arranging some pieces with a brass band. I think a few other people are there to make up some kind of entourage, but Paul is the only Beatle.

Derek decides (albeit while under the influence of what he calls the “dreaded heaven-and-hell drug”) that on their way back to London, they should detour to some small town called Harrold, just for kicks.

He proceeds to describe their night in Harrold. They check in to an inn. They gamble and drink at the bar. News spreads that Paul McCartney is in town. They meet the town dentist, who invites them to eat at his home. “Welcome to Harrold, Paul,” he says. “I can hardly believe it, in fact I think I’m dreaming.”

The dentist’s wife prepares a meal for them with food that had been reserved for an upcoming special occasion. The dentist’s daughter hands Paul a guitar (it’s right-handed but he plays it anyway) and he plays “the song he had written that week and which he said went ‘Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better.'”

It comes time to go back to the inn, which has closed, “but a winged messenger came to say that as this was the night of nights, never to return, the inn was to be reopened. ‘In your honor, Paul.'”

Paul played piano at the local pub until three o’clock in the morning. “The pub was absolutely full. The whole village was here . . . and then I went and sat in the little garden and cried for joy that we had come to Harrold,” Derek recalls.

Isn’t that delightful? A dash of cynicism mixed in with a retelling of a magical evening. Harrold was supposed to be a detour into untouched obscurity, but even there, they knew the Beatles. Paul McCartney, one night only, and you didn’t even know he was going to be there. And then I realized I missed my stop.

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