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.

Siskel and Ebert

Saturday would have been film critic Gene Siskel’s birthday (he passed away in 1999 after succumbing to a brain tumor), so his longtime co-host and friend Roger Ebert spent the entire day tweeting tributes to him. I haven’t gone through all of them but did see a few pop up in my timeline throughout the day, and I enjoyed learning more about their work together (plus, you could do worse than having a writer as terrific as Roger Ebert composing tributes and obituaries for you).

In February 2009, to mark the tenth anniversary of Siskel’s death, Ebert wrote this column, “Remembering Gene.” While I always had some awareness of Siskel and Ebert – the men and the TV program – the column made me feel like I really understood who they were, what they did and how they became film critics. I love when a piece of writing reveals so much. Gene Siskel was a Chicago Bulls fan and masterful poker player who grew up in “a Sun-Times family” but wound up becoming the Tribune‘s film critic. He’s not just “that guy who was on the movie review show” to me anymore. It’s a touching tribute and a pleasure to read.

Ebert also tweeted a link to the obituary he wrote for Siskel in 1999. Ebert makes it another great read, but what I really loved about it was this quote from Siskel:

When [Gene] saw a movie he hated, he liked to suggest that filmmakers ask themselves this question: “Is my film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?”

How many movies have you seen that should have been documentaries of the actors having lunch together? My guess is quite a few. I love that perspective on bad movies: He wasn’t ripping the film to shreds, but giving the filmmakers something fairly pedestrian to measure up against. Schooling them a little.

If you asked me who Gene Siskel was before today, I definitely could have given you the correct answer. Now, though, I understand a little more about him and am glad I do.