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.

A Weekend in DC

Despite living in New York City, a lot of my obsessions – namely the West Wing and the Watergate scandal – are Washington, DC-based. Before this weekend, I hadn’t seriously been to DC in five years, but I’d been mentally planning a trip ever since I finished the West Wing pilot. Kind of on a whim, my friend Brooke and I decided to go on Friday, and the trip was so fun. One of my favorite things about New York is how quickly you can get away from it to spend the weekend in other amazing cities.

I watched All the President’s Men on the bus ride down, partly because it’s the perfect preparation for a DC trip, but mostly because I never remember to update the media on my iPad and the movie has been sitting there for years. I hadn’t watched it all the way through in awhile and had forgotten that it’s perfect. What I had really forgotten is how fabulous Hal Holbrook is as Deep Throat. He is perfection in this scene.

Speaking of Watergate, I got to see the actual Watergate complex this weekend, which was cool but a little anticlimactic. Besides a “National Register of Historic Places” plaque, there is nothing commemorating that building’s place in American history. I know only a small moment of the scandal that took its name happened at the actual Watergate, but there could at least be a little sign honoring it as the birthplace of the suffix we now use for naming scandals in this country.

I promise this trip wasn’t a weird Watergate pilgrimage for me, but I did find one other fascinating item related to it in the American Presidents wing of the National Portrait Gallery. The hall is filled with portraits of all the presidents, but the most intriguing was this Norman Rockwell painting of Richard Nixon. Norman Rockwell! The man whose paintings generally depicted jolly, happy scenes of innocent American life painted the president who would seem to least embody that innocence.

bignixon

The painting was done in 1968, before Nixon’s presidency, but even then, Rockwell had to “intentionally flatter” his appearance because regular Nixon wouldn’t look so good in a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell did other paintings of Nixon during his political career, but I was fascinated to see one included among majestic paintings of American heroes. I’m fascinated that these paintings even exist, because with the benefit of hindsight I can’t imagine a starker contrast between the way the public perceives an artist and the way it perceives his subject. 

Watergate obsession aside, the Portrait Gallery was amazing. I loved examining all the presidential portraits, but those of FDR and Bill Clinton were my favorite. I could easily go back and spend an entire day looking at other wings of the gallery and exploring other Smithsonian museums. I’ll just have to make another trip – I could stand to watch All the President’s Men again, anyway.

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.

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