It has been nearly 12 years since the death of two-time Academy Award winner Jason Robards, one of whose Oscars was awarded for his memorable role in “All the President’s Men,” as the now-retired Washington Post executive editor, Ben Bradlee.
Mr. Bradlee’s rave reviews have continued in a new Random House book by Jeff Himmelman entitled “Yours in Truth – A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee.”
But former Post writer Judy Bachrach, who is now a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, takes vehement, extensive and rather devastating exception to what she describes as Himmelman’s “extended mash note to Benjamin Bradlee.”
“As a former Washington Post employee, one of those handpicked by Ben Bradlee to his eternal regret, I’ve felt that ‘Yours in Truth’ had very little to do with the T-word in the title, or least of all, with the former newspaper editor and his third wife, and far more to do with the aspirations of its author.”
Also reported in this gutsy weekly magazine, whose circulation and influence grows while the circulation of the Post keeps plummeting – are the following highlights of exposure concerning Mr. Bradlee:
- “Bob Woodward, the famed Watergate scandal unraveler and lone remnant of the Washington Post from its glory days … is really angry with Himmelman, who used to work with him as an assistant. Woodward says Himmelman ‘shamelessly used Woodward – sucked up to him for years, in other words, and then tossed him to the sharks,’ in Woodward’s view.”
- “In the book Bradlee confirms to the author that he always entertained some doubts about Woodward’s veracity in certain details, specifically about how the reporter went about meeting with his chief Watergate source. That source was of course Deep Throat, so labeled because Throat’s words were reported on rules governing deep background (meaning he couldn’t be named and couldn’t be quoted). In the years to come, the world would learn that Deep Throat was actually an FBI higher up named Mark Felt, and I bet you don’t care a bit whether or not Woodward moved a plant on his balcony 40 years ago as a signal to meet with Throat.”
- “What took me aback, what really struck me most forcefully on finally arriving at the Post a few years later, was Bradlee’s calculated and dangerous distance from most things and most people in the newsroom, with the notable exception of Style writer Sally Quinn, who, by then, was his acknowledged girlfriend (she had previously been his unacknowledged girlfriend). You could see Bradlee – the door of his office was made of glass – but unless you worked in the Style section, you didn’t get to see him up close. So I can say for a certainty that in my five years there, the only time I knew Bradlee to take a stance or hold a strong opinion on anything I or most people wrote – anything at all – was when I interviewed a transsexual FBI agent. ‘How could you have allowed me to shake hands with her?’ Bradlee asked, his voice rising. He wasn’t kidding. He was mad. I interviewed the transsexual at the Madison Hotel’s restaurant, where Bradlee also happened to be eating. But once back at the Post, when told my subject’s history, the editor stared at the hand that had shaken hers with unfeigned horror. Then he set about editing my copy and all words pertaining to details of the gender change were as cleanly excised as the ex-agent’s sexual organ.”
- “Katherine Graham, the Post’s publisher, wasn’t the only one struck by the impropriety of his visits to the Style section, but aside from Howard Simons – the managing editor who made no secret of his loathing for Bradlee and Quinn both, a loathing that unsettled everyone – Graham was the only one who dared to voice her concern.”
- “Himmelman writes about none of this for two simple reasons: One, he doesn’t appear to have interviewed, likely by choice, anyone willing to discuss much that would detract from the purity of the Bradlee legend. And two, he can’t bring himself even when the facts indicate this might be appropriate to criticize the subjects of his ardor. I imagine that’s what happens when you have a biographer who writes of his subject: ‘He’s bigger than you are, than everyone is.’ And: ‘I would be content if the picture I have of him grinning and holding my newborn daughter is the only thing that I keep with me for my time spent working on this book.”
- “Here, for example, is Himmelman’s take on the aftermath of the Janet Cooke affair, a true debacle and, unmentioned by the author, an almost inevitable outgrowth of the fact that the identity of Woodward’s source was never revealed to Bradlee until after Nixon resigned. Cooke was a Post reporter who invented a story about a child heroin addict, her sources never identified, questioned, or verified before publication. It won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize, which, when the jig was up and the enormity of the fabrication discovered, had to be given back. The Post immediately deployed a kind-hearted ombudsman, Bill Green, to examine what went wrong. (Evidently, not much: ‘The Post is one of the very few great entered prizes in journalism and everybody associated with it ought to be proud of it,’ was the astonishing conclusion.)”
- “Aside from the fearful neglect of editors (Bradlee included) in failing to check the unbridled imagination of a new, untried reporter, there were other issues at the Post unmentioned by Himmelman. Quinn committed a grievous error in 1979, reporting that President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had unzipped his fly in front of a female journalist (he had not). The newspaper had to retract Quinn’s claim after its terrified editors were summoned to the White House the following day.”
- “There was a general feeling always that it should be doing something new and challenging – an ambition Bradlee referred to, however obliquely, when I said goodbye to him on quitting the Post for its local rival, the Star, which had offered me a political column. ‘They’ll never read you in New York City, kid,’ were the editor’s parting words.”
- “With every passing day the Post, the daily edition, grows more and more anorexic and malnourished. It contains little that is new, astonishing or memorable. Its writing is often poor. Its average daily circulation numbers have dropped by more than 42,000 since the beginning of this year. Its Sunday edition is down more than 15 percent. The decline began with Benjamin Bradlee, long before the Internet moved in and gobbled up print. The triumph and the tragedy were both Bradlee’s. And the Post decline began much earlier than its rivals, at first imperceptibly, and then markedly. What makes me most unhappy these days as I glance at the Post is that after glancing at it, I move on. And so does everyone else.”
As a Washington Post subscriber – and shareholder (six shares – allowing me to attend annual shareholder’s meetings) – I am most grateful to Judy Bachrach and the Weekly Standard.