A Good Life

Newspapering and Other Adventures

A Good Life book cover

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by Ben Bradlee (1995)

Good Life, Great Read!

Miss the days when, coffee in hand and in slippers and robe, you’d wait for the sound of the morning paper to hit the front porch?

Ben Bradlee’s autobiography takes us back to the day when, of a morning, you’d open a Post, Times, Gazette or Herald and read earth shattering news, banner headlines not only announcing but making history—KENNEDY ASSASSINATED, BREAK IN AT DEMOCRATIC HEADQUARTERS, PENTAGON PAPERS RELEASED, WATERGATE HEARINGS BEGIN, VIETNAM RAGES, NIXON RESIGNS.

And Ben Bradlee may not have set the type but he sure as hell helped set the standard. No newspaperman in recent history made a greater impact on the future of U.S. journalism than the Washington Post’s managing editor.

Perfect, made all the right calls? No not even close. But it’s hard to imagine a more candid, accurate and generous account (he heaps praise on this fellow editors and writers) from the eye of the storm than Bradlee’s.

The early days—his growing up in Boston—have their moments. And Bradlee’s years as a slack-off—drinking, carousing, card player—at Harvard comes equipped with self-deprecating humor. His stint in the Pacific—zipping up and down in harm’s way on a Navy destroyer chasing Japanese subs, covering landing operations and firing deck guns at point blank range into enemy aircraft—makes riveting reading. . . while serving as a great reminder of what Bradlee and the Great Generation were thrown into during that “second war to end all wars.”

His post-war stepping stones, stories of the jobs that lead to the Post’s managing editor position must be told—early newspapering at the award winning New Hampshire Sunday News, earning his stripes on his first tour with the Washington Post, U.S. Press attaché stationed in Paris, and then as the European correspondent of Newsweek. But these early adventures, even considering the divorce from his first wife, Jean, and his affairs (not necessary in that order), are up against some rather strong autobiographical competition. I mean, who but Ben Bradlee (which he sees as the fortune that followed him his entire good life) would find themselves as the centerpiece (of sorts) of our history.

And that’s what makes A Good Life one of America’s great modern day autobiographies.

So, he and Tony, wife number two, come back from Paris with Newsweek’s bureau, buy a townhouse in DC’s Georgetown and who should move in several doors down? How about Senator John F. Kennedy? They have children of a like age, hit it off famously, socialize as couples and in the end Bradlee and Kennedy become closer than perhaps a U.S. President and a Newsweek reporter should be. At least as Bradlee tells it that’s what Jackie thought!

So we’re there from the Bay of Pigs, to Vietnam to that fateful day in Dallas.

And for all his entertaining Zelig moments (the man finds himself rubbing elbows with more people of fame and influence than Forrest Gump) our writer takes us into the heads, hearts and ink stained offices of that business we once called newspapering. We hit the mean street beats with reporters, feel editor’s angst over when to and when not to say, “Print it!” His compelling story of how he orchestrated the sale of Newsweek to the Washington Post is a career game changer, one that deservedly earns an entire chapter. Then (in part his reward for the above transaction) Bradlee finds himself, with the blessings of the Post’s owner Katherine Graham, back at the Post as the deputy managing editor and then finally as managing editor. Here, sleeves rolled up he carries out the dirty work of an ME—fights unions, strives for equal coverage for minorities and sometimes, in his words, “—-s up!”

There may be no better example of the latter than the hiring and failure to vet Janet Cooke, a talented writer who fabricated a story that won the writer and The Washington Post the Pulitzer—an undeserved prize that disgraced the Post, its editors and writers.

And of course, there are no better examples of his triumphs than—hands on the reins—the Washington Post’s coverage of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate.

A few of Bradlee’s—right place at the right time—moments from this compelling autobiography appear below:

Vietnam: The Post’s take: “The news was dominated by Vietnam in a way that is hard to imagine today. Vietnam, and the many, many descendants of Vietnam, owned page one, it seemed, for years. Our correspondent in Vietnam was John Maffre, a solid journeyman reporter who had been chosen primarily because he was single and therefore thought to be capable of prolonged absences. The Post had no one in Vietnam for too long, and when Maffre got there he covered the war the way von Clauswitz might have covered it—as if there were armies facing each other across well-defined front lines.

“But reporters like Neil Sheehan for the United Press, Peter Arnett for the Associated Press, and David Halberstam of the New York Times had written with perception and bravery and energy about the new realities of the war, where our allies were less committed than our enemy and our soldiers were fighting a cause that increasingly lacked public support. I wanted a Hemingway who could write like an angel, and who could explain the drama we were seeing on our TV screens in terms of the young soldiers who were sent off to change Vietnam, but were changing America in the most fundamental ways.

“And I found Ward Just, who came with me from Newsweek to the Post. The son on an Illinois publisher, Ward Just is one hell of a novel writer today. Then, he was just a wonderful young reporter/writer, who found drama everywhere he looked—the drama that turned details into truth and isolated events into history. Sometimes Just would get a single quote that would tell an entire story. We spread one of those quotes, from a frightened GI surrounded by his enemies, eight columns over the top of the front page: ‘Ain’t Nobody Here but Charlie Cong,’ as in Viet Cong. Sometime later, Charlie Cong threw a grenade in the general vicinity of Ward Just, spraying his head, back, and legs with shrapnel.

“Under Russ, (Post editor) the editorial page was strongly for resisting tyranny wherever it ruled, and pursuing the fight against communism in Vietnam. President Johnson once thanked Wiggins for his support, saying that the Post’s editorials were worth two divisions to him. Many of the reporters—and a lot of their wives—thought the paper’s editorial support of the war was morally wrong. I concentrated on trying to discover what was going on in Vietnam, on trying to determine who was telling the truth about Vietnam, before it occurred to me to find out where I stood myself. Tony Bradlee (his wife) was marching in the streets with one of the many anti-Vietnam protests, and while I was trying to figure out who was organizing the protests, and how well—or poorly—they were reflecting American opinion.”

Here Bradlee discusses the truth about Vietnam from the perspective of a newspaper man: “. . . at the time when the Watergate story was gathering its fatal steam Nixon commented, “That it was a dangerous form of journalism should have been understood by the Post, whose editor, Ben Bradlee, has since observed: ‘We don’t print the truth. We print what we know, what people tell us. So we print lies.’”

“The fact is that the truth does emerge, and its emergence is a normal, and vital, process of democracy. If readers are generally too impatient to wait for the truth to emerge that is a problem. It is our problem in the press. It is far easier and more comfortable for them to accept as truth whatever facts misfit their biases. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of reader bias in any serious study of press criticism.

“What was the truth of the Battle of Tonkin Gulf? At the time—August 4, 1964—the Johnson administration said the truth was that North Vietnamese PT boats attacked two American destroyers, and LBJ used the attack to force passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. It passed the House with no opposition and passed the Senate with only two votes against, and then was used to justify the American pursuit of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands of words were written about the battle and that resolution, but were they the truth?

“Twenty years later—twenty years!—Admiral Jim Stockdale revealed in his book Love and War that to the best of his knowledge there were no Vietnamese PT boats and therefore no battle. He was in a position to know. On the night in question he was in a Sabre Jet fighter flying cover over the two American destroyers at the time of the “battle.” He wrote that he was as sure as a man can be, after scouring the sea for more than two hours that the destroyers were firing at phantom radar blips, not enemy PT boats.”

*Stockdale would spend seven years as a Vietnamese prisoner of war and then later run for VP as Ross Perot’s running mate.

Pentagon Papers:

Beat by the NY Times: “On Sunday June 13, 1971, the top half of the Post’s page one was devoted to the White House wedding (Tricia Nixon) but the top half of The New York Times revealed at last what their long-awaited blockbuster was all about: Six full pages of news stories and top-secret documents, based on a 47-volumne, 7,000 page study, “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy, 1945-1967.” The Times had obtained a copy of the study, and had assigned more than a dozen top reporters and editors to digest it for three months, and write dozens of articles.

“The Post did not have a copy, and we found ourselves in the humiliating position of having to rewrite the competition. Every other paragraph of the Post story had to include some form of the words “according to The New York Times,” blood—visible only to us—on every word.”

Playing Catch-up (we pick up here as the Post gets involved when they get their hands on a version of the documents. The New York Times had just been “silenced” by the Federal Courts and so the Bradlee decision becomes—with the Post’s lawyers taking a conservative stance—to publish or not to publish): “Two decades later it’s hard to figure out why the hell the Pentagon Papers had become such a casus belli for the administration. I knew exactly how important it was to publish, if we were to have any chance of pulling the Post up—once and for all—into the front ranks. Not publishing the information when we had it would be like not saving a drowning man, or not telling the truth. Failure to publish without a fight would constitute an abdication that would brand the Post forever, as an establishment tool of whatever administration was in power. And end the Bradlee era before it got off the ground, just incidentally.

“I was getting painted into a corner. I had to massage the lawyers, especially Beebe (the attorney who had left a prestigious DC law firm to run the Washington Post), into at least a neutral position, while preventing the reporters from leaving him no maneuvering room during what we all knew was going to be the ultimate showdown with (Post owner) Kay Graham. Suddenly, I knew what I had to do. . . . I placed a call to Jim Hoge, then the managing editor of The Chicago Sun-Times. Would he please, urgently, send a copy boy down to whatever Chicago courthouse was trying the divorce case of president of McDonald’s Harry Sonneborne, vs. June Sonneborne, starring Edward Bennett Williams for the defendant, and give Ed this message: ‘Please ask for a recess ASAP. Need to talk to you now. Urgent.’

“I had known Williams for more than twenty years and trusted his common sense more than anyone else. He was the best in the business. Fifteen minutes later, he called back all business, with a curt “What’s up?” Without loading the dice—really—I took him through everything: what the Times had written, how we had tried to match them for three days, how we had finally gotten our own set of the Pentagon Papers, what we planned to do tonight, what the lawyers were advising us, how Beebe was getting caught in a bind, the public stock issue, the threat to the Post’s three TV stations, how we were headed for a Fail-Safe telephone call with Kay. Maybe ten uninterrupted minutes, and then I shut up.

“Nothing from Williams for at least sixty seconds. I was dying. And then finally, ‘Well, Benjy, you got to go with it. You got no choice. That’s your business.’ I hugged him, long distance, and walked casually downstairs back into the legal debate. When I had the right opening, I told them what Williams had said, and I could see the starch go out of Clark and Essaye (Post attorneys), and I could see the very beginning of a smile on Beebe’s face. Such was the clout of this man. After another hour of argument, it was Show Time, and Fritz (Beebe), Phil, Howie and I went to the four different phones in our house and placed the call to Kay. I didn’t want to think about what I would have to do if the answer was no.

“Fritz outlined all of our positions, with complete fairness. We told her what we felt we had to do, what Williams had said, we told her the staff would consider it a disaster if we didn’t publish. She asked Beebe his advice. He paused a long time—we could hear music in the background—then said, ‘Well, I probably wouldn’t.’ Thank God for the hesitant ‘Well,’ and the ‘probably.’ Now she paused. The music again. And then she said quickly, ‘Okay, I say let’s go. Let’s publish.’

I dropped the phone like a hot potato and shouted the verdict, and the room erupted in cheers.”

Watergate:

A brief summation of this chapter of our history with the hope being that it will send readers to A Good Life for all Bradlee’s well chronicled details. The Washington Post had played the key role in keeping Watergate on the national agenda, almost alone for the first nine months. From the break-in on June 17, 1972, until Judge Sirica revealed his “surprise” on March 23, 1973 (McCord’s revelation of White House involvement), the Post had been the engine behind the efforts to find out the truth behind Watergate. After McCord’s letter, other engines kicked-in—the Senate Watergate Committee and its hearings, other newspapers, especially the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, plus Time Magazine, the Washington Star-News, and Newsweek, and finally the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives and its dramatic hearings.

“What exactly was the role of The Washington Post? I have spent many hours trying to penetrate all the truths and the mythology created by the great, new American urge to celebrate the men and women involved in the news, and come up with the answer to that question.

“First, Watergate happened . . . without The Washington Post. Men in rubber gloves, loaded down with hundred-dollar bills, sophisticated electronic-eavesdropping devices, and walkie-talkies broke into the office of the Democratic National Committee, and the Post had nothing to do with the burglary.

“Second, the energy of The Washington Post and particularly the skill and perseverance of Woodward and Bernstein fixed Watergate forever in history. Together, we kept it on the national agenda. And there the arrogance and immortality of the men around Richard Nixon were slowly illuminated—first by the Post, and later by many other individuals and institutions.

“But Woodward and Bernstein had done the heavy lifting that brought the story to that dramatic pass—with state-of-the-art support from Katherine Graham, the owner-publisher, and four of the senior editors: managing editor Howard Simons, Metro Editor Harry Rosenfeld, city editor Barry Sussman, and myself. Katherine’s support was born during the labor pains that produced the Pentagon Papers. Early on in Watergate, she would come down to the city room and ask us if we were sure we knew what we were doing. Once she asked me—not in jest—“if this is such a great story, where are the rest of the press?” But before too long she was coming down before she left every night, and generally once or twice more every day. What did ‘we’ have for tomorrow, and what were ‘the boys’ working on for the next day or two?

“The boys had one unbelievable asset: they worked spectacularly hard. They would ask fifty people the same question, or they would ask one person the same question fifty times, if they had reason to believe some information was being withheld. Especially after they got us in trouble by misinterpreting Sloan’s answer about whether Halderman controlled a White House slush fund (Bradlee approved they had “misprinted” this information).

“And, of course, Woodward had ‘Deep Throat,’ whose identity has been hands-down the best kept secret in the history of Washington journalism.

“Throughout the years, some of the city’s smartest journalists and politicians have put their minds to identifying Deep Throat, without success. General Al Haig was a popular choice for a long time, and especially when he was running for president in the 1988 race, he would beg me to state publically that he was not Deep Throat. He would steam and sputter when I told him that would be hard for me to do for him, and not for anyone else. Woodward finally said publically that Haig was not Deep Throat.

“Some otherwise smart people decided Deep Throat was a composite, if he (or she) existed at all. I have always thought it should be possible to indentify Deep Throat simply by entering all the information about him in All The President’s Men into a computer, and then entering as much as possible about all the various suspects. For instance, who was not in Washington on the days that Woodward reported putting the red-flagged flower pot on this window sill, signaling Deep Throat for a meeting?

“The quality of Deep Throat’s information was such that I had accepted Woodward’s desire to identify him to me only by job, experience, access, and expertise. That amazes me now, given the high stakes. I don’t see how I settled for that, and I would not settle for that now. But the information and the guidance he was giving Woodward were never wrong, never. And it was only after Nixon’s resignation, and after Woodward and Bernstein’s second book, The Final Days, that I felt the need for Deep Throat’s name. I got it one spring day during lunch break on a bench in MacPherson Square. I have never told a soul, not even Katherine Graham, or Don Graham, who succeeded his mother as publisher in 1979. They have never asked me. I have never commented, in any way, on any name suggested to me. The fact that his identity has remained secret all these years is mystifying, and truly extraordinary. Some Doubting Thomases have pointed out that I only knew who Woodward told me Deep Throat was. To be sure. But that was good enough for me then. And now.”

And yes, as A Good Life’s subtitle so aptly puts it, along with the newspapering, there are “other adventures.” Bradlee’s account of how the Watergate coverage and then the film All The President’s Men, not only changed the lives of Woodward, Bernstein and Ben Bradlee, it had a life-long affect (positive and negative) on the country, on Katherine Graham, as well as numerous writers and editors who supported this herculean effort.

In his closing, along with the trials and tribulations of his personal life (patching up divorces, healing family wounds, the affair with and then marriage to Style writer Sally Quinn) Bradlee presents readers with insightful thoughts regarding the responsibilities of the press: he clarifies the difference between gossip and news, articulates how a good editor defines slander and reinforces why ethics should always remain a newspaper’s watchword.

So, A Good Life, indeed, Mr. Bradlee. For all your good fortunes—being in the right place at the right time—you, in the end proved to be the consummate reporter. You tell your story well and have our thanks for the sharing.

For a copy of A Good Life ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy the 1995 autobiography for less than the newsstand price of a Washington Post on August 9, 1974, the day Nixon resigned. Simply click on the book’s cover.