Of the 25 or so students who worked on my high school newspaper 40 years ago, six became professional journalists. One won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. Another became a leading political writer. Another came to head a chain of magazines, while another founded an influential financial newsletter. All have accumulated honors and bylines, the latter by the thousands.
It helps that we had a vigorous teacher who wasn’t shy of allowing us to skip school for the day in order to do such things as help I. F. Stone clean up his legendarily deep—and legendarily messy—file cabinets, picking up some tips from the master as we waded through the paper. It also helps that our hometown newspaper was the Washington Post, and that its staff, in those glory days of the early 1970s, was busily reestablishing the then-forgotten notion that a journalist could be a hero.
Lord knows we needed plenty of heroes in those fading days of Nixonism. But if the public face of that contrarian, against-the-official-line resolve was that of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, its real countenance was Ben Bradlee, whose office we invaded several times to cover the coverage of what was only then becoming known as Watergate.
Bradlee tolerated us young pups—and more than tolerating us, he was courtly and patient. He did indeed speak in the growl that Jason Robards captured so nicely in the film version of All the President’s Men. But he also spoke in complete paragraphs, and when a question was asked, he gave a comprehensive answer, positioning the well-prepared, well-researched journalist as an authority in a time of diminishing expertise. He distilled this into various mandates, the one that is drilled into my head being the simple “Make sure you get it right,” a sentiment that, a simple glance at most papers today will suggest, needs broader airing.
The idea that a journalist could also be an interpreter of the news, sometimes better versed than the insiders he or she was interviewing, was a perhaps inadvertent Bradleeism: He knew things inside and out and, it seemed, found it surprising that others didn’t. And if that had some unholy spawn—does anyone now alive or who has ever lived really care about what George Will thinks about baseball?—it also helped usher in some fine, authoritative reporting that yielded some very good books from the likes of Joel Garreau, Michael Dirda and even Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners.
Bradlee himself tried his hand at writing, not always to the best effect. In 1995, he published his memoir A Good Life, which we did not much like, criticizing it for its collegial, unrevealing coziness: “Bradlee has the maddening habit of hinting at close friendships with important players like JFK but never revealing quite enough of what would be truly useful to know: the relationship of the press to power in America.”
We would like to think that Bradlee appreciated the criticism in the spirit in which it was offered; we have come to suspect that all institutions are corrupt, but he came from a time in which it was assumed that politics was practiced by generally decent people, and even though Bradlee was instrumental in publishing the Pentagon Papers and oversaw the Watergate reporting to well after Nixon’s resignation, it seems to have offended his sense of moral balance that the bad guys were so thoroughly among us. One gets the sense that even then, Bradlee was not a subscriber to H. L. Mencken’s view that the only way to look at a politician is down, but instead believed that even Milhous himself might have harbored a shred of goodness.
Ben Bradlee helped millions of words come into the world, some of which went on to change that world. That is an enviable legacy of its own, and we honor him for his decades of good and necessary work.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.