Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Ben Bradlee we knew: Friend, fierce editor and a truth-seeker above all

Four decades ago, Ben Bradlee told us his general theory of newspapering and life: “Nose down, ass up and moving steadily forward into the future.”

He understood the past and its importance, but he was utterly liberated from it. The past was history to learn from. And he refused to let himself be emotionally encumbered by it or deterred by either the lows or the highs.

The military analogy, so often a cliche, holds in his case: a great general, calm in battle, with the love and affection of his troops, of whom he was as protective as he was aggressive in sending them on their mission.

He was an original of his own creation, different from everybody else in his newsroom — different in temperament, different in outlook, and different even in his physicality and his language (a mix of high-church English and the locution of a savvy sailor). He transformed not only The Washington Post but also the nature and priorities of journalism itself.

He was not a man of regret — ever, it seemed. He was never cynical, but persistently skeptical. And the thread that ran through his life — remarkably, without self-righteousness — was reverence for the truth.

One of the measures of Bradlee’s command was how he dealt with errors and mistakes, perhaps the most uncomfortable responsibility of a journalist. This is a real test of strength, competence and commitment to the truth.

We lived in the trenches with Bradlee during the reporting of the Watergate story, and almost exactly 42 years ago, we made an epic mistake: claiming in a front-page story that secret grand jury testimony had established that Richard Nixon’s White House chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, had controlled a secret fund used to finance the break-in at the Watergate and other illegal undercover activities.

The story, four months after the White House had labeled the break-in a “third-rate burglary,” represented a huge advance in bringing the crimes of Watergate closer to the Oval Office. Our problem was that there had been no such grand jury testimony — though it turned out we were right that Haldeman had controlled the fund, and controlled much more.

“What happened?” Bradlee asked us. The White House and the president’s supporters were unleashing a barrage of denunciations and denials that seemed credible. We were not sure what our mistake was and were on uncertain ground this day in October 1972, and we were scrambling ungracefully.

“You don’t know where you are,” Bradlee said. “You haven’t got the facts. Hold your water for a while. . . . We’re going to see how this shakes out.”

Finally, Bradlee spun in his chair, put paper in his old manual typewriter and began to type. After a few false starts, he issued his statement: “We stand by our story.”


Note:  The legendary editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, passed away on October 21.  His funeral will be held today at the National Cathedral, and will air on C-SPAN.

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