Journalism is a profession for the brilliant, fearless, charming, and good-looking, and so it should hardly surprise that Bill Bradlee, who checked off boxes next to each of these categories, ranks as one of the greatest journalists in the history of American newspapering. Regnant among the inky cadre of American newspaper editors, Bradlee oversaw the operations of The Washington Post through the aureate era of the Pentagon papers and Watergate. Relentless and always in search of a big scoop for above the fold, Bradlee hardly put a day’s paper to bed before he began hectoring editors and reporters about what they had to offer him next.
In his new authorized biography Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, former Post reporter Jeff Himmelman draws on personal correspondence, interviews with the man and his closest colleagues, and decades of records from Bradlee’s 45-year career to show how this one man became synonymous with The Post and with a passionate form of journalism that still makes even the most cynical newshound a bit weepy-eyed. To this day, Bradlee—who retired as executive editor in 1991 and is now a vice president at the paper—is remembered as larger than life in the Post newsroom and in the hearts of the journalists who worked with him. Himmelman also gives us a captivating portrait of Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee the man. A close friend and confidante of John F. Kennedy’s both before and during his presidency, Bradlee sometimes had to walk a difficult line between friendship and objectivity. Bradlee’s consuming devotion to The Post was paid for in other relationships, costing the editor his second marriage and time with his children.
The Daily Beast collects seven essential scoops from this riveting new life of one of America’s greatest editors.
Friend of the President
A 1958 chance encounter with Bradlee and his wife’s glamorous young neighbors John and Jacqueline Kennedy led to a friendship that continued through the president’s assassination. Bradlee and Kennedy were something of a natural match, Himmelman writes, given their privileged upbringings. And while the friendship was in many ways a matter of mutual access, with Kennedy drawing on Bradlee’s feel for the city’s press and the reporter thriving on his cozy proximity to a man who would become the biggest story in the country, there was also genuine tenderness exchanged by the two, Himmelman writes. Kennedy’s womanizing may have complicated matters, as he seems to have developed affections for Bradlee’s then-wife Antoinette Pinchot—Kennedy also famously had an intimate relationship with Pinchot’s sister, Mary Pinchot Meyer.
An early indication of the direction in which Bradlee would lead The Post came in 1971, when The Post decided to run stories based on the Pentagon papers, which recorded American involvement in the war in Vietnam. The decision was not made lightly. The papers are also an early instance of the power relationships cultivated between Bradlee and Katharine Graham, who took over as publisher of her family’s paper after her husband, Phillip Graham, committed suicide in 1963. The most important thing for Bradlee at this early stage in his career, Himmelman writes, was beating The New York Times, which had gotten a generous lead on the story. “It was an almost personal thing,” one editor is quoted as saying of Bradlee’s lust for the big story. “It was almost manhood on the issue, it was macho.” After a late-night call that interrupted a party at Graham’s house, the decision was made to go ahead and publish. The Times and The Post later fought together in the Supreme Court for their right to inform the American public and won.
Bradlee said of Woodward’s version of events, “No, I can say this to you, there’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.”
The Big Boss
Bradlee’s relationship with the Graham family, and with Katharine Graham in particular, shaped his life and his career at The Post. At first a dedicated writer under Phillip Graham, Bradlee spent most of his time as editor working under Katharine. Excerpting from the voluminous correspondence exchanged by Bradlee and Graham, Himmelman confirms that in many ways their relationship was much closer than many mere business partnerships, and yet much remains unsaid. Graham always seems to have had a bit of a crush on Bradlee, and most observers could understand why the dashing editor would catch her eye. A business partnership that became as close as any always remained platonic, Bradlee maintains, and he and Graham always knew exactly what she was—the boss.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were two young reporters when they grabbed onto a story that would ultimately lead them all the way to the White House. Bradlee wasn’t involved from the start, but once he jumped on board, he was on for good. After one particular bombshell report went out alleging that the trail of scheming, bugging, and dirty money went straight to the Oval Office, Bradlee took Woodward out to lunch and, just to make matters perfectly clear, announced to the reporter, “By the way, our cocks are on the chopping block.” It was, as Woodward remembers, pure Bradlee—brief, profane, and entirely correct. Yet throughout the dramatic unfolding of Watergate, as The Post came ever closer to making revelations that would bring down a president and forever change American politics and journalism, Bradlee continued to drive the story forward. After questioning Woodward on all his sources during the lunchtime meeting, he turned in his chair and asked, “Now what have you guys got for tomorrow?”
Deep Throat Again
Over the course of two chapters, titled “Doubt (Part One)” and “Doubt (Part Two),” Himmelman traces the background of a Bradlee comment that has already attracted a decent flurry of attention. Hitting on a comment Bradlee made in interviews with a secretary in preparation for writing his own memoir in 1990, Himmelman tries to discern whether the Watergate editor may have had his doubts about the way certain key events occurred. Speaking about Woodward’s most-secret source, the shadowy Deep Throat, Bradlee said of Woodward’s version of events, “No, I can say this to you, there’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.” Himmelman writes that Woodward was outraged when confronted with the Bradlee quote. As Himmelman explains over 21 pages of back-and-forth with the record, Bradlee, and Woodward, what Bradlee was responding to in the quote was not the veracity of the information relayed by Deep Throat, who was revealed in 2005 to be Mark Felt, then second in command at the FBI. Rather, Bradlee felt that Woodward might have taken some liberties in describing his interactions with Felt for effect, particularly as the story was told in the book and film versions of All the President’s Men. Though Himmelman gave Bradlee multiple chances during his research, the famed editor did not walk back his comment. “There’s nothing in it that attacks the veracity of his research,” Bradlee told Himmelman regarding Woodward’s reporting.
‘Not Sally Quinn’
Sally Quinn walked into The Post in 1967 at age 26 and quickly became a recognized party reporter in the paper’s Style section, despite never having held a reporting job before.
“Sally was young and smart and well connected and attractive,” Himmelman writes, and Bradlee decided to hire her. Sometime between then and 1973, the two struck up a relationship that became increasingly obvious to their co-workers. “There came a time when I had to tell Katharine Graham about it, about Sally and I, in her office,” Bradlee told Himmelman. “I forgot how I said it, but in effect was saying that I have started a relationship with someone in the paper. And she said, ‘Oh, God, not Sally Quinn.’”
“She loved Sally by the end, but she didn’t at the beginning,” Bradlee remembered. Bradlee and Quinn became grist for the Washington gossip mill, but it seemed that the relationship—which cost Bradlee his second marriage—with a reporter 20 years his junior only added to his aura. At the time, Bradlee was “the most important guy in town outside of the president,” Carl Bernstein told Himmelman. “Truly. And with flash and panache that the presidents didn’t have, and with a stability that they didn’t have.” Quinn and Bradlee were married in 1978 and have one son.
The Story That Wasn’t
The circumstances that led up to one of the biggest disgraces in Post history really began years before young African-American metro reporter Janet Cooke told her editor she had a story about an 8-year-old addict from one of the District’s dodgiest neighborhoods. For years, the paper had struggled with how to create an environment friendly to its black staff, a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that many white reporters and editors did not have adequate knowledge of the black areas of the city on which they sometimes reported.
The paper was always on the hunt for stories that would make readers spit half-chewed egg across the breakfast table, and dramatic tales that shed a novel light on race were thought to fit this bill perfectly. Such was the state of things when Bradlee had Cooke’s story pitched to him on Sept. 27, 1980, and, trusting the editor who trusted Cooke, he decided to put it on the next day’s front page below the fold. After the story broke and the D.C. police began a search to find and rescue Jimmy, the child druggie described in the story, Bradlee stood by his reporter, even as the cops came up empty handed. He stood by her when he submitted the story for a Pulitzer. But after Cooke won in the features category and other news organizations began to take a closer look, casting doubt on the Jimmy story, the reporter finally caved, admitting that she’d made it all up. Bradlee had to hand back the Pulitzer.
Bradlee’s launched an internal investigation, but he didn’t wallow. His question was the same as always, remembers Bob Woodward. “OK, what’s the next story?”