Among those leaving their tables to come and pay their respects were two members of President Jimmy Carter’s Cabinet, a couple of senators, and, more surprisingly, Richard Helms, the former director of the CIA, back for a brief visit home from Tehran where he had been sent into unofficial exile as US ambassador.
The way all those supposedly powerful people behaved towards Bradlee was a lesson to his young guest. Americans who make a point of putting their hands in their pockets, even when talking with their president, paid court to Bradlee in a manner that exceeded even the Oriental politesse they often mocked.
Bradlee was the symbol of the power of the press in a Western democracy, where he who manages to convince a larger number of people gets a share of power—and back then the press had the lion’s share of the power of persuasion.
That Bradlee received a high degree of attention and respect is no surprise, even in death. For, even forgetting his status as “the legendary editor of the Washington Post,” he was an eminently likeable man, always kind and always entertaining with a treasure-trove of anecdotes and jokes.
Attending the National Cathedral memorial service were as many members of the various political “tribes” of Washington as could secure invitations. These included top members of the Obama administration, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. Needless to say, a galaxy of media stars was also on hand, along with some of the “great and the good” from all walks of life in the US capital.
Watching the proceedings, however, one might wonder what Ben Bradlee himself would have made of the mise-en-scene. The organizers had taken care to make the religious aspect of the service as ecumenical as possible, keeping the great man’s own religious background in filigree.
At the same time, to highlight his attachment to the United States and the American Dream, a number of classical patriotic songs were also performed. The result was a dramatic show of consensus, something Washington’s tribes find it hard to achieve elsewhere and at any level these days.
However, one might wonder whether Bradlee himself would have endorsed the synthetic consensus propagated around his name. As a journalist he had never been one for faking it. He traded in reality, not myths.
And what about Bradlee repeatedly being described as “the warrior journalist”? I wonder if he would have taken to such a sobriquet. For, if anything, he was a man of peace. To be sure, he would fight for a good story, as any journalist worth his salt should do. But he did not use the tactics and techniques of war. He was not a preaching-campaigning journalist by any means.
Bradlees’ critics have always argued that he had a hidden political agenda, and aimed from the outset to destroy Nixon’s presidency. There is no doubt that, broadly speaking, Bradlee’s political sympathies were with the Democrat Party, a fact that, when in retirement, he highlighted in a book he wrote about his relations with President Kennedy and his clan.
However, the fact is that Nixon destroyed his own presidency. What Bradlee did was to cover that destruction from its early days, right up until its “big bang” ending. If he doggedly pursued the story of Watergate, it was because it was a good story. It also sold newspapers.
More importantly, perhaps, we should not forget that Washington Post was initially the newspaper of the District of Columbia, where Democrats have always held a two-third majority. In other words, Bradlee’s sympathy for Democrats was, at least in part, a reflection of the sentiments of his readers, including on such burning issues as the war in Indochina. That was the time when every newspaper had a hometown, unlike these days when, thanks to the Internet, the whole world could be regarded as such.
Bradlee, who died earlier this month aged 93, was one of a kind; they broke the mold after they made him. This was partly due to his early realization that he could not become a great reporter but could achieve greatness as an editor. Having decided that he did not want to be a star, he became a maker of stars, ending up as a star in that role all the same. Also, his career coincided with what might come to be recognized as the golden age of American journalism when a mainly parochial press, coming to reflect America’s rise as a world leader, developed global ambitions.