Ever since longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee shuffled off this mortal coil at the venerable age of 93, the Post has luxuriated in the wonderfulness of itself and its past. I hesitate to estimate the amount of newsprint that has been devoted to lionizing the former editor.
I understand the attention. What was disturbing, however, was the way praise for the man was so intertwined with mourning for a time when the D.C. world was dominated by a media elite, who mingled with the city’s rich and powerful.
What’s left of that elite remain engaged in an orgy of nostalgia for the world of privilege and power that no longer sustains journalism. Thank God for that.
Nearly all the column inches seemed to be a dirge for that life, for the power that elite journalists once wielded, and for the way they hosted and attended exclusive dinner parties, where their views mattered and they commanded the attention of hundreds of thousands of readers, and even more important, the highest ranks in government. Aside from the iconic Watergate scandal, the praise for his stewardship of the Post largely failed to mention anything else.
Praise for Bradlee skewed to the parts of him that mattered least, in terms of his journalistic legacy.
He was glamorous. Although an American aristocrat, he was willing to eat lunch with reporters in the Post lunchroom. He was brash. He was easily distracted. He was buoyant. He was profane. He was a spiffy dresser, at least after his third wife, Sally Quinn, took him in hand.
Women loved him and men wanted to be like him.
This luxuriating in loss culminated in the breathless story about the invitation-only post-funeral reception at the Bradlees’ Georgetown home that drew all of Washington’s power elite to a soiree more exclusive than a White House dinner. About 800 of what are said to be Washington’s best and brightest toasted their fallen hero in a white tent on the lawn of his Georgetown mansion.
But the best journalism is written by journalists who are outsiders, far enough from the centers of power so that they can perceive its flaws and are willing to breach its secrecy. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who exposed the Watergate scandal, were Metro reporters. They were not yet invited to tony dinner parties when they pursued what seemed to be a crime story. The Post’s Washington correspondents did not realize its importance or pursue it.
To his credit, Bradlee let his green reporters go after the story, and backed them up in their dogged efforts to follow every lead. He did so, despite threats by the White House to punish both him and publisher Katherine Graham. And Woodward and Bernstein’s recollection of Bradlee as editor rightfully praised him for his courage and doggedness.
But one does wonder if the Post would have been so willing to expose a president who had conspired to violate the constitution if he had been wittier, more charming, more “their sort” than the socially clumsy Richard Nixon. The Nixon White House had power, but it lacked the patina that often comes with it. (In an otherwise positive assessment of Bradlee, Charles Pierce observed that the glamorous John F. Kennedy should have received more scrutiny from Bradlee when he was a reporter and also Kennedy’s friend, and that the Post refrained from a full-bore investigation of the Iran-Contra affair, wary of the perception that the press only went after Republican presidents, not a sufficient reason to investigate a violation of constitutional principles even greater than Watergate. Reagan, too, was a far more popular president than Nixon.)
We should not mourn the glory days of the media elite, when expense accounts were fat, and reporters did not have to compete for attention with grubby online upstarts.
We should honor the legacy of the solid and often brilliant work that Bradlee’s stewardship encouraged and permitted. But we should remember that good work nearly always is done by those who remain outside the tent, not comfortably ensconced within it.