Michel du Cille / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Washington needs more class traitors like Ben Bradlee

Memorial service for departed Beltway icon highlights the obsequiousness of today’s press corps

November 2, 2014 1:00AM ET

With its customary alpha pomp, official Washington laid to rest the city’s best-known newspaper editor, Benjamin Bradlee, at the National Cathedral on Wednesday. The pews swelled with personages paying respects to The Washington Post’s former chieftain, who died after an extended battle with Alzheimer’s on Oct. 21. The scene, like most official Washington scenes, was a not terribly dignified compound of stateliness and striving. In my section alone, to the right of the altar — which, in keeping with the cathedral’s grand federal provenance, displays no denominational iconography — former White House press spokesman Jay Carney sat a few rows in front of presidential also-ran Christopher Dodd. A row in front of me, two reporters sporting blue pinstripes and impatient, attention-seeking miens exchanged Twitter barbs with each other. Never has a house of worship more closely resembled a green room.

In the pulpit, pundits abounded — and gave extended witness to Bradlee’s fearless brand of reporting and editing, his exuberant style as a newsroom leader and professional mentor, his earthy vocabulary and his manly charisma. The tenor of the two-hour memorial was intensely masculine: Bradlee’s stepdaughter Rosamond Casey was the only woman to offer a reminiscence, and that only in prelude to a reading of Bradlee’s favorite poem, the high-Victorian ode to death-defying martial heroism “Invictus.” Washington journalists seemed, in the manner of the final reel of “Dead Poet’s Society,” to be mourning a superpatriarch, a surrogate dad both generous enough to give them the imaginative resources they needed to rebel against their pinched birthrights and tough enough to pass on the sterner spiritual stuff necessary to meet life’s main struggles as grownup interlocutors of power.

“I loved this man,” Bob Woodward announced at the outset of his tribute, which went on to hail the departed as “a journalistic warrior,” “a lion” and a worthy successor to the heroes of ancient Greek legend. “The Post staff could fairly be described as hard bitten,” the paper’s erstwhile owner Donald Graham said as he delivered the first memorial oration. “They were a group of men and women who had no heroes, but Ben was their hero.” David Ignatius said that Bradlee, a Navy veteran who served on destroyers in the Pacific theater during World War II, managed to be both Humphrey Bogart’s and Paul Heinreid’s characters in “Casablanca” — the heroic Czech resistance partisan who led the house band in a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise” as the anthem of free France and the world-weary “romantic rogue in the corner” who told the band to go ahead and play. Small wonder, Ignatius said more than a little plaintively, that “so many of us tried so desperately to be like him … Future journalists should ask with us, ‘What would Ben do?’”

What, indeed? Part of what made the scene at the cathedral a bit harrowing in its palpable longing to continue worshiping the fallen editorial hero of the Watergate years is that today’s Washington Post is just a shadow of its former self. Not only has it passed into the libertarian clutches of online retail kingpin Jeff Bezos, but the crusading ethos of Bradlee’s Post has steadily faded to a pallid, conflict-averse organ of power speaking principally to power. The strains of “La Marseillaise” are no longer audible against a steady drumbeat of sponsored content and dubiously hatched synergistic overtures to the D.C. lobbying world. Phony news sections leased out to flaks for the governments of Russia and China are now sadly regular features in today’s Washington Post, and erstwhile publisher Katharine Weymouth had scheduled a series of five-figures-per-ticket policy confabs for D.C. insiders until the practice was called out in rival publications. Just two days after the Bradley memorial, in fact, the Post came with a glossy insert touting the region’s best lawyers — yet another special advertising supplement masquerading clumsily as editorial content.

Such glum accessories are all-too-vivid reminders that in the years since Bradlee’s retirement as The Washington Post’s editor in chief in 1991, the world of newspapering has been turned upside down; as Carl Bernstein rightly observed from the Cathedral rostrum, “the dominant political and media cultures are too often geared to the lowest common denominator.” And as a consequence of these market shifts, today’s Post goes into self-punishing contortions to persuade its readers that it is in no way the “liberal newspaper” that the Nixon administration tirelessly reviled in Bradlee’s heyday.

To begin to appreciate the scope of this transformation, you must remember first of all that Bradlee was anything but a dutiful legatee of his high-Brahmin patriarchal birthright. He was, rather, the sort of figure who’s unthinkable in today’s market-addled media landscape: a principled class traitor. 

Why would Ben Bradlee’s old paper publish such patently distorted, power-coddling twaddle?

Just consider the following story, courtesy of the great American journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, who arrived at the Post from The Chicago Daily News at about the same time Bradlee took over:

You remember the Summer of Love? My job in that whole period was to cover those disgusting people. I kept telling our people, Bradlee and [assistant managing editor Larry] Stern, ‘This thing in California this summer is going to be humongously gigantic.’ They didn’t like it — then it was in the newsweeklies, and the Times, and then the Post needed me to write it.

I rented a houseboat in Sausalito and moved out there for a few months. I get this phone call from Bradlee, and he says, ‘The only thing you filed is your goddamn expense account.’ I said, ‘Ben, you have to come out here to experience it.’ And he did — he came out there for 10 days.

I took him into these dope dens — the real story. Then I wrote a 16-parter, every one of which started on Page 1 … What it really said was that the American middle class would become a dope-taking society. Ben was really shaken by the experience. He never recovered. Years later, whenever I’d see him, he’d say just that.

I had filed away von Hoffman’s anecdote as charming period color, a set piece from the later seasons of “Mad Men,” at most. But then, in the Sunday edition of the Post’s Outlook section the week after Bradlee died, the paper published a long excerpt from a speech he gave at the University of California at Riverside in 1997 that put this recollection in a new light. He began by candidly announcing that it was the journalist’s job in the centers of American power to distrust the official “first version of anything” and went on to say:

I guess it started for me with Vietnam, when the Establishment felt it had to lie to justify a policy that, as it turned out was never going to work. It mushroomed during the counterculture days, when sacred protective shrouds were ripped away from every institution in our society … And of course, the press, which was on hand to record the ripping of the shrouds with glee. Some thought: too much glee.

It was hard to fathom fully, but as Bradlee went on to multiply Grade A specimens of mendacity on high, from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate to Clinton White House fundraising trespasses and Newt Gingrich’s misappropriation of funds from his political action committee, this avatar of official D.C. journalism was sounding like nothing so much as a filthy hippie.

Meanwhile, though, there was the rest of the section in which Bradlee’s brief for uncovering the truth at all costs appeared. Just below was an encomium for the campaign speech Ronald Reagan delivered on Barry Goldwater’s behalf on national television in 1964. This oration — which bespoke a very different Californian spirit of the 1960s — was, the Post earnestly told us, one of the landmark moments in American political rhetoric, alongside Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech in 1860, and William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” call to arms at the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The shades of Patrick Henry, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill are all summoned as worthy analogues to Reagan’s familiar bludgeoning of conniving welfare cheats and “a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol.”

Where did all this heavy-breathing special pleading come from? An answer is hinted at in the author’s bio: “Steven F. Hayward is the Ronald Reagan distinguished professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.” And if the Post’s Outlook section possessed even the notional dedication to truth seeking that Bradlee was outlining in its marquee entry that week, it would have gone on to note that Hayward is also an F.K. Weyerhauser scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the film impresario behind “An Inconvenient Truth … or Convenient Fiction?” a rebuttal of Al Gore’s global warming documentary funded by the libertarian Pacific Research Institute and the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Hayward is, in short, an ideological hack and an industry-leased propagandist, posing as a sober analyst of the higher rhetorical arts. It used to be that corporate interests pushing their political agendas would have to present them as paid ads on the op-ed pages of major papers; now newspapers pay them for the privilege of airing their carefully vetted talking points.

Alongside Hayward’s opus was a piece by Lally Weymouth, the mother of former Post publisher Katharine Weymouth. Lally Weymouth has made a long career out of serving as an obliging mouthpiece for powerful foreign leaders. In this installment, she conducted a fawning interview with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. (Sample softball question: “So you think Hamas would take over the West Bank?”) Her most critical query about Benjamin Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war in Gaza, which left more 2,100 Gazans dead, most of them civilians? “Was [stopping short of a full-blown military occupation of Gaza] the right decision?”

Meanwhile, the Post’s op-ed pages — that hotbed of stupendously clueless commentary that was separated from the Outlook section in 2009 — prominently featured on the same Sunday a piece to warm the cockles of Hayward’s heart: a fire-breathing offering from former Hewlett-Packard head and indefatigable John McCain crony Carly Fiorina. This bold tocsin, titled “A time for businesses to stand up to activists,” derides climate change activists who have targeted corporate boards in an effort to jump-start action on global warming. In Fiorina’s fanciful telling, business leaders now cringe in fear before a disciplined cadre of “well-organized, professional activists intent on chilling speech and marginalizing the voice of business and job creators in U.S. society … Their attacks on business’ protected speech and political participation are intended to sideline the entrepreneurial perspective and silence the opportunity for nuanced policy discussions.” Never mind that a standing armada of industry lobbyists has kept progress on climate change legislation on total lockdown for the past decade.

Let me pose a follow-up question to Ignatius’ sermon. Why would Bradlee’s old paper publish such patently distorted, power-coddling twaddle? I know from bitter experience that op-ed shops at major papers routinely repurpose these corporate PR briefs in their pages because they professionally adhere to a phony centrism. They believe that responsible journalism is the equivalent of a cuckoo clock display, in which one side warbles at the other and then retires to await its next formulaic set-to an hour hence. How can we have a nuanced debate, after all, if the poor speech-challenged business and job creators who already bankroll the entire electoral process aren’t also protected from dissenting views in their boardrooms or on editorial pages?

Vigilant opinion editors keen to keep their jobs will always insist that they, like the climate change know-nothings they publish, are merely presenting both sides in a charged public controversy. I’m pretty sure, though, that if Bradlee were running today’s Washington Post, he’d see things differently. “Another thing about Ben,” von Hoffman fondly said, “I never recall him bullshitting or lying.” Or as a longtime Post veteran said to me as we filed out of the National Cathedral into the rainy afternoon, “It’s good to hear virtues extolled that are rarely practiced.” 

Chris Lehmann is an editor for BookForum and The Baffler and a columnist for In These Times. He was the deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World from 2000 to 2004.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter