Raleigh, N.C. — Good Life, Great Read!
Miss the days when, coffee in hand and in slippers and robe, you’d wait for the sound of the morning paper to hit the front porch?
Ben Bradlee’s autobiography takes us back to the day when, of a morning, you’d open a Post, Times, Gazette or Herald and read earth shattering news, banner headlines not only announcing but making history— KENNEDY ASSASSINATED, BREAK IN AT DEMOCRATIC HEADQUARTERS, PENTAGON PAPERS RELEASED, WATERGATE HEARINGS BEGIN, VIETNAM RAGES, NIXON RESIGNS.
And Ben Bradlee may not have set the type but he sure as hell helped set the standard. No newspaperman in recent history made a greater impact on the future of U.S. journalism than the Washington Post’s managing editor.
Perfect, made all the right calls? No not even close. But it’s hard to imagine a more candid, accurate and generous account (he heaps praise on this fellow editors and writers) from the eye of the storm than Bradlee’s.
The early days—his growing up in Boston—have their moments. And Bradlee’s years as a slack-off—drinking, carousing, card player—at Harvard comes equipped with self-deprecating humor. His stint in the Pacific—zipping up and down in harm’s way on a Navy destroyer chasing Japanese subs, covering landing operations and firing deck guns at point blank range into enemy aircraft—makes riveting reading. . . while serving as a great reminder of what Bradlee and the Great Generation were thrown into during that “second war to end all wars.”
His post-war stepping stones, stories of the jobs that lead to the Post’s managing editor position must be told—early newspapering at the award winning New Hampshire Sunday News, earning his stripes on his first tour with the Washington Post, U.S. Press attaché stationed in Paris, and then as the European correspondent of Newsweek. But these early adventures, even considering the divorce from his first wife, Jean, and his affairs (not necessary in that order), are up against some rather strong autobiographical competition. I mean, who but Ben Bradlee (which he sees as the fortune that followed him his entire good life) would find themselves as the centerpiece (of sorts) of our history.
And that’s what makes A Good Life one of America’s great modern day autobiographies.
So, he and Tony, wife number two, come back from Paris with Newsweek’s bureau, buy a townhouse in DC’s Georgetown and who should move in several doors down? How about Senator John F. Kennedy? They have children of a like age, hit it off famously, socialize as couples and in the end Bradlee and Kennedy become closer than perhaps a U.S. President and a Newsweek reporter should be. At least as Bradlee tells it that’s what Jackie thought!
So we’re there from the Bay of Pigs, to Vietnam to that fateful day in Dallas.
And for all his entertaining Zelig moments (the man finds himself rubbing elbows with more people of fame and influence than Forrest Gump) our writer takes us into the heads, hearts and ink stained offices of that business we once called newspapering. We hit the mean street beats with reporters, feel editor’s angst over when to and when not to say, “Print it!” His compelling story of how he orchestrated the sale of Newsweek to the Washington Post is a career game changer, one that deservedly earns an entire chapter. Then (in part his reward for the above transaction) Bradlee finds himself, with the blessings of the Post’s owner Katherine Graham, back at the Post as the deputy managing editor and then finally as managing editor. Here, sleeves rolled up he carries out the dirty work of an ME—fights unions, strives for equal coverage for minorities and sometimes, in his words, “—-s up!”
There may be no better example of the latter than the hiring and failure to vet Janet Cooke, a talented writer who fabricated a story that won the writer and The Washington Post the Pulitzer—an undeserved prize that disgraced the Post, its editors and writers.
And of course, there are no better examples of his triumphs than—hands on the reins—the Washington Post’s coverage of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate.
In his closing, along with the trials and tribulations of his personal life (patching up divorces, healing family wounds, the affair with and then marriage to Style writer Sally Quinn) Bradlee presents readers with insightful thoughts regarding the responsibilities of the press: he clarifies the difference between gossip and news, articulates how a good editor defines slander and reinforces why ethics should always remain a newspaper’s watchword.
So, A Good Life, indeed, Mr. Bradlee. For all your good fortunes—being in the right place at the right time—you, in the end proved to be the consummate reporter. You tell your story well and have our thanks for the sharing.
For a copy of A Good Life ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy the 1995 autobiography for less than the newsstand price of a Washington Post on August 9, 1974, the day Nixon resigned.
Bob Cairns runs the site "Page Turners from the Past," a website devoted to bringing readers reviews of older books that deserve a good dusting off! His reviews are featured once a month on WRAL.com.