Ben Bradlee: scourge of the powerful, but always an establishment man

Speaking truth to power over a dry martini. Wikimedia Commons

Ben Bradlee, long-time editor of the Washington Post has been celebrated around the world since news of his death broke. And his reputation does indeed remain stellar. But in the rush to praise him, some of his mistakes have been forgotten.

Bradlee built his reputation for integrity as a journalist by pursuing political corruption in high places but he had old-money roots. He attended an elite school and followed generations of his family to Harvard. He was a friend and neighbour to the Kennedys. This background often appeared to stop him from tackling some of the most pressing issues of his time.

Truth to power

Being a product of the East Coast establishment, Bradlee believed firmly in the concept of public service. His pursuit of truth in defence of constitutional freedoms went beyond party politics. He was as scathing of the Democrats as he was of Republicans. He was particularly critical of those who exceeded their powers and led the nation down paths to disaster in defence of national security.

He did not mince words in 1987, for example, when giving his assessment of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. He pointedly accused Lyndon Johnson, who was president at the time, and his senior advisers of lying and essentially fabricating an aggression on a US Navy ship by North Vietnam and then using it to push Congress into authorising US military attacks.

Jim Stockdale, a US Sabre jet fighter pilot, essentially proved that no such attack had happened when he scoured the area around the ship for hours, finding nothing. A compliant media, closely nestled at the centres of political power, took Johnson at face value despite the evidence and reported the incident as the government described it. Much later, it turned out that Johnson had ordered military provocations against North Vietnam. He was trying to bring about an “incident” to be used as an excuse for American military intervention.

But even though Bradlee later lamented the manipulation, he chose not to publish details of the Tonkin deception as part of his coverage of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. By omitting the information, he let The New York Times take one of the biggest scoops of the 20th century.

East Coast guy

Bradlee’s establishment roots coloured his work at at other times too. Despite being an enlightened East Coast patrician, he never questioned the character of the American racial order, even during the 1950s and 1960s. For him, as much as the broader political system, the civil rights and black power movements came out of the blue and never received the kind of sympathetic coverage they deserved.

Most famously, Bradlee backed junior reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during their investigations into the Watergate scandal. It was a story that eventually led all the way to the White House and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. But it should not be forgotten that in going after Nixon, Bradlee was helping the Democrats.

Nor was the Washington Post ever really concerned with the violent repression of groups that sat outside the mainstream, such as the Socialist Workers’ Party or the Black Panthers. Both stood for radical alternatives to the economic and racial disparities of the US but were destroyed by J Edgar Hoover and the FBI in the late 1960s and early 1970s – just when the Watergate scandals broke.

In the end, though, Bradlee was a great newspaper man and his memoir, A Good Life, remains one of the most interesting, enlightening and self-deprecating of autobiographies. He was a product of his time and of the American East coast establishment but he inspired a generation of investigative reporters and continues to set a significant example today.