Benjamin C. Bradlee, who has died at 93, was a far more thoughtful editor than he appeared to be.
Sure, the Harvard graduate and friend of John F. Kennedy was well caricatured by the virtuoso stage and screen actor Jason Robards in the 1976 film “All the President’s Men.” A joke then making the rounds in The Washington Post newsroom was that the flamboyant Robards, known as one of the great stage scene-stealers of all time, had in fact underplayed the newspaper editor, who as everyone in the media world knew was the very definition of macho flamboyance and gung-ho decisiveness.
Bradlee’s most famous success as the storied editor of the U.S. capital’s most politically influential media force was the Watergate Scandal that ended with the 1974 resignation of Richard M. Nixon as 37th U.S. president. But in the Post editor’s mind the gold dust of Pulitzer recognition and worldwide amazement hid a potential dark side.
With Watergate, the power of the American news media had overshadowed and overcame the power of the presidency. But was this too much power for the media to have, even allowing for America’s expansive First Amendment?
What assurance could the people of the United States have that a latter-day Hearst-like media monster would not abuse such power?
Was it even conceivable that America could be covertly governed or at least led in some willful direction by the combined power of its media, instead of by its elected representatives and constitutional institutions?
Though such questioning was rare in the U.S. at the time, it was common elsewhere. In the American political system an unfettered press was woven into tradition and, to a significant extent, into our law and judicial rulings.
But almost elsewhere else around the world, The Washington Post was widely and correctly viewed as undeniably Democratic liberal in its political views, whereas Nixon was a Republican president with an illiberal past. And yet it had pulled off a kind of media coup d’état.
Was this not a kind of raw politics? The power of the pen indeed seemed mightier that the sword. American journalists cheered. But not everyone did.
For example, the international reaction was, mainly, one of incredulity, astonishment and to some extent fear.
The Post’s sword of death wielded in America inspired less wildly joyous free-press regimes to tighten the handle on their own domestic media, terrified that the U.S. media achievement might spread like a virus.
But what was not widely known perhaps was that Bradlee — who was more than just Broadway flash and press pizzazz — was quite sensitive that the there were two edges to the media sword. In fact, after the Watergate coup, it was thought that The Post had tried to pull back, and re-sheath its sword almost in horror over its bloody political assassination — no matter that probably not one reporter or editor in its spacious newsroom would ever shed a tear for the hated and disrespected Nixon.
Bradlee shared those concerns because he understood how power could be abused, not just by government (as Nixon’s people had so abused) but also by the news media, a profession to which he would devote his entire distinguished career.
At that same time, younger generations all over the globe looked to the American news media with admiration and even awe, inspiring many to plot a career as a journalist.
I well knew the feeling. Once one of those young and idealistic people, in 1965, when Bradlee first became top pilot of The Post, I was a very happy summer student intern on its city desk. By the end of the summer, before my return to college for senior year, I was actually assigned national stories. The reason was Bradlee, who wanted to shake up The Post, and who believed in untested young people if they were vigorous and committed.
The best examples of his confidence in them was his insistence a few years later on keeping the young and relatively untested Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein assigned to the dramatically and dangerously unfolding Watergate story, an assignment far above their then-pay grade.
Before that, Bradlee had recommended I join The Post after college graduation but my mind was set on graduate school for a master’s degree in public policy. Yet, for many decades, my career never strayed from journalism. I somehow could not escape the spell. That is true even today. I don’t have to wonder why. It was the Bradlee effect.
Journalist Tom Plate, a former editor of the editorial pages for the Los Angeles Times, is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies. His new book is “In the Middle of China’s Future” (Marshall Cavendish).