Sunday, November 2, 2014

In Memoriam: Ben Bradlee 1921-2014

Journalist. Executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991.

"As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness, it is not his job to worry about consequences. The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run. I truly believe the truth sets men free."

 (In conscience and fairness I should point out that I don't live in Washington D.C. and have never read The Washington Post on a day-to-day basis, especially not during the years 1968 and 1991. I can't vouch for it being consistently informative and entertaining the entire time. I don't even know if their comics section carried Peanuts! Bradlee's paper did win 18 Pulitzer Prizes during his long tenure, though he had to give one back after it was discovered a reporter had made the whole thing up. If that's all I had to go by, I certainly wouldn't be eulogizing him. However, it's a Pulitzer his paper won several years before that, in 1973, that tips the balance back in his eulogistic favor. Covering a crime ring operating out of the nation's capitol, Bradlee and his reporters, two in particular, got it right, and the truth set the nation free--KJ)

Bradlee was born into a Boston Brahman family. That means they were old money, so old it went all way back to the original Massachusetts settlement, in fact. Before all you lefties out there start heaping too much scorn on Bradley's privileged upbringing, be advised that the Boston Brahmans did not believe in conspicuous displays of wealth, and instead invested their money wisely.

Sometimes wisdom fails you.

According to Bradlee, his father "rose quickly like all Brahmin athletes of that era from bank runner, to broker, then vice president of the Boston branch of an investment house called Bank America Blair Company. And then the fall. One day a Golden Boy. Next day, the Depression, and my old man was on the road trying to sell a commercial deodorant and molybdenum mining stock for companies founded and financed by some of his rich pals."

Nevertheless, his father managed to scrape enough money together (mainly by borrowing from relatives) to send young Ben to a fine private school and then Harvard. He graduated right in the middle of World War II. Having obtained a naval commission, he saw action in the South Pacific. The young officer with the the refined upbringing also picked up a few swear words, a distinguishing characteristic of his for the rest of his life. After the war, Bradlee got a job as a reporter at The New Hampshire Sunday News.

A few years later, Bradlee did his first stint at The Washington Post. Because he was relatively new to journalism, he didn't get to work on any big stories, and began looking around  for something else.

A friend got Bradlee a job as a press press attaché at the American Embassy in Paris, where some say the CIA had him writing pro-America propaganda for French consumption. Des conneries didn't suit him all that much, either, so he left that job and... one with Newsweek, first as an overseas correspondent, then in their Washington bureau. Can't say what kind of car he drove.

The magazine was up for sale, and Bradlee helped find a prospective buyer, an old employer of his.

Back in the '50s, Bradlee had struck up a friendship with a rising young senator from his home state of Massachusetts. Once the '50s turned into the '60s, it proved to be a valuable contact.

Katherine Graham. Her father owned The Washington Post and let his son-in-law, Katherine's husband, run it. Then her father died, and, just a few years later, her husband committed suicide. She now found herself a publisher of a major American newspaper, a job for which she had no experience. It prospered under her. 

It helped that she made Bradlee editor. Here's the two of them leaving a Washington D.C. courthouse after getting permission to publish the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of Vietnam War policy-making that was leaked to the press by former government employee Daniel Ellsberg. Though they look very happy here, their joy probably was at least somewhat tempered by the fact that  The New York Times had gotten hold of the Papers first. It wouldn't matter. For the next few years, the scoops would all come the Washington Post's way.

The Watergate Complex in Washington D.C., consisting of three apartment buildings, an office building, and a combination hotel-and -office building. It's the last one that concerns us. Shortly after midnight of June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills noticed duct tape placed over deadbolt locks of several doors. Correctly fearing a break-in, Wills called the police, who, when they arrived, discovered five men with wiretapping devices in the headquarters of the National Democratic Committee. 

Wills is quite possibly the only Watergate figure not to get a book deal out of it.

James McCord, Jr., Virgilio Gonzalez, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio Martinez, and Bernard Baker. Commonly known as the Watergate burglars, though they were trying to bring stuff IN rather than take stuff OUT. McCord, an ex-CIA agent, was the leader of the group, and a security coordinator for the Committe to Re-Elect the President, known by the unflattering but hardly inaccurate acronym CREEP. Sturgis and Baker had also worked for the CIA. Gonzales and Martinez were Cuban refugees. The president they were trying to re-elect was Richard M. Nixon. For all concerned, it would have been better if they had just confined themselves to licking envelopes shut.

Here's some of the men--Watergate was a very masculine affair--who either hired the burglars, paid off the burglars, or merely made excuses for the burglars.

E. Howard Hunt, former CIA agent and a member of the President's Special Investigation Unit, better known as the Plumbers (the idea was to stop leaks--get it?), he was primarily responsible for organizing the Watergate break-in. He was convicted or burglary, conspiracy, and wiretapping, serving 33 months in prison. Earlier White House duties included breaking into the office of  Daniel Ellsberg's pschiatrist (maybe they were looking for evidence that he hated his mother), and forging diplomatic cables proving former as well as deceased President John F. Kennedy had ordered the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, his South Vietnamese counterpart. Hunt's stint in the CIA is stuff of legend, meaning no one knows what to believe. He supposedly was involved in the Bay of Pigs and assassination of the aforementioned Kennedy, both of which he denied

 ''I am crushed by the failure of my government to protect me and my family as in the past it has always done for its clandestine agents...I cannot escape feeling that the country I have served for my entire life and which directed me to carry out the Watergate entry is punishing me for doing the very things it trained and directed me to do.''

--E. Howard Hunt, testifying before the Senate, unaware that a re-election committee is not quite the same thing as "the country".

G Gordon Liddy, former FBI agent who coordinated the break-in with former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. Not sure which one came up with the idea of taping lock bolts. Liddy was sentenced to a 20-month prison term and fined $40,000. President Jimmy Carter later shortened the term to four years in keeping it line with the other prosecutions. It was probably Liddy's own fault that some judge initially felt the need to lock him up nearly 7 times longer than Hunt for basically the same crime. Liddy, then and now, does everything he can to come across as sinister as possible, an odd desire for someone who once served in law enforcement. It's said at parties he would hold his hand over an open flame until his skin blackened. Sounds more drunk than sinister, but I wasn't there. In what may be the most evil act ever contemplated in the White House (that we know of) Liddy proposed murdering newspaper columnist Jack Anderson, something I'm sure would have been a violation of his First Amendment rights. We know this not because it came out on tape or in some courtroom testimony but because Liddy happily told us about it in his own exercise of First Amendment rights, his best-selling autobigraphy. Anyway, Anderson's liquidation was rejected by Liddy's White House superiors. Might make them look bad.

 "We were engaged in a presidential campaign...We were going to engage in combat, albeit political combat."

--Liddy, in a reflective moment.

Former municipal bond lawyer John Mitchell served as campaign manager during Richard M. Nixon successful 1968 presidential bid, was attorney general for a few years, then served again as campaign manager during the even more successful 1972 re-election bid. It's WHY the second bid, at least, was so successful that's troubling (see above.) Michell was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Released for health reasons after 19 months. As Attorney General he was vocally in favor of "law and order."

"Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published."

--John Mitchell, to a Washington Post reporter when asked about a "slush fund." No harm ever came to Graham's mammary.

Special Counsel to the President Charles Colson. Was his idea to break into Ellsberg's shrink's office. Once proposed bombing the Brookings Institute. That never came to pass but the Hard Hat Riot did. At Colson's instigation 200 New York State trade workers armed with steel-enforced bars attacked 1000 college and high school students protesting the recent Kent State shootings. Colson also served on the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, was given a one-to-three year sentence and fined $5000. Released after seven months due to a "family problem". While behind bars, Colson became a born-again Christian.

"Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.

--Charles Colson, on how best to lead a free people.

 John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, whose policy recommendations were relatively liberal compared to what Republicans favor these days. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, got its start during the Nixon era. Where Ehrlichman was NOT liberal was in his belief that a president is above the rule of law.  Convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury, he was sentenced two and a half-to-eight years behind bars, later commuted to one-to-four years. Voluntarily entering prison before his appeals were exhausted, he ended up serving 18 months

"You drive across the [Potomac] river at night, don’t you? Well, when you cross over the river on your way home, just toss the briefcase into the river."

--John Ehrlichman, providing legal advice on how best to handle incriminating evidence.

Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. The President's most trusted adviser. Convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Sentenced to serve 2½-to-8 years, later reduced to 1-to-4 years. Served 18 months.

"That the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters [of the CIA] call Pat Gray [of the FBI] and just say, “Stay the hell out of this…this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” That’s not an unusual development,…"

--H.R. Haldeman, June 23, 1972, dispensing not-so-trustworthy, in fact downright illegal, advice to the President on how best to handle the FBI's investigation of the Watergate break-in.

Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States during the Watergate break-in, but then I already told you that, didn't I? Pardoned for any crimes he might have committed by his successor Gerald Ford.

"When you get in these people when you…get these people in, say: “Look, the problem [the FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in] is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing [i.e., a bogus "national security" issue], and the President just feels that” ah, without going into the details… don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, “the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs [two of the burglars were Cuban--hint, hint, nudge, nudge] thing up again. And, ah because these people are plugging for, for keeps and that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case”, period!"

--Richard M. Nixon, June 23, 1972, taking Haldeman's not-so-trustworthy, in fact downright illegal, advice.

John Dean, White House Counsel. Tattled on everybody when called before the Senate committee investigating Watergate. He did this only after he was fired by Nixon, who had earlier refused to give him (as he had also refused to give Hunt, Liddy, Mitchell, Colson, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman, as well as the original five burglars) a pardon for any crimes he may have committed. In exchange for becoming a key, maybe THE key, witness for the prosecution, Dean was found guilty of a single count of obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to a one-to-four year prison term, later reduced to four months.

"I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and that if the cancer was not removed the president himself would be killed by it."

--John Dean. A cancer some have alleged that he helped metastasize.

There were others. 48 people all together, including Jeb Magruder, Alexander Butterfield, and Donald Segretti, were found guilty of one crime or another stemming from the Watergate scandel, but I'm not going to list them. All this obstruction of justice is getting wearying. So instead, lets go to a couple of good guys: 

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters for The Washington Post. The Post had sent 11 reporters to cover the arraignment of the Watergate burglars, which was on a Saturday. The Sunday immediately after, only these two showed up for work to do follow-up stories. I hope they got overtime.

Various stories by the duo that appeared in The Washington Post in the months following the break-in. It soon became apparent--at least to these two since no other paper at the time thought it worth covering--that this single criminal act was no aberration but part of a larger pattern of lawbreaking. It wasn't even the first time the Watergate had been broken into. The same bunch of guys had done it much more successfully a month earlier!

W. Mark Felt, second-in-command at the FBI at the time of the Watergate break-in. He was also Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's most highly placed source, the man who let the young reporter know that the crime didn't begin and end with the five burglars (as everyone assumed for a while) but reached into the highest echelons of power. Felt should know. He was a pretty high echelon of power himself. What the public didn't know for 30 years was that he was indeed the famous (some have said notorious) Deep Throat.

Though I personally found it, and continued to find it, fascinating, I sensed an overall disappointment with the revelation when Felt's secret identity was finally exposed by the man himself in 2005. You have to understand that in those thirty years, Woodward's and Bernstein's pursuit of the truth, one that resulted in the downfall of a president, had reached mythical proportions. I think I was reaching for mythical proportions just writing that sentence! My fingers now hurt. Anyway, being number two at the FBI wasn't quite mythical enough for some folks. They wanted someone who actually worked in the White House, actually in the Oval Office, right at the Presidents beck and call. It also helps if the person was relatively famous, like Pat Buchanan. Or Alexander Haig. Oooh, Henry Kissinger! TRICIA NIXON!!! Instead it was just some guy who didn't even work at the White House but down the street, who spent more time talking to the President's many flunkies (most of whom ended up in jail) than the Man himself.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense, and really should have been no surprise, that Deep Throat should have been someone in law enforcement. There's a misconception that The Washington Post somehow "solved" the Watergate break-in, that Woodward, Bernstein and editor Bradlee found the bad guys and turned them over to the proper authorities. It was actually the other way around. Woodward and Bernstein themselves never solved any crimes. Initially, they weren't so much investigating a break-in as investigating AN investigation of a break-in.

Ask any reporter who's ever been assigned to the police beat. A crime is committed. A murder, say, or a bank robbery. Is it really the reporter's job to solve it? How exactly? It's not like newspapers have their own forensic labs. Reporters don't carry fingerprinting kits. A journalist can't go ask a judge for a search warrant. Well, I suppose he could, but he'd probably get laughed out of court. No, the best a reporter can do is call up a cop working on the case and ask "Hey, you guys any closer to solving this thing?" That's what Woodward and Bernstein tried to do, but there was a problem, not so much for them, but for the cop, Mark Felt. 

The FBI was trying to get to the bottom of the Watergate break-in. The Nixon White House was doing every thing it could to keep the FBI from getting to the bottom of the Watergate break-in. And there was a lot the White House could do. In a best-selling book by Woodward and Bernstein, Deep Throat is described as a "high-ranking member of the executive branch", another reason so many thought he must work right down the hallway from the Oval Office. Here they confuse "executive branch" with "administration". The Federal Bureau of Investigation is part of the Justice Department which is part of the Executive Branch, and thus subject to the whims of the President. It's not by design independent of the White House. True, in his 38 years running the place, J. Edgar Hoover manage to achieve a de facto independence, making the Bureau a law unto itself (and, in hindsight, a threat to democracy) but he died in May 1972, about 5 weeks before the break-in, giving the Executive Branch the opportunity to reassert control, and reassert control it did, by replacing him with a political hack by the name of L. Patrick Gray.

So overnight the FBI went from being run by a rogue megalomaniac to a passive sycophant. That might have been an improvement had the entire Nixon White House not become a rogue megalomaniac itself. Felt ran the day-to-day operations, and his agents turned up reams of evidence of a wide-ranging conspiracy to subvert the world's oldest and biggest democracy, evidence that Gray (pictured right) then turned over to the conspirators!

To get around this, Felt, and probably some other law enforcement types as well, began supplying the same evidence to The Washington Post, usually surreptitiously (can't get much more surreptitious than an underground parking garage at the 2:00 in the morning.) Woodward and Bernstein uncovered some things on their own, but with clues provided by Felt and others. Many of the same people, probably all of the same people, interviewed by Woodward and Bernstein had been interviewed by the FBI first, but the two reporters could do what the bureau under Gray couldn't: tell the world. It took awhile--Nixon was elected by a landslide during all of this--but the world eventually believed them. The Senate investigated, Dean talked, a special prosecutor was hired, the special prosecutor was fired (along with an attorney general and several acting attorney generals who refused to hand out the pink slip), another special prosecutor was hired (one that the White House didn't dare fire given all the bad publicity the first dismissal inspired), and finally, tapes were discovered. The President who so loved to secretly record others had inadvertently secretly recorded himself breaking the law.

It's been said that Watergate destroyed people's faith in government. It's worth noting, though, that some government people did do their jobs properly, as taxpayers had every right to expect them to do. Sam Ervin's Senate Committee, Archibald Cox, the first special prosecutor, the attorney generals who refused to fire Cox, Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus, Cox's replacement Leon Jaworski, the judge that ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes, John Sirica, and the Supreme Court (many of whom were Nixon apointees) that backed him up. Despite Gray's interference, even the FBI done good. Almost makes up its five decades of snooping on innocent Americans that came before.

None of this should take anything away from Woodward, Bernstein, and the editor that backed them up, Ben Bradlee. They done good, too. If not for their reporting, the FBI might have thrown up their hands at all the White House obfuscation, and the bad guys would have gotten away with it.

Woodward and Bernstein took some time out from covering the Watergate scandal to write the above book, published in 1974 while Nixon was president, and still on the best-seller list when he left office. The Washington Post's in-house nickname for Mark Felt, Deep Throat, first saw print in this book. The original newspaper stories had usually referred to him as "a highly-placed source" or something equally bland.

For fans of '70s cinema, it's these two guys who come to mind whenever Woodward and Bernstein are mentioned.

I just so happened to be on an eighth-grade field trip to Washington D.C. a few weeks after this movie premiered, and I remember the tour guide gushing about how she met Robert Redford on a location shoot (Dustin must have been off that day.)

For fans of '70s cinema, this is what comes to mind whenever Deep Throat is mentioned. That's actor Hal Holbrook in those shadows.

For fans of a certain type of '70s cinema, this is what comes--no pun intended--to mind whenever Deep Throat is mentioned. 

For fans of '70s cinema--MAINSTREAM '70s cinema--this is what comes to mind whenever Ben Bradlee is mentioned. Jason Robards Jr., at his crotchety best. 

Here's another look at Robards/Bradlee. In this scene, the editor's been roused out of his bed at 2:00 in the morning and told by Woodward and Bernstein that his house has been bugged and everyone's life is in danger, to which he replies:

"You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up...15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm going to get mad. Goodnight."

The above was an invention of a Hollywood screenwriter. According to Bob Woodward's The Secret Man, here is Bradlee's actual reply:

"What the hell do we do now?"

Heck, I would have asked the same thing.

In the end, Carl Bernstein, Ben Bradlee, and Bob Woodward, as well as the country, made it through that dark moment in American history.

Why, even Nixon seemed glad to have it over with.


  1. When you research you research !
    I remember all of this. I was living in Laguna Beach at the time just one beach city over from the Western White House. We use to see Secret Service and the News People all the time. Laguna was somewhat more fun than San Clemente.
    There was a talk (?) I can't remember who or where (how is that for no memory or research) where the speaker said " well I haven't see so many people from USC since the Watergate Trial "

    cheers, parsnip

  2. That missing 18 minutes of tape didn't happen to wash up on the beach, did it, Parsnip?

    1. Don't I wish.
      Once in awhile we use to walk the beach up to a small sign that said something like stop here. We all knew it was the WWH.