Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of the Washington Post, believed in trusting reporters. He set them loose on a story, pushed them hard and – when there was hell to pay – backed them up.
Sometimes that worked out spectacularly well; sometimes, it was disastrous.
He trusted Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and in uncovering the Watergate scandal, they brought down a president and made the Post a household name.
A few years later, he trusted another young reporter, Janet Cooke, and, in 1981, after her story on an 8-year-old heroin addict turned out to be a sham, the Post had to return its Pulitzer Prize.
And, late in life, well into his 80s, Bradlee trusted Jeff Himmelman, the author of this new biography. He had reason to trust Himmelman, who had ghostwritten Bradlee's son Quinn's memoir, thus endearing himself to the family. Himmelman also came highly recommended by Woodward, who had used him as a research assistant.
So Bradlee handed over a lifetime's worth of personal and professional correspondence, invited him to parties and family gatherings, and told everyone he knew to talk freely. And, with typical Bradlee bravado, he said to Himmelman: "I don't give a f--- what you write about me."
Then, a few weeks ago, "Yours in Truth" came out. And, surprise! Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn, and Himmelman's mentor, Bob Woodward, are furious. By all accounts, they aren't speaking to the author, and various claims and counterclaims are flying around cyberspace.
Himmelman, it turns out, took Bradlee at his word. The book certainly rings true – including its revelations about Bradlee's womanizing, his doubts about certain melodramatic details of the Watergate reporting and its criticism of his third wife, longtime Post feature writer and drama queen Sally Quinn.
It all makes for a delicious read. Still, it must be said: This is a very weird book. The writing is strangely cozy, almost familial, with everyone on a first-name basis – Ben and Sally and Bob. The first chapter sets the tone: "I first met Ben eleven years ago when I was working as a research assistant for Bob Woodward. One night Bob and his wife Elsa threw a book party…" You get the idea.
As for the material? It's well-reported, perceptive, adds to the historical record even as it entertains – and it takes no prisoners. With friends like Himmelman, who needs Kitty Kelly?
The author gives full coverage to Bradlee's faults — plenty of them over his celebrated 91-year life. The author uses the Bradlee's correspondence to good effect, quoting from the pithy letters Bradlee sent to everyone from statesmen to students. (His fawning notes to Post chairman Katharine Graham – generally signed "Love," – prove his stated belief that it's important to "take care of the A shares," the Post's owners: "It is one of the pleasures of working for you to tell you that I don't mind being runner-up to you one damned bit. In fact, I'm all-out flattered.")
The last chapter takes up Bradlee's painful family relationships, including those with three sons from his first two marriages – the fallout from a career flying very close to the sun. Himmelman re-creates a scene in which he overhears Bradlee on the phone with one of those sons, arguing about money. When the call is over, Bradlee cries out in psychic pain, and Himmelman has the urge to give him a hug. Instead, he includes the anecdote in his book.
As Joan Didion famously put it, "writers are always selling somebody out."
Still, "Yours in Truth" is no hatchet job; not even close. In many ways, it's reverential. Himmelman's understanding of and admiration for his subject shows on every page.
Describing himself as starstruck, Himmelman makes much of Bradlee's dashing looks, his trademark Turnbull & Asser shirts, his competitiveness and his flawless French.
But he also airs a lot of dirty laundry: Bradlee's various affairs, some of which wrecked his two first marriages, and one of which culminated in his third marriage to Quinn. He also takes up Bradlee's psychological rivalry with John F. Kennedy, whom he both socialized with and directly covered.?The reader comes away with a full picture of a swashbuckling, larger-than-life figure, one who changed the course of history and built a world-class newspaper.
That would never have been possible without the remarkable access Bradlee provided.
And Himmelman knows it. He writes: "Access comes with pratfalls and trapdoors but it also represents an uncommon opportunity to look so closely at an uncommon life. I took it because it was worth it."
And presumably, Bradlee – even given his advanced age – understood generally what he was signing up for. Still, you don't invite someone into your home, treat him like a son, and then expect him to write this:
"I have seen he really does let Sally roll him most of the time where (his older) kids are concerned. … When Sally is on the march, Ben checks out, and then, in the aftermath, he turns on the charm to try to smooth his way through the fallout."
Himmelman unearths an unsent note from Bradlee to Sally Quinn. Although it is torn down the middle, he quotes it in full. Among its high points: "I have the feeling that you are always pushing for public recognition as my owner … that you want to be married to be recognized, not to be closer to me … that you'd rather not get married, then get married quietly and tell no one." And in another unsent note: "I guess I'm having trouble understanding what you want from me beyond total acquiescence and endless cash."
As for Woodward, Himmelman deals his mentor a tough hand. He comes across the transcript of a 1990 interview in which Bradlee admits to doubts about some (relatively trivial) aspects of the Watergate story: the tales of parking garage meetings and the elaborate signals between reporters and their famous source, Deep Throat.
"There's a residual fear in my soul that that isn't quite straight," Bradlee says, and these words send Woodward around the bend, because they will give "fodder to the f---ers" – those still eager to tear down the Post's Watergate reporting.
Nor is that the only thing Himmelman turns up. Piecing together items from Bradlee's files and juxtaposing them with the Post's Watergate stories, he finds evidence that Bernstein crossed a line when he interviewed and used material from a Watergate grand juror. What's worse, the famed reporters have always insisted otherwise.
Himmelman writes: "Woodward's repeated proclamations that they ‘never got anything out of the grand jurors' … do raise basic questions about ethics and truthfulness." He concludes: "Maybe the moral of the story is that nobody gets to come out of the great mud bath of Watergate with his hands entirely clean."
In recent days, Himmelman has defended himself against charges that he took undue advantage:
"The idea that Ben Bradlee, Sally Quinn, Bob Woodward, or anybody else was naive about what was going on here is simply not plausible. These are some of the most experienced and sophisticated journalists on the planet. Everybody knew that I was always wearing my hat as Ben's biographer."
But that defense, (in the Daily Beast), however valid, is unlikely to garner more invitations to Georgetown soirees.
In the department of hoist-with-her-own-petard, it ought to be mentioned that Quinn's wicked Post profiles often gleaned their best material from observations made quietly at glitzy events and through the use of social contacts.
In fact, Himmelman gives just about everybody – all the first names from Ben to Bob to Sally – a dose of their own medicine in "Yours in Truth."?And, for a chaser, there's a ready supply of irony.
Case in point: Based on the same kind of freewheeling social access that he would later give to Himmelman, Bradlee's 1975 book, "Conversations with Kennedy" portrays JFK as not only a flirt, but one who at times seemed to prefer Bradlee's second wife, Tony, to Jacqueline Kennedy herself.
When Bradlee met the former First Lady on the street not long after his book was published, she cut him dead and never again acknowledged his existence, though he tried for nearly 20 years – right up until her death in 1994 – to heal the breach.
Maybe it will go easier for Himmelman. But a better bet is that his book will sell a lot more copies in its current form than if he had decided to make everyone happy.
Margaret Sullivan is the editor ?of The Buffalo News
Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee
By Jeff Himmelman
495 pages, $27