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‘The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee,’ Tells the Storied Life of an Icon of the Press
December 4, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Famous Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (top) comes across in a new HBO biography as very much like the mainstream media: at times arrogant, at times agreeable, at times annoying, at times elitist, and in the best moments indispensable.

Bradlee, the editor of the Post when it was breaking the Watergate story that forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, gets a sympathetic portrayal in The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee, which premieres at 8 p.m. ET Monday.

Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bulldogged the Watergate story over two long years, taking heavy flak along the way. Bradlee challenged, pushed, and guided them, by all indications doing exactly what a good editor should do.

Without Bradlee’s determination, protection, and faith in their work, it’s a good possibility the story would have dissipated somewhere along the way.  

So give Bradlee a lot of credit, which he felt he deserved. His 1994 memoir, on which much of this documentary is based, does not suggest he harbored much “aw, shucks” modesty.   

Bradlee wasn’t some scrappy newspaperman who emerged from a hardscrabble childhood with a burning desire to give the little guy a voice in the game.

Bradlee was from Boston aristocracy. While his family wasn’t rolling in money, he went to Harvard and married into another venerable Massachusetts family, the Saltonstalls.

After serving in the Navy for the duration of World War II, he scrambled for a newspaper job. Shut out in New York, he landed at the then-sleepy Post before jumping to Newsweek as a foreign correspondent.

That opened up his world, he wrote. He dumped his wife, with whom he had one son, and married a high-flying young socialite. He became besties with John F. Kennedy when the presidency was only a gleam in Kennedy’s eye.

He said he struggled with the line between friendship and reporting when it came to Kennedy, and while this documentary doesn’t examine media coverage of Kennedy in any detail, it’s clear in retrospect that the press, in general, kept a lot of Kennedy’s personal secrets.

Bradlee, one of Kennedy’s closest non-family friends, said he had no idea Kennedy got around as much as he did.

Whatever. When the Post offered Bradlee its editorship a few years later, he grabbed it and by all accounts turned an ordinary newspaper into one that mattered.

Newspaperman lingers on the Watergate story, noting how it came together in small pieces with the links unclear. Bradlee helped Woodward and Bernstein gradually make those pieces fit.

He admitted that the rest of his newspaper life, perhaps inevitably, became a bit anticlimactic. He stayed at the Post until 1991, but the splashiest stories after Watergate were Janet Cooke’s infamously fabricated account of a young heroin addict, and Bradlee dumping wife number two to marry one of his staffers, a young Sally Quinn.

There’s a clip of an older Bradlee being asked if he regrets anything. He says, oh, maybe he hurt his second wife, but no, he really doesn’t regret anything.  

He lived another 23 years after retirement and a picture of him on the beach in the Hamptons, golden tan glowing under his casually open shirt, makes him look like a walking Chivas Regal ad.

Little or nothing in Newspaperman suggests Ben Bradlee was a man of the people, or that he cared to be.

But there’s every evidence that he recognized and loved a compelling human story, be the drama modest or sweeping – and that he saw good newspapering as a path to the truth.

Rarely, he suggested, would that make newspapers or the larger media popular. It did make them essential to democracy, a core thought that’s worth remembering in the rather different media landscape of 2017.

Ben Bradlee’s life suggests that sometimes the people are best served by those who don’t pretend to be one of them.

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