Newspaper Legend's Life In the Press and in Private


By Ben Bradlee

Simon and Schuster

514 pages, $27.50

BEN BRADLEE'S memoirs, ''A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,'' make a strange book. Perhaps that's because the author, the longtime Washington Post editor who built up a newspaper and brought down a president, is himself enigmatic. Or at least contradictory.

Here's a man born a Brahmin in Boston's Back Bay; a man who went to the prestigious St. Mark's prep school in Southborough, Mass., and then on to Harvard; who was a personal friend of John and Jacqueline Kennedy while they were in the White House; who spent almost three decades at the helm of one of America's most powerful newspapers; who during that time spoke and met and hobnobbed with the most powerful people on the planet; and here's a man who thinks he's anti-establishment and who talks (and writes) like a sailor. (If foul language offends you, be warned this book is full of it.)

In a Bradlee book you'd expect to find lots of nifty details about what went on behind the scenes with Kennedy, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the Washington Post, and the infamous affair of Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a phony story about a pre-adolescent heroin addict. That's all here, and it's worth the price of the book. But what you probably wouldn't expect to find are the details of Bradlee's sex life, including the adulterous ups and downs of his three marriages: first to Jean Saltonstall, daughter of another Brahmin family; then to Antoine (Tony) Pinchot, daughter of an establishment Pennsylvania clan; and finally to Sally Quinn, the Washington Post writer and erstwhile CBS morning-show anchor and his present wife. Bradlee has the grace not to mention the name of every woman he's ever had an affair with, but he makes it clear there have been several.

This volume won't do much to polish Bradlee's image in the heartland, where the Washington Post is part of some folks' received demonology. But I get the impression he could care less about his public image.

That's probably the kind of moxie that Post publisher Katherine Graham saw in him when she made him editor of the Post in the mid-1960s and watched him go after The New York Times. That is the newspaper most journalists claim to aspire after; Bradlee was in the enviable position of getting the resources to compete.

The result is history: The Post evolved from one of two mediocre Washington papers to a media powerhouse, bolstered by a series of journalistic coups and crushing the Washington Star along the way.

Bradlee provides a concise, yet fascinating version of the now mythic Watergate tale. Most interesting was the dissension that the movie ''All the President's Men'' caused among key Post personnel: Managing editor Howard Simons spent years in bitterness over the short shrift he felt he received in the film. And no, Bradlee did not ask Bob Woodward the identity of Deep Throat, the famous and ever accurate anonymous source, until years later. He knows it now, and says he should have asked sooner.

Bradlee and Kennedy became friends, not because they knew each other from Boston, but because Senator Kennedy bought a house near Bradlee's in Georgetown. Bradlee's previous book, ''Conversations With Kennedy.'' provided extensive details of his talks with the president.

Three things struck me here: Bradlee's poignant description of Jackie Kennedy on the night she returned from Dallas after Kennedy's assassination; a sad, sad letter she wrote the Bradlees a few weeks later; and the evaporation of the friendship.

Mrs. Kennedy hardly communicated with the Bradlees following her departure from Washington; after Bradlee published his book in the early 1970s she never spoke to him again.

Maybe the strangest story in the book is the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer, Tony Bradlee's sister, in October 1964. A friend called to tell the Bradlees to find and destroy Mrs. Meyer's diary. When they went to look for it, the now infamous head of CIA counter-intelligence, James Angleton (a family friend) was already in the apartment. The diary, when found, contained several pages detailing Meyer's affair with Kennedy.

The Bradlees had no idea there had been such a relationship; only years later did Bradlee understand how much womanizing Kennedy had been involved in, he says. Why Angleton was at Meyer's apartment remains a mystery.

Bradlee calls the Janet Cooke affair, now a legend in journalism circles, the low point of his career. The moral of the story, he says, is: Check things out, including resume references. Janet Cooke seemed too good to be true: a smart, young black woman who could write up a storm. And it turned out that she was: She had falsified her credentials, but no one bothered to check, just as no one verified her ''Jimmy's World'' series until it all fell apart after she won the Pulitzer.

Whether the Post has really become the journalistic equal of the Times is debatable. Bradlee left it far greater than he found it, but despite his best efforts, it is still a white paper devoted mostly to the federal government and is little connected to the black city in which it's located.

As one would hope from a journalist, Bradlee writes in a brisk and very readable style. Most of the time, it's a good read. If you want to understand the changed relationship between the United States government and the press over the last 30 years, it's a must read.

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