There's a big gap in obituaries for Ben Bradlee, the gutsy, charismatic icon of journalism who passed away October 21st. We hear plenty about the journalistic heights of the Watergate investigation that led to President Nixon's downfall, and the embarrassing depths of the fabricated Janet Cooke story, which led to the Washington Post returning a Pulitzer Prize. But with the exception of one blogpost at Philly.com, little is said of the years 1981 to 1991, which coincided with the Reagan/Bush era and Bradlee's last ten years as executive editor of the Post.
The reason for
this gap can be found in the "After Watergate" chapter of Bradlee's
book, "A Good Life", where he describes the "post-Watergate caution of
editors". "What the newspaper did not need", he felt, "was another fight
finish with another president--especially a Republican president, and
especially a successful fight. Without the suggestion of a formal
decision, I think the fires of investigative zeal were allowed to bank."
scandals of the Reagan era, which Bradlee describes as
"unconstitutional adventures that threatened democracy more than
Watergate", came in the protective shadow of Nixon's resignation, an
increasingly passive public, and the never-ending stream of accusations
of liberal bias aimed at newspapers like the Washington Post. "That
criticism," wrote Bradlee, "that suggestion of bias, wore me down over
years, I now think, and I know we walked the extra mile to accept the
official versions of events from the White House--explanations that I
doubt we would have accepted from the right-hand men of Democratic
presidents. And the public was glad to go along."
notes that the alleged liberal bias, if anything, went the other
direction: "at the Post anyway, we were always praying for good
Democratic scandals". That reverse bias, along with the need in some
political circles to avenge the resignation of President Nixon,
contributed to the investigative excesses of the Clinton years.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, famed for their reporting of the Watergate story, said that Bradlee's “one
unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of
that pursuit. He had the courage of an army.’’ And yet, one aspect of Bradlee's truthfulness is his admission that, even for him, the journalistic pursuit of truth could be compromised, blunted, worn down by relentless ideological attacks and public apathy.
it's hard to distinguish monuments from gravestones. In a country that
remains paralyzed and artificially polarized as the global threat of
climate change gathers power and momentum, the World War II monument on
the National Mall becomes more like a gravestone for a lost era of
national unity and sacrifice for the greater good. Given the timidity
that crept into journalism in the 1980s, the courage and commitment to
truth that marked the Watergate investigation, too, stands as both
monument and gravestone.
As Bradlee is rightly celebrated for his long and iconic journalistic career, and the personal and financial risks taken in pursuing the Watergate scandal, it's good to remember that the greatest monuments to past
glories are not built of stone, nor of words. They come not in the form
of passive, ritualistic celebration--an annual parade, a comforting eulogy, or a ribbon
slapped on the back of a car--but in emulation. These are the living monuments America seems to have forgotten how to build.