Jeff Himmelman, a journalist, author and professional musician, has written a sparkling, revealing, definitely controversial, and very readable book with "Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee." It serves both as a pre-death biography of iconic Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and a history of the period, 1965-91 that Mr. Bradlee served in that position. The chronicle includes the Kennedy years, the Pentagon Papers, truly notably Watergate and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and finally the Post's stumble over reporter Janet Cooke's false reporting of a non-existent 8-year-old drug addict, which forced the Post to give back a Pulitzer Prize in 1981
Random House ($27).
Ben Bradlee is a fascinating figure. He was courageous and a bulldog as an editor, inspiring the Post's employees, backing them up when things got rough as they can in Washington when a paper takes on a president or crosses a touchy politician, and showing signature stamina, staying up late to see the paper to bed night after night as serious leaders do.
The book is also painfully candid about the personal price Mr. Bradlee paid for his sterling career. This included three wives, among them the WASPish columnist Sally Quinn, the third Mrs. Bradlee, whose own efforts and Mr. Bradlee's own shortcomings as a father in pursuit of a successful career left him on reasonably bad terms with most of his children.
A work of art that Mr. Himmelman portrays in "Yours in Truth" is Mr. Bradlee's working and personal relationship with the late Katharine Graham, the paper's owner and publisher. She and her family saw The Washington Post as "a kind of public trust" in the finest tradition of newspapers in their relationship with the American public. That meant that she was ready to put it and her family's money on the line to do what Mr. Bradlee and she believed was the pre-eminent Washington newspaper's duty to the people, to bring them the truth, whether it was publishing the Pentagon Papers or hunting down Nixon through the Watergate affair to his eventual resignation. The Post's rivalry with The New York Times is also treated in an interesting fashion.
Mr. Himmelman leaves some messy loose ends, with which I am somewhat familiar, having lived through that period, some of it in Washington. One dangling piece is the question of the relationship between President John F. Kennedy and Mr. Bradlee's sister-in-law, Mary Meyer, with whom the president had an affair. When Mary Meyer was murdered, Mr. Bradlee and his then wife went to her house looking for her diary, per her instructions. They found James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's Lord Voldemort at that time, at Ms. Meyer's house, picking a lock and looking for the diary as well.
He didn't find it. The Bradlees did later, but then turned it over to Mr. Angleton, raising the question of why, thus suggesting that there might have been a relationship between Mr. Bradlee and the CIA or Mr. Angleton that would clearly have been inappropriate to Mr. Bradlee's role as a journalist.
Having also read most of Watergate journalist Bob Woodward's books, I found Mr. Himmelman's portrayal of him raising again questions that I have had before about his veracity. In particular, Mr. Woodward, with whom Mr. Himmelman had worked before, showed himself to be very touchy when points Mr. Bradlee made to the author raised questions about Mr. Woodward's own work. Mr. Woodward's books tend to present as gospel truth unverifiable information he claims to have harvested from contacts such as William J. Casey, CIA chief during the Reagan years.
In my mind there is no question but that Mr. Bradlee was one of the most important figures in American journalism of all time. He certainly presided over outstanding work by the Post in a very challenging period, the last part of the 20th century. My only question about him would be whether his intimate relationship with the big players of that period -- Mr. Kennedy included -- produced enough important information for the public, as opposed to selective spin while he was having fun.
Mr. Himmelman's book certainly provides material helpful in making such a judgment. The book itself is also definitely highly amusing, particularly for any connoisseur of juicy modern American politics.
Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (firstname.lastname@example.org).