Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“I Hate Trusting Anybody”

Ben Bradlee, the longtime executive editor of The Washington Post who became a nationally-known figure for his role managing the paper’s reporting on Watergate, has passed away at age 93.

Like most, my knowledge of Bradlee and his career has been mostly confined to that period during the early 1970s when he guided Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, although as the many remembrances being published this week show his influence and significance in journalism extends well beyond that important period in American history and politics.

If you’ve seen the 1976 film All the President’s Men, you’ll recall Jason Robards played Bradlee -- excellently, as Robards was in everything. In fact he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for what was really a small part, though perfectly pitched with the gravitas appropriate to someone in Bradlee’s position of authority.

I liked the character of Bradlee -- both in the film and in real life (in the context of reading Watergate, where I’ve mostly encountered him). Via Robards he comes off as partly a parental figure, partly a tough-minded coach, possessed of both the relevant experience and unassailable intellect to make sound decisions. I think I like the character so much mainly because of my own experience both as a teacher and as an editor, roles that require not just being able to pull out the red pen and use it unhesitatingly, but to be willing and able to assume responsibility for others when required.

I also like the character for all the great lines he delivers, such as the one that punctuates the scene when Bradlee gives the pair the go-ahead to run their story:

The line “I hate trusting anybody” doesn’t appear in Bernstein and Woodward’s 1974 bestseller, I don’t believe, although the sentiment is there in the way the authors present their editor. And Bradlee articulated the same position again and again in various contexts subsequently, such as in 1995 when he told 60 Minutes “I just do not believe the first version of events in this city,” referring to the nation’s capital and how inside the Beltway people “don’t tell the truth a hundred different ways.”

Not accepting what you are told (or what you see) at face value is obviously a skill great poker players cultivate, their training to do so advanced by the consistency with which opponents “don’t tell the truth a hundred different ways.” Inspiring such skepticism and inquisitiveness -- something I like to think I’ve been able to do here and there as a teacher and perhaps outside of the classroom occasionally, too -- is a good legacy to leave.

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