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A Post Man's Route : Tales of sex, power and nearly 30 years at helm of acclaimed daily : A GOOD LIFE: Newspapering and Other Adventures, By Ben Bradlee (Simon & Schuster: $27.50; 514 pp.)

October 15, 1995|Mike Barnicle | Mike Barnicle is a Boston Globe columnist

As soon as Ben Bradlee, newspaperman, got the job he had lusted after for years--editor of the Washington Post--he went at the task as if turning out each edition was like being on the mound for the seventh game of the World Series. The year was 1965 and Bradlee, a charismatic Harvard-educated Yankee from Massachusetts, hurled himself at the position with a marvelous energy that would not ebb for nearly three decades.

"In the city room at night I bugged everyone for answers to a thousand questions," Bradlee recalls in "A Good Life": "How come the night managing editor went home at 9 p.m.? Because he felt there was nothing to do after the first edition closed. How come we had an eight-column banner automatically, on the first and final edition front pages, whether or not the news justified such play? Because Harry Gladstein, the circulation chief, wanted one. How come the front page of the second, third and fourth editions always had three or four small, one-paragraph stories, under headlines like '30 Missing in Ecuador Mud Slide'? To replace the space taken up by the eight-column banners in the first and final editions.

How come we didn't cover fires or crimes in the city's black neighborhoods? Because the night city editors treated black and white victims differently. How come the production chiefs automatically approved our requests for page-one color photos if it involved the Pope? Because the powers-that-be on the business side were all Catholics."

Bradlee's book is actually more of a wonderfully entertaining conversation than it is a biography set on the printed page. He speaks to us of his participation as observer to all those epic events that marked the life of the land during his tenure at the Post--the Kennedy Administration, Vietnam, the great cleavage of race in America, Watergate and the end of Nixon's presidency--as well as the personal subplots of his own life: Items like a raw ambition that caused the collapse of his first marriage and a friendship with John Kennedy that made him blind to the fact his old pal, the President of the United States, had an incredibly severe case of blazing loins.

That particular affliction--a runaway libido--was something Bradlee shared with JFK. Why, off the first 100 pages you could easily mistake his good life for that of Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw magazine, instead of a man who took a mediocre newspaper and turned it into a great one that only got better under his firm hand.

When he was young, living in Paris and working for Newsweek during the early 1950s, Bradlee appears to have been putting up Wilt Chamberlain kind of numbers in the bedroom. Raised within the confines of a puritanical, waspish family filled with great affection but not nearly enough money, he emerged from World War II where he served aboard a Navy destroyer and sought to liberate himself from the sexual inhibitions of his youth. He unsparingly points out that his efforts were successful.

Yet it is obvious that the one true and lasting love of Bradlee's life has been a newspaper, the Washington Post. And after sifting through all the terrific inside stuff he serves up here--the pressure of pursuing a great crime story that involved Richard Nixon and "a third-rate burglary," the fact that Jack Kennedy was sleeping with the unknowing Bradlee's sister-in-law, discovering that one of his own people, Janet Cooke, had lied her way to a Pulitzer Prize--he was clearly most excited by the daily pursuit of a story.

Ben Bradlee never viewed himself as a journalist. He was a reporter who became an editor; one who always loved the profane skills necessary to provide readers with the instant editions of history that are newspapers.

Standing in the huge, sprawling newsroom of his Post, Bradlee was a walking, talking, backslapping, swaggering champion of something that is becoming rare indeed in his industry: the ability, willingness really, to have fun.

He assembled a staff--Dick Harwood, Ward Just, David Broder, Hobart Rowen, Don Oberdorfer and Bob Maynard--that was both curious and humble, two aspects of character not exactly obvious in the newsrooms of 1995. At Bradlee's Post, they sure did want to dig, expose, write and get as close to truth as you are allowed to as the clock approaches each day's deadline.

But unlike so many current egotistical practitioners of his craft, they were not there just to win prizes or get a seat on some weekend TV show where loudness is confused with insight. Ben Bradlee woke up every morning asking "What's new?," not "Who can we ruin?" He took his paper where events led him.

Once in a while, though, his BS meter failed him. But he does not hesitate to recount his failings. He even cites the embarrassing account of events that followed the murder of his sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer, who was killed one October afternoon in 1964 as she walked alone on the towpath of the Potomac canal in the Georgetown section of Washington D.C.

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