We Need More Ben Bradlees

His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.

Ben Bradlee in 2001.

Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

There is a quote from Ben Bradlee’s book Conversations With Kennedy that I always thought about when I thought of him: 

This record is sprinkled with what some will consider vulgarity. They may be shocked. Others, like Kennedy and like myself, whose vocabularies were formed in the crucible of life in the World War II Navy in the Pacific Ocean, will understand instinctively. There is nothing inherently vulgar in the legendary soldier’s description of a broken-down Jeep. “The fucking fucker’s fucked.” Surely, there is no more succinct, or even graceful, four-word description of that particular state of affairs.

Here’s why I liked that quote. First of all, it’s true on the specific matter of when and how to deploy expletives. It also captures the cadence and voice of a particular period of writing. It’s a little self-indulgent and has the feeling of a tumbler of something by the typewriter. William Manchester uses this voice in The Glory and the Dream. It makes me think that the writer would be good company until he had too many drinks. He’d probably flirt with your wife if you sat her next to him, but you wouldn’t be bored at dinner.  

But the real reason I liked that quote is that it demonstrates the way in which Bradlee was straddling two worlds, playing the role of both reporter and friend. It would be great if every presidency had at least one reporter who worked that territory.

Bradlee was covering Kennedy for Newsweek, but he was also his pal, putting on the tweed for weekends in the Virginia countryside where there was a lot of adjourning for bloody marys. Bradlee represented a reporter in the old style—he’d never put an expletive in Newsweek, and he’d trim his reporting to fit the other conventions too (including the rule that some conversations were off the record). But ultimately, after the passage of time, he broke those conventions and offered insight no one else had.

When I think of the journalists and columnists of the Kennedy era—Teddy White, Hugh Sidey, Joe Alsop, and Bradlee—I wonder where any of them would fit today. They were all mythmakers in one form or another. White worked with Jackie Kennedy to give us the Camelot story, but Bradlee irritated the former first lady by writing his account. He also ticked off the president at times, which accounts for the gaps in Conversations With Kennedy. This suggests at least some astringency in the relationship, and that Bradlee retained some perspective.

In retrospect, the book is such a glowing account that it’s hard to see what anyone in the Kennedy camp could be sore about. But Bradlee’s relationship with Kennedy defines a category that we could use more of: the irritating confidante. There’s plenty of critical coverage of presidents, and there are plenty of official meaningless statements put out by the president’s mouthpieces. What’s required is someone who can work the gap in the middle, a sympathetic voice who gives us some insight into the office, what really happens, and what it does to a person that only access can bring. At the same time, this someone must have enough self-respect, experience, and wisdom to know that using that access to write hagiography is a special kind of dull lie.  

We misunderstand the presidency as we cover it in real time (just look at how we measure for the next occupant). Kennedy said the essential question everyone wants to know about a president is, “What’s he like?” That’s what we really want to know about most people who achieve something—it’s our entry point. Knowing what’s going on inside (even 10 years later, when Conversations was written) helps us understand what we should demand of the person in the office. If nothing else, it reminds us that most of the theories, analysis, and confident declarations made during an administration are wrong, which might trick us into pausing before making snap judgments. A human portrait would also serve as a guide to future presidents, who might see reflections of their experience in accounts of their predecessor. 

Today we get versions of this from Michael Lewis, who wrote a deeply informative and sympathetic profile of Barack Obama before the 2012 election, and David Remnick, whose most recent effort was published earlier this year. But those aren’t sustained relationships of the kind that Bradlee had. (Or maybe they are and we’ll all be talking about Conversations With Barack in a few years.) Anyone who thinks sympathy means only glowing anecdotes should remember that the president’s line about ISIS being the equivalent of the junior varsity came from his interview with Remnick. So too did the first glimpses of deflation that are considered a part of the Obama second-term story. 

Such an account should never be taken as the whole picture, and Bradlee was clear right up front in his book that he was only offering a few strands of a more complicated picture. The presence of a chronicler like Bradlee would not offer a pathway to a special truth, but another window into an office that gets occluded by partisanship, a hyperfast news cycle, and spin with each four-year term.