#thepostmovie #humberpr #pentagonpapers #jeffbezos #washingtonpost
With the release of The Post, a film about the Washington Post’s role in exposing the top secret Pentagon Papers, a shameful Vietnam War history, the legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee is again portrayed on screen and for the first time, his equally celebrated publisher, former Post owner Katherine Graham, is brought to life in a movie. Once upon a time, as a young man, I had the privilege of being chewed out by Bradlee, and had a memorable encounter with Mrs. Graham, as she was universally referred to, during the Watergate era, when I was a cub reporter on the Post’s national staff and witnessed many remarkable historical events.
In the new film, Tom Hanks plays Bradlee and Meryl Streep is Graham, signifying the role’s importance with two such great actors. Previously, in the All the President’s Men, Jason Robards portrayed the urbane, profane Navy veteran and JFK intimate Bradlee. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Woodward and Bernstein, the young investigative reporters who broke the story that ultimately forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation, the first in U.S. history (which I witnessed the paper’s newsroom, coincidentally sitting in a small editor’s office with both Woodward and Bernstein). In that film, Graham, so essential to giving a green light to the Watergate and Pentagon Papers stories, courageously bets her empire on her trust in Bradlee and his reporters but was not portrayed on screen. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos now owns the Post, and while he apparently stays away from the editorial product, he has revitalized it digitally and it’s in fact the Post that’s breaking the important stories about prominent men and sexual harassment. He’s someone I’d love to meet.
Bradlee’s wrath for me began one day when I had done a story about a Senatorial hearing that didn’t add up to much, except that I got to witness in action Sen. Barry Goldwater, more or less the conservative movement’s founder and the landslide loser in the 1964 Presidential election vs. LBJ. By then Goldwater was a cantankerous old SOB, long past his prime. I recorded his comments on a little tape recorder, just to make sure I had them right. I really didn’t think anything of the story and noticed the headline writer had made the head a little stronger than the story itself deserved. Maybe he thought it needed help. Later that day, I was sitting absentmindedly at my desk, and felt a hand on my shoulder. My editor pointed toward the bank of glass-walled offices where the top brass worked: the great Watergate names —Bradlee, Simons, all of whom figured in All the President’s Men.
I had seen Bradlee many times in the newsroom; he was affable, friendly and swore like a sailor in about every sentence, except when we exchanged words in French—he had been the press officer at the Paris embassy. He always wore striped shirts – and knew Deep Throat’s identity (the mysterious secret Watergate source later identified as assistant FBI director Mark W. Felt). Even more thrilling to me was his close friendship with John F. Kennedy, my political idol. The general idea was that if Bradlee called you into his office, you should pack up your things first. I wasn’t sure why I was being summoned.
Before I said a word, he began swearing at me. “You goddamn f’ing SOB, I got a call from that asshole Goldwater about your shitty story! You misquoted that dirty bastard.” And on and on. Finally, after the tongue lashing was over, he said, “What do you have to say for yourself?” I explained I had the hearing on tape and asked if he wanted to hear the quotes, which were accurate. “You have it on tape?” he said. “You really have it on tape?” “Yeah,” I answered, “Should I go get it?” He looked at me quizzically and just said plainly, “Get the hell out of here.” When you walked the long mile from his office, it was really long. Everyone watched. It was like the cops’ ‘perp walk’ and everyone was staring at me.
My editor immediately asked me if I had been fired and I said I had “no idea” what had really just happened. I recounted the story and he laughed in my face and said, “That’s so great.” Come on, I asked. What does it mean?? After some time, he finally relented and said, “Ben lives for this kind of stuff. He can’t wait until he takes a leak next to Goldwater some night and can tell him to ‘fuck off!’” And so my job was saved for another day.
Encounter with the great Mrs. Graham
As for Mrs. Graham, I never thought I’d actually meet her. She was too up there in the media stratosphere. If you ever have a chance to read her self-penned (no ghost writer) autobiography Personal History, it is so well worth your time. It covers how the somewhat shy and retiring daughter of Post owner Eugene Meyer, stayed in the background while her brilliant well connected husband Philip Graham became the publisher. Then, after Phil Graham’s suicide, resulting from his untreated bipolar disorder, Graham told the male board members who said they’d find someone to replace her husband as publisher that no, she was the owner and would be in charge, thus beginning the Post’s greatest era, culminating in the Pentagon Papers and Watergate coverage.
How I met her resulted from something accidental, (much like watching Nixon’s resignation with Woodward and Bernstein on TV). I often had lunch on newspaper’s rooftop patio and struck up a conversation with someone random, who was also there. We’d say hi from time to time until I finally asked her what she did at the paper and, as it turned out, she was Mrs. Graham’s executive assistant. Kind of a surprise; but even more so when one day I was in the elevator and there she was with the CEO herself, and she
was kind enough to introduce me. An total
honour in my opinion. She said Mrs. Graham was in a hurry and would I mind riding down to the first floor without stopping. Who would say no to that? However, the elevator inadvertently stopped at the press room floor and several burly pressmen got on. Earlier that spring, there had been a somewhat bitter strike where Mrs. Graham had even pitched in with management to write stories but that day in the elevator, no one asked them if they’d ride down to the bottom. The assistant smiled at me and rolled her eyes. I understood!