The Friday and Thursday editions of The Washington Post are seen in Washington, Friday, August 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
When the news broke that The Washington Post had been sold to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Linda and I were lost in melancholy for awhile. It felt like a death in the family, the fond uncle we hadn’t seen in years. Or maybe we were simply mourning our own lost youth and those golden memories of fast times at the Post.
It was exhilarating to be part of the Post crowd in those scrappy days of the late 1960s and ’70s. I was on the national staff and Linda contributed articles, reviews and essays on food, family life, gardening and design. We felt in the midst of national tumult and tragedy, the dreadful war in Vietnam, racial upheavals and triumphs. In DC, these felt like local stories, and the Post was always in the middle of events.
On rare occasions, some of us were invited to attend a sit-down dinner party with the power elite at the Georgetown mansion of Katharine Graham, the Post’s patrician publisher. I remember one of these where reporters and wives (not many female reporters in those days) were huddled in one drawing room while the “war criminals” (her friends Kissinger and McNamara) were in another. Mrs. Graham tried without much success to get the two sides to mingle. She thought we should talk.
It was thirty years ago when I left the Post. Yet the news of its fate still feels personal to us. The newsroom was intense in those days, because executive editor Ben Bradlee inspired an edgy, competitive attitude among the reporters. Get it first, get it right. Go for impact. Tell the story with style and drama. And keep your elbows up, lest “bigfoot” reporters try to horn in on your story. The place often resembled a locker room at halftime, loose and profane, very masculine.
A French sociologist hung out with us in the newsroom for several months in order to compare The Washington Post with Le Monde. His study concluded that Bradlee had created an “entrepreneurial” spirit among reporters and editors (though Bradlee would never have said anything that stuffy). Bradlee was a Boston Brahmin who majored in classics at Harvard, but he talked like a street-smart sailor. I remember columnist Mark Shields once teased him for being one of those high-born characters with a three-syllable middle name—Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee. Bradlee smiled and may have responded with an obscene hand gesture.
This is part of where the Post’s greatness came from. The paper in those days was utterly outmatched by The New York Times and its thorough, sober coverage. But we played off the Times’s stuffiness. We had fun puncturing conventional wisdom and telling the informal truth about the powerful (sometimes including the publisher’s best friends). We were encouraged to take chances. If you fell on your butt, nobody helped you up.
Into this volatile stew in the early ’70s came two very young reporters from the metro staff, which only covered local news. They picked up on a third-rate police story and stayed with it until they eventually brought down the president. What is the chance of that ever happening again? It is still breathtaking to recall that Woodward and Bernstein were only in their late 20s at the time. Imagine the risks. Older heads from the national staff urged Bradlee to put more experienced reporters on the case before these two kids got the Post into deep trouble. He listened and worried, but he stuck with them. Their lack of cynicism is what got the story.