On 'Post': Ben Bradlee and his nose for abuse of power would love this moment

Updated at 9:54 a.m. Jan. 5, 2018, with KERA's The Big Screen podcast.

You get the feeling Ben Bradlee would love this moment.

The former Washington Post executive editor had a nose for political scandal and a street fighter's approach toward abuse of power. Attacks on the press got his blood flowing. So did the First Amendment. He also had a swashbuckler's ego: Jason Robards' Oscar-winning performance in All the President's Men made Bradlee something of a celebrity, and he didn't mind that a bit.

🎙️ Dallas Morning News editor Mike Wilson joined KERA's Stephen Becker and DMN culture critic Chris Vognar on KERA's The Big Screen podcast to discuss "The Post."

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If he were still alive he could bask in the glory of a new pair of movies. The Post, opening in Dallas Jan. 4, stars Tom Hanks as Bradlee and Meryl Streep as his boss, Post publisher Katharine Graham, as they push to follow the New York Times' lead and publish the leaked Pentagon Papers in 1971. The Newspaperman, which premiered in December on HBO, paints a documentary portrait of Bradlee, from his World War II Navy days to his buddy-buddy relationship with John Kennedy to the Post's role in bringing down the Nixon White House.

In this June 21, 1971 file photo, Washington Post Executive Director Ben Bradlee and Post Publisher Katharine Graham leave U.S. District Court in Washington. (AP Photo, File)

These movies aren't just about Bradlee. They're timely reminders of his fervor for the freedom of the press, a fervor worth harnessing as journalism finds itself once again under attack from the White House. The Pentagon Papers exposed the lies used by the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations to escalate the Vietnam War. But it was the Nixon administration that tried to censor the news, first by slapping an injunction on the Times, then by taking the Times and the Post to court. (Spoiler alert: The newspapers won).

The Nixon crew played hardball with the press, portraying the Post in particular as enemies of the people and out of touch with reality. This should sound familiar. "If there is a way to destroy your paper, by God they'll find it," former Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tells Graham in The Post. McNamara commissioned the Pentagon Papers in the first place; he and Graham had their own buddy-buddy relationship. An ancillary point of The Post is that the public interest can suffer when journalists get too close to the politicians they cover.

It's hard to separate the public interest from the public's right to know — to know what their elected officials are up to and when they're lying. This is why government contractor Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Papers in the first place. It's also why Bradlee pursued the story with such vigor. He had a nose for foul smells. In his memoir, A Good Life, he describes his response upon discovering that one of the Watergate burglars, James McCord, identified himself as former CIA. "No three letters, arranged in that particular order, and spoken in similar circumstances, can tighten a good reporter's sphincter faster than C-I-A." He had instincts, and he hired reporters who shared them.

In The Post those instincts run up against the profit imperative all newspapers face (with increasing difficulty over the last several years). The Post's opportunity to publish the Pentagon Papers coincided with the newspaper's first public stock offering. If your newspaper loses in court, and you face the possibility of prison, stocks become a hard sell. This is where Graham steps up and makes the decision to defy her wary advisers, back Bradlee and publish. Graham undergoes the real transformation in the film, from uncertain steward of a company inherited from her late husband to strong leader in her own right. The Post is timely in this sense as well: It shows how it feels to be the only woman in a room full of powerful men who question your mettle.

Some New York Times veterans have groused that The Post focuses on the wrong newspaper. They have a point. It was a Times reporter, Neil Sheehan, who broke the Pentagon Papers story. It was the Times that first published the Papers and drew first fire from the White House. That's when the Post stepped in. But as far as storytelling goes, the filmmakers, including some director named Steven Spielberg, made the right call. Bradlee and Graham are compelling characters with a colorful dynamic, and this is the story that put their newspaper on the map. (Watergate would soon follow.) I do think the film should have stayed with its original title, The Papers. I like the implied equity, and the multiple meanings: The Pentagon Papers, the Post, the Times and any other publication that speaks truth to power.

Bradlee was hardly perfect. He had to answer for one the biggest hoaxes in journalism history, Janet Cooke's fabricated (and Pulitzer-winning) 1980 feature story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. In his personal life he had a habit of trading in one wife for another. And he was way too close to Kennedy. But man, was he a character. Hanks' gruff-but-smooth portrayal is a little softer than the Robards model, who snarled even when the news was good. As for the real Bradlee, New Yorker editor David Remnick, who worked for Bradlee at the Post, has the best quote in the documentary: "He could curse like a sailor or a stevedore, and at the same time he knew which fork to use at the French embassy."

In the movie, before the Post jumps into the fray, one of the newspaper's board members expresses relief that they're not a part of "this mess." Bradlee scoffs: "I'd give my left one to be a part of this mess." He was a man who wanted in on the fight. He may have been made for his times, but he was also made for ours.

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