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Opening Arguments

RIP, Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee, dead at 93:

President Obama, who last year honored Bradlee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said in a statement: “For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession – it was a public good vital to our democracy.

“A true newspaperman, he transformed the Washington Post into one of the country’s finest newspapers, and with him at the helm, a growing army of reporters published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate, and told stories that needed to be told – stories that helped us understand our world and one anothera little bit better.

Bradlee wrote one of my favorite paragraphs ever. From his book "Conversations With Kennedy" (Warning: strong-language alert):

"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."

I've been at time surprised at how often I've thought of something in just those terms, and he was right: When that's the situation, there is no more succinct and, yes, elegant way to say it.

It has often been said than a lot of journalists of my generation got into the business only  because Bradlee and his Woodward & Bernstein team made them believe (falsely) that all of newspapering was as glamorous and interesting and important as the Watergate story. I don't think that's quite true. They got into the business because of the portrayals of them by Jason Robarts, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in "All The President's Men," which is somewhere in the top five of the best newspaper movies ever made. It was several years after the film that I finally sa an interview with the real Bradlee and realized what a spot-on performance Robarts had given.

Not sure about that "public good" remark of the president's. Sure, we all like to think we have a higher calling, but in the end, newspapers are still businesses that can't exist without making a profit. Just ask my publisher.