The differences between an autobiography and a memoir, though significant, concern primarily emphasis and degree. In autobiography the writer assumes that the life record holds interest and significance that transcend the present. The narrative establishes a record from a personal perspective in an effort to explain and justify the author’s deeds and ideas. In a memoir, events that are experienced firsthand and personages the writer encounters through life are deemed more important than the individual life. Ben Bradlee labels his book a memoir, though it clearly includes elements of both genres.
A Boston Brahmin by birth, Bradlee offers a detailed account of his family background and life, as well as his three marriages and children. Yet what looms largest in the story is his career as a journalist, primarily his work as executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. Essentially the book covers two subjects, Bradlee’s life as a journalist and the important news stories of his career.
As editor of the most influential newspaper in the nation’s capital, Bradlee knew many prominent political figures and participated in momentous news stories, the Watergate affair being the most significant. Yet even when involved in important issues, he is inclined to give credit to others, most notably to reporters and writers under his direction.
The tone is straightforward and, as one would expect from a newspaperman, factual. Bradlee carefully avoids being boastful and downplays his own successes, military and journalistic. One must read carefully to gather his contribution to events that shaped larger contexts. For example, he barely mentions that he was second in his class at the exclusive St. Marks preparatory school, but goes into extensive detail about his mediocre academic record at Harvard University.
During World War II, he served as a junior officer on a destroyer in the South Pacific and participated in numerous important engagements, yet he chooses to emphasize humorous rather than significant events in his military life. In both military and professional roles, he estimates his successes, and enables the reader to do so, by including testimony of others who knew him. When he speaks of the eighteen Pulitzer Prizes won by The Washington Post and its staff while he was editor, he feels compelled to argue that such prizes do not always go to the most deserving candidates. He remembers well the admonition that boasting about one’s own accomplishments is in bad taste, and yet the book’s tone is not that of an excessively modest man.
Bradlee has few ideals, and if he is willing to take himself lightly, he holds few others in awe either. He leaves the impression that he has little by way of conviction or settled belief to anchor him, but goes through life pragmatically, taking matters as they come and making the most of them. At Harvard, after a solid preparation in high school, he majored in English and Greek, yet he seems to have been strangely uninfluenced by either reading or ideas when in college. He pays no tributes to thinkers or the influence of books, although he does speak favorably of some outstanding professors. It may be that the journalist’s obligation to avoid ideological bias combines with the ephemeral nature of news writing to produce a largely surface view of issues. In narrating his personal life as well as events of his day, Bradlee appears to think it adequate to get the story straight and leave interpretation to others.
After his military service, he began his career as a journalist and reporter, mastering facts, writing them up, and moving on quickly to another story, without much reflection or analysis. While this discipline makes for excellent reporting of current events, it does not invariably make good books, which require a distance that encourages reflection and promotes analysis and interpretation. This book’s account does reflect his initial interest in investigative reporting, but in order for readers to grasp clearly the impact of Bradlee’s contribution to journalism, others will have to retell the story.
After a brief experience with a New England weekly and assorted journalistic assignments abroad, Bradlee settled in Washington with a reporter’s job at The Washington Post and catapulted to fame in the late 1950’s. By chance, he acquired as Georgetown neighbors John F. Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, and his wife, Jackie. Bradlee, his wife Toni, and the Kennedys became close friends, a relationship that lasted into the early part of the Kennedy Administration. More than a friend, Kennedy was an important source of information, and from Kennedy’s perspective, Bradlee—a bright, energetic reporter with a Boston background—might promote...