‘The Post,’ McCain set the bar high

Published 11:58 am Saturday, January 20, 2018

by John Railey

Thinking about the movie “The Post” while walking my dog Wednesday night in the supposed innocence of that deep and powdery snow brought to mind the old quote widely attributed to the actress Tallulah Bankhead: “I’m as pure as the driven slush.” It was a good night to be a dog-loving, snow-loving newspaperman, a break from the dark slush of lies that will keep coming.

It was a good night because that Wednesday morning, U.S. Sen. John McCain had busted out in The Washington Post with a column headlined “Mr. President, stop attacking the press.” (We ran his column on our op-ed page Saturday.) Perhaps not coincidentally, McCain’s fellow Arizona senator, Jeff Flake, spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday about the importance of the free press. It was a generally solid speech, even if it jumped the shark with its implied comparison of President Trump to Russian dictator Stalin.

For his part, Trump handed out his “Fake News Awards” the same day in a blog post, pointing out several errors from Big Media that they corrected, but neglecting to mention his many more less-than-truthful tweets and statements that he has not corrected.

McCain’s words were the ones that really resonated, given that they came from a hero of the Vietnam War who’s fighting an especially deadly form of brain cancer. He wrote of Trump’s attacks on the press: “Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.”

I thought about McCain while walking my dog and I thought about a World War II vet and First Amendment hero, Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who is celebrated in “The Post” movie, along with his boss, Post Publisher Katharine Graham, who rightly fought for her place in a male-dominated world.

Bradlee, with “a short attention span” and “studied informality,” was “an alluring combination of aristocrat and commoner … Boston Brahmin, Harvard, the World War II Navy, press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, police-beat reporter, newsmagazine political reporter and Washington bureau chief of Newsweek,” Bradlee’s and Graham’s Watergate stars, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, wrote in “All the President’s Men.” Bradlee, they wrote, cultivated his image, mixing curse-word-laden street savvy with flawless French, depending on the audience.

Bradlee and Graham were far from perfect, each too cozy at times with the D.C. power set. But the movie details how these two led their paper in 1971 in courageously publishing “The Pentagon Papers,” a secret government study that revealed lies about the Vietnam War through Democratic and Republican presidential administrations. Bradlee and Graham stood up in the highest court in the land to Nixon administration efforts to stop them from continuing to publish the papers, efforts that had temporarily stopped the Post’s arch-rival, The New York Times, which had scooped the Post on the first installments of the papers.

The movie takes its share of poetic license, but its greater truths live, including Graham’s decision to publish the papers against the advice of some, if not most, of her lawyers and advisors.

Bradlee wrote in his 1995 memoir, “A Good Life:” “What I didn’t understand, as Katharine’s ‘Okay … let’s go. Let’s publish’ rang in my ears, was how permanently the ethos of the paper changed, and how it crystallized for editors and reporters everywhere how independent and confident of its purpose The Washington Post had become.”

They ultimately won their court fight to continue to publish the papers, but, Bradlee wrote, the government’s landmark prior restraint of the press was “a black mark in the history of democracy … What the hell was going on in this country that this could happen?”

He saw coming, in a vague way, the trouble that was to be Watergate, starting a year later. He knew about duplicitous actions from politicians, including from the president to which he was too close, JFK. But, Bradlee wrote, Nixon “lied over and over again with intent to deceive the American public and thereby save his ass from the consequences of his crimes … There was no bottom to the Watergate scandal. In Washington, when trouble strikes, veterans know that recovery is not possible until the worst is known, until the bottom is struck, the point after which there is no worse news coming. But there was no bottom to the Watergate scandal, and the Nixon White House was working overtime to see that none of us would ever find one.”

Nixon had long since resigned when Bradlee wrote, that, by the late 1980s, “the truth itself was getting harder and harder to find. Vietnam and Watergate had encouraged people to lie whenever the truth became uncomfortable. And no one was immune. Good people, moral people were corrupted by circumstances over which they exercised substantial control, but no responsibility. The more I looked for the truth among newsmakers, the more obfuscation I found, the more questions I had.”

Truth that resonates. Bradlee and Graham are long gone. Sen. Flake will soon be gone from the Senate, and Sen. McCain will all too soon be gone from this side of eternity. The Washington Post carries on, running daily at the top of its front page: “Democracy dies in darkness.”

We need and look for heroes from on high in a time when Washington largely lacks them.  It falls to we the people — the press and all the rest of us — to keep pushing for something better.

JOHN RAILEY grew up in Courtland, raised by parents who taught him to love the free press. He is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column. He can be reached at jrailey@wsjournal.com.