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"If You Spit in My Face, You Would Regret It”: Excerpts From the Feisty, Humble, Marvelous Letters of Ben Bradlee

Associated Press

January 3, 1978,

Dear. Mr. Holton,
Even though you are still young, very young, let me give you some advice.
When you write the editor of a newspaper for a job, other things being equal, you stand a better shot if you spell his name right.
Ben Bradlee

They came in tranches of four, seven, and nine—brown legal boxes, numbered sequentially and marked “Bradlee.” Courteous custodial workers wheeled them out of the elevator and through the chiming glass doors that mark the entrance to the seventh-floor executive suite of the Washington Post building. I looked on with no small amount of apprehension as box after box dropped with a thunk, stuffed to the gills with the accreted professional life of one of the most famous newspaper editors in the world.

The first box I opened was so thoroughly filled with onionskin copies of Ben’s correspondence that its sides were bowed. There were hundreds and hundreds of letters in this one box alone. I had to start somewhere, so I sat down at a desk in the temporary office the Post had given me and pulled one of the folders at random. The papers inside were so old and fine that I could see my fingers through them. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but after a few minutes I came across a letter to Kay Graham, then the Post’s owner and publisher, from a man named William H. Dodderidge: 

October 17, 1977

Dear Mrs. Graham:

Messrs. Eugene Meyer and Philip L. Graham must be turning over in their graves because of the way you are dragging down what used to be a wonderful newspaper.

In my humble opinion, I think the persons really responsible for The Washington Post’s decline are Benjamin C. Bradlee and Philip L. Geyelin.1 I hope the day is not far off when you fire those two peckerwoods . . . 

Beneath it was Ben’s response: 

Dear Mr. Dodderidge:

Your letter to Mrs. Graham reminded me of the story about W. C. Fields sitting with a drink in his hand in his garden one afternoon.

His secretary interrupted him repeatedly to tell him that a strange man wanted to see him and refused to say what he wanted to see him about. Finally Fields told his secretary to give the man “an equivocal answer—tell him to go fuck himself.”


This was going to be fun.

Many of the letters were to and from people with ordinary complaints—“You forgot the box scores,” “I’m canceling my subscription,” “You’re clearly a Communist.” But some of them sang. Ben, to an undergraduate who wanted to go into journalism but wondered what to major in: 

I would major in something other than journalism. You could be taught how to structure a story pretty fast. You can’t be taught the really valuable things like judgment and ethics and priorities and compassion and sensitivity. You’ve got to experience those or read about people who have experienced that. Journalism wants you when you’re wise, not when you know how to structure a story. 

And then there was this, also from 1977, which distills an entire (foolish) debate into its essence: 

It is almost impossible to keep personal values out of a story. Don’t think of objectivity; think of fairness. You can be fair while expressing values. A fire is big or it’s small or it’s tall or it’s puny. You’re still fair. 

To one person who wrote in complaining about something he’d read in another publication, Ben wrote simply, “I can only conclude that you are an idiot.” To another, who blamed Ben for everything that was wrong with American journalism and threatened to spit in his face if he ever “had the displeasure” of meeting him, Ben wrote back, “The trouble with American journalism is readers like you. If you spit in my face, you would regret it.”

The publisher of The Pueblo Chieftain, in Pueblo, Colorado, wrote to Ben in 1985, taking him to task for his recent appearance on a panel at a publishers association meeting. “How ironic it was to watch Ben Bradlee and Don Hewitt,2” the man wrote, “. . . display their arrogance as they criticized a media credibility study which reveals that the public views the press as being arrogant.” After another paragraph of thinly veiled sanctimony, he signed the letter “Cordially and sincerely.”

This is Ben’s response, in full: 

To the Publisher:

Editors do run the risk of appearing arrogant if they choose to disagree with anybody who calls them arrogant.

You sound like one of those publishers who aims to please his pals in the community and give them what they want.

No one will call you arrogant that way. No one will call you newspaperman, either.

Cordially and sincerely,

He was willing to stick it to pretty much everybody, from his friends and colleagues to larger public figures. He began one letter to Jesse Jackson, “You are one mean dude,” and then proceeded to ream Jackson for his consistent attempts to influence the Post’s coverage of his agenda: 

I’m telling you, as your buddy, that it really is getting counterproductive. And it’s got nothing to do with race. . . .

If you are writing your letter of July 26 to me to show to some other people, well and good. So be it. But if you are writing that letter to help your cause, the cause of the good people in this world, you are close to being counterproductive. Next time you’re in town, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about what newspapers are for. One of the things they are not for is simply this: They are not to serve anyone’s special interest. . . .

Your friend,

When Barry Goldwater, another friend of Ben’s, took to the Senate floor to put up a stink about the Post’s publication of information about a signals intelligence satellite—information that was already in the public domain, it turned out—Ben wrote, “That’s me you’re recommending be tried for treason, friend, and I resent the hell out of it.”

But there was humility, too. When he had to eat it, he ate it. In July of 1976, the Post ran a news story about Senator George McGovern’s decision to rent his home in Washington to the Syrian ambassador. To any neutral eye the story was slanted, full of implication about McGovern’s foreign policy views that had nothing to do with the rental arrangement. The Post’s editorial page disavowed the story, and so did Ben: 

Dear George:

I think that our story about your house was bullshit, and I’m sorry it ever ran.


Internally, he was as direct but more extreme. On a different story, during the eighties: 

Dear Tom:

You fucked up big time.

I can’t let yesterday’s incident pass. You violated some basic rules,

despite the fact that all the radars were on as a result of the Cooke case. You took a quote out of context in a way that was guaranteed to get

the quote denied by the FBI, and you were really daring me to cut it out.

I could easily have backed you. I wanted to because I trusted you and I believed you; and had I done so, I would have been in the same goddamn shit sandwich that I find myself in now.

You lost my trust, no matter how good that story was. And you lost the trust of some of your colleagues. 

He seemed particularly irked by people—reporters, editorial colleagues, job applicants—who thought more highly of themselves than they should: 

I have reviewed your clips, your letters, reports of your conversations, and I find you lacking. You lack courtesy, you lack flexibility, you lack any semblance of humility. You think you are better than you are, which is not sinful, but it is apparent . . .

I don’t think you would be happy here, and I don’t think we would be happy with you here. 

But he didn’t always bring out the rapier. Sometimes he could be much more gentle about the comedown, as with a young man who had written (as so many did) to “Ben Bradley” looking for advice:  

Dear Mr. Patterson:

The first advice I would give anyone looking for a job in the newspaper business is that you spell the name of the editor correctly.

After you have learned that, I think I would advise you to decide what you want to do. You haven’t convinced me you are interested in journalism yet, sounds more like you want me to choose something for you. I can’t do that. 

As a rule, he wasn’t big on giving advice. People needed to figure things out for themselves. “Read a lot,” he told one aspirant. “Work harder than anyone you know, and you will find it if it’s there.”

Sometimes there were tidbits you could use: 

Dear Sandie:

I wish I had been told so many things when I was your age. But one special thing would have helped me enormously, and it is this: Any time spent convincing other people that you are or were important is wasted. 

And in more than a few places there was a surprising tenderness, given Ben’s reputation as a fire-breather: 

Dear Susan:

That’s quite the nicest letter I ever got.

I will miss you, no matter how unprofoundly we knew each other. Your letter gives me credit for all sorts of virtues I don’t have. You

are an able and interesting person who seems to me at first glance to appreciate grace and lots of other things.

We will all miss you, but your reasoning sounds convincing. If the personal reasons why it is best for you not to be in Washington are what they sound like, he is wrong.3

Your friend, 

He also rarely missed a chance to crack a joke. One reader sent in a crossword puzzle that he had completed backwards, and Ben wrote him a one-line response: “!SNOITALUTARGNOC.” (Ben loves crosswords.) On a letter of complaint from George Allen, the reviled coach of the Washington Redskins, Ben simply wrote, “File under ‘Assholes.’ ”

One of my earliest favorites was Ben’s response to former president Ronald Reagan during the nineties, when Reagan invited Ben to California for a conference called “What’s Wrong with American Politics?” Ben had written back, “Thank you so much for your invitation to attend your conference . . . I am really impressed that you think you can answer that question in two days.” 

  1. Geyelin was the longtime editor of the Post’s editorial page. Meyer was Kay Graham’s dad, and Phil Graham was her husband; both men preceded her as publisher of the Post. 

  2. Hewitt was the creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes. 

  3. He was guessing—correctly, as it turned out—that she was leaving because of a breakup with an unnamed boyfriend. 

Excerpted from Yours In Truth by Jeff Himmelman. Copyright © 2012 by Jeff Himmelman. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.