As Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos takes over The Washington Post, newspaper veterans hark back to journalism’s golden era. The latest entry in this genre, by Harry Rosenfeld, a former editor at The Post, is a memoir that comes alive as it re-creates the drama of politics and the press during Washington’s tumultuous 1970s.
The son of a Jewish furrier, Rosenfeld was 9 years old when he watched his synagogue in Berlin burn during the Nazi pogrom of Kristallnacht. Months later, the Rosenfelds were among the lucky few who managed to escape to the United States before it was too late. In the Bronx, young Harry learned English, then made the most of a summer job in the mailroom of the New York Herald Tribune, working his way up to become a top editor at the scrappy paper, which he loved “for its ability to unnerve” its “staid, overstaffed, overmoneyed” rival, the New York Times.
When the Trib folded in 1966, Rosenfeld joined The Post. He helped hire Bob Woodward and supervise his Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein, although the editor was not blind to their faults: Bernstein was “manipulative” and “abusive,” Rosenfeld observes, while Woodward was “self-serving,” and the two of them deliberately “compromised [a] source’s confidentiality.”
In retrospect, Rosenfeld believes that The Post made “a major mistake” in not learning the identity of Woodward’s secret source Deep Throat to check his reliability. Decades later, on discovering that it was W. Mark Felt, a top FBI official who jockeyed to succeed director J. Edgar Hoover, Rosenfeld concluded that the leaks were probably motivated by more than just idealism and should have led to additional scrutiny by the newspaper.
Nonetheless, Rosenfeld protected his two reporters when higher-ups at The Post wanted them taken off the story, recognizing that those who lusted to replace them were “too comfortable and close” to their official sources to dig out the truth. The scene was memorably portrayed in the movie “All the President’s Men,” when the disheveled Rosenfeld, played by actor Jack Warden, pleads with a supervisor to give the young reporters a break: “They’re hungry. You remember when you were hungry?” Mission accomplished, the hard-bitten movie version of Rosenfeld then barks at his underlings: “Woodward, Bernstein, you’re both on the story. Now don’t [expletive] it up.”
Rosenfeld doesn’t shy away from dishing dirt about politicians and the press. White House national security adviser Henry Kissinger called Hoover a “maniacal fag.” A wife-swapping affair among Post Metro reporters nearly led to newsroom fistfights. And Hubert Humphrey deceived the public about the extent of his bladder cancer to try to make one last, futile run for president.
At the heart of the memoir is Rosenfeld’s rivalry with his boss and cultural opposite, Ben Bradlee, the handsome, Harvard-educated Bostonian whose intimates included President John F. Kennedy and Post publisher Katharine Graham. “When he was a young kid he learned to play [tennis],” Rosenfeld writes disparagingly. “When I was a young kid, I dodged Nazis.” Rosenfeld depicts Bradlee as a superficial social climber who second-guessed the selection of a competent new reporter by asking “how I could hire someone that homely. Bradlee wasn’t joking; looks mattered to him.”
Bradlee’s romantic involvement with Post writer Sally Quinn, whom he later married, led to the “immediate doubling of sacred cows in the newsroom,” Rosenfeld complains, as well as to the couple’s meddling in news coverage about themselves. Bradlee’s open bias toward newsroom favorites undermined staff morale, Rosenfeld adds. Even Woodward and Bernstein “felt they were being robbed of their Pulitzers” by Bradlee’s alleged maneuvering to remove their names from the prestigious award and to substitute that of the newspaper instead.
The relationship between the two editors deteriorated. “Rosenfeld, you spend your time sticking your thumb in my eye,” Bradlee growled. Rosenfeld admits that his Jewish background gave him a “sense of inferiority” that “never wholly disappeared,” and he concedes that he could be “a pain in the ass” to work with. It all came to a head when the pugnacious editor insisted on publishing a story about Kennedy’s extramarital affair with Bradlee’s sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer.“Ben is not going to settle for getting mad,” a Post executive predicted. “He’s going to get even.”
Sure enough, Rosenfeld says, he learned he was being demoted by reading it in the rival Washington Star. Bradlee erroneously viewed the Meyer story as “a plot to dethrone him,” Rosenfeld writes, because of a “compulsion to look at the world in personal terms and to not leave unsettled outstanding scores.” Still, the author credits his former boss with being a “transformative leader” who “made the Post a great newspaper.”
Rosenfeld’s book avoids the sentimental nostalgia of so many journalistic memoirs but is uneven in quality, overburdened with details about his family and career. The prose is as direct and unadorned as its author.
At a time when journalism seeks to reinvent itself, Rosenfeld’s story is a reminder of the need for fearless reporting that pursues the truth no matter where it leads. Jeff Bezos would do well to heed that lesson. Or, as the gruff Rosenfeld might put it: Don’t [expletive] it up.
Memoirs of a Newspaperman
By Harry Rosenfeld
Excelsior. 359 pp. $29.95