Tom Braden, Real-Life Dad Behind 'Eight Is Enough' and 'Crossfire' Pundit, Dies

Tom Braden, center, with Robert McNamara, left, and Joseph Alsop.
Tom Braden, center, with Robert McNamara, left, and Joseph Alsop. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post File Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tom Braden, 92, author of the memoir-turned-television series "Eight Is Enough" and a former CIA official who became the liberal voice on CNN's talk show "Crossfire" in the 1980s, died of cardiac arrest April 3 at his home in Denver.

Mr. Braden, a syndicated newspaper columnist, was best known for his autobiographical novel about his life as the father of eight children, which was published in 1975 and adapted as an ABC comedy-drama two years later. Mr. Braden was also one of the early practitioners of the televised arguments that masquerade as interview shows when he became the sparring partner of former Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan on "Crossfire" in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Braden's Chevy Chase home became an informal salon for the journalistic and political elite, where Henry Kissinger spent Christmas Eves, AFL-CIO chief Lane Kirkland spent Thanksgivings and Mr. Braden and his vivacious wife, Joan, entertained everyone from former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to next-door neighbor and NBC anchorman David Brinkley.

As a CIA official in the early 1950s, Mr. Braden was head of the International Organizations Division, which promoted anti-communism by secretly funding groups including the AFL-CIO and the National Student Association, sending the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a European tour and publishing Encounter magazine. After Ramparts magazine exposed the CIA's system of funding anti-communist front organizations all over the globe, Mr. Braden defended the program in an article in a 1967 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. He said the secret program was his idea.

Keeping secrets from Congress, he wrote, simply made good sense: "In the early 1950s, when the cold war was really hot, the idea that Congress would have approved many of our projects was about as likely as the John Birch Society's approving Medicare."

In 1977, Mr. Braden replaced former Robert F. Kennedy campaign aide Frank Mankiewicz on a nationally syndicated WRC radio spot called "Confrontation," paired against the conservative Buchanan. The radio show jumped to late-night TV on "After Hours" on the old WDVM with local broadcaster Gordon Peterson as the moderator.

Mr. Braden and Buchanan became known as the "Punch and Judy" of Washington commentators. Guests left the broadcast studio saying they felt as if they'd been in a bar fight. Others never got to speak at all because Mr. Braden and Buchanan were so intent on attacking each other's positions. Later, CNN picked up the show and renamed it "Crossfire." Mr. Braden was replaced in 1989 by political journalist Michael Kinsley.

Mr. Braden was not a natural performer on radio or TV. His voice, Washington Post reporter Stephanie Mansfield wrote, sounded "like a cement mixer stuck in reverse."

Media critic Jeff Cohen, in a 2006 retrospective look at liberals in the media, objected to Mr. Braden being cast as Crossfire's voice "on the left," calling him "a haplessly ineffectual centrist . . . a guy who makes Alan Colmes look like an ultraleft firebrand."

But Mr. Braden's columns critical of the Nixon White House in the 1970s landed him on the president's enemies list, along with many other liberals.

Thomas Wardell Braden II was born Feb. 22, 1917, in Greene, Iowa. He left high school during the Depression and was sent to New York by his parents to work as a printer for a family friend. He graduated in 1940 from Dartmouth College, which admitted high school dropouts.

Mr. Braden was one of a handful of Americans who went to England in 1941 to serve in the King's Royal Rifle Corps in the British army during World War II. In 1944, he transferred to the U.S. Army and was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, a wartime forerunner to the CIA.

Mr. Braden joined the CIA in 1950, working as an assistant to Allen W. Dulles, who became CIA director. In 1954, he bought the Blade-Tribune newspaper of Oceanside, Calif., with a $185,000 loan from Nelson Rockefeller, the industrialist and later New York governor, for whom his wife worked. Mr. Braden unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1966 on the Democratic Party ticket.

Two years later, Mr. Braden sold his newspaper and returned to the Washington area. His memoir, "Eight Is Enough," grew out of the syndicated newspaper column he wrote after another Washington journalist, Joseph Alsop, told him that his best writing was about his family.

Mr. Braden also wrote "Sub Rosa: The OSS and American Espionage" (1964) with fellow OSS alumnus and columnist Stewart Alsop.

His wife of 50 years, Joan Ridley Braden, died in 1999. One of their sons, Thomas W. Braden III, died in 1994.

Survivors include seven children, David Braden of Taipei, Taiwan, Mary Braden Poole of Arlington County, Nicholas Braden of Washington, Susan Braden of Takoma Park and Joanie Braden, Nancy Braden Basta and Elizabeth Braden, all of Denver; and 12 grandchildren.

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