The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Have you seen ‘The Post’ yet? Here’s some of the story behind the story.

Alfred Friendly, left, was the editor of The Washington Post before Ben Bradlee. He is pictured here in 1973 with Chalmers Roberts, a Post reporter who worked on the Pentagon Papers, an episode depicted in Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “The Post.” (The Washington Post) (Washington Post File Photo/The Washington Post)

"The Post" is a great film, and you should see it. I'd say that even if it wasn't about the institution that for the past 30 years has put food on my table and clothes on my back.

Steven Spielberg's movie, like this newspaper, is full of interesting characters, but one of the most interesting doesn't appear on screen. His name is mentioned only once, in passing, somewhat dismissively.

"She got rid of Al Friendly," one of the boardroom suits says of Katharine Graham's decision in 1965 to ease out the paper's top editor to make way for a "pirate" named Benjamin C. Bradlee .

People who knew Alfred Friendly may have cringed a little at that line. His son Jonathan took it in stride when he saw the movie last week in Florida.

"It wasn't the end of life for him," Jonathan said.

Al Friendly was managing editor of The Washington Post — the title executive editor didn't exist then — from 1955 to 1965. In the late 1930s, he'd worked at the Washington Daily News and then The Post as a federal columnist. During World War II he helped run Bletchley Park, the famed code-breaking facility in England. After the war, he served as director of communications for the Marshall Plan.

During his decade atop The Post, Friendly modernized the paper, even if his legacy was somewhat swamped by the show-stealer who followed him.

Friendly wasn't happy about being eased out, but he embraced what followed: a stint as a roving correspondent for The Post. In 1968, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Six-Day War in June 1967.

Jonathan Friendly brings an interesting perspective to his father's history: From 1970 to 1986, Jonathan worked at the New York Times. During the Pentagon Papers, he was an assistant night city editor.

"The action around us was of course Neil Sheehan and the team off in hidden rooms and all of a sudden that thing [the Pentagon Papers coverage] popping out," Jonathan said. "That was exciting."

Jonathan found the movie stirring — though he has a Timesman's sense of ownership.

"Focusing on The Post seems to me historically slightly off, but the movie really isn't about the Pentagon Papers," he said. "It's about a publisher and her editor facing a tough one."

As for that publisher, to Jonathan she wasn't the shrinking violet Meryl Streep portrays. After all, Kay Graham had the guts to sack his dad.

In 1983, as Al Friendly knew he was dying of cancer, he decided to create a nonprofit that would aid journalists from other countries. He founded the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, which today brings around nine foreign journalists to the University of Missouri School of Journalism each year, then places them in U.S. newsrooms for six months.

Said Jonathan, "We think our very personal, intensive, long-lasting fellowships have real impact when the fellows get home."

As we talked about big stories, Jonathan mentioned one of the first he had to cover as the media reporter for the New York Times: the Janet Cooke scandal, when a Post reporter fabricated the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict.

Picture that: the son of the editor fired to make way for Ben Bradlee winds up covering for the Times the story of the biggest journalistic screw-up in Bradlee's life.

Say, that might make a pretty good movie.

Trading jabs

Al Friendly may not be in "The Post," but Tony Essaye is, played by "Silicon Valley" actor Zach Woods. In 1971, Tony was a lawyer at Royal, Koegel and Wells, the law firm that represented The Post in its fight over the Pentagon Papers.

"I think I'm the only person still alive who was actually on the call to Kay when she made her decision," said Tony, 83.

He remembers those days as being in­cred­ibly hectic, with Post journalists scouring the documents in Bradlee's living room as they raced to publish in a few hours what the New York Times had had months to parse.

He's a fan of "The Post." His only quibble about it is its portrayal of Roger Clark, played in the movie by Jesse Plemons as a slightly befuddled greenhorn attorney.

"Roger was a very able lawyer and had been in practice for 15 years," Tony said.

After the drama of taking the Pentagon Papers all the way to the Supreme Court, Tony moved with his family to Paris to head the firm's international practice there. He's semiretired now, working with a group he co-founded called the International Senior Lawyers Project.

The nonprofit works with governments and civil society organizations in such countries as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mongolia and Burma.

Tony also teaches boxing one evening a week at Georgetown University, his alma mater. He demonstrates proper technique and wears those big mitts as undergraduates throw punches.

Boxing must be pretty good practice for being a lawyer, I said.

"It's funny," Tony said. "I came to the firm to develop its international practice, not to be in litigation. Then I became a litigator. I felt I was good at it, but I never felt totally comfortable. I'm much more attuned to trying to resolve things than fight them out."

Twitter: @johnkelly

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