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Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. is writing a memoir about his nearly half-century at the newspaper. The tome will be published by PublicAffairs Books in 2020 and promises a peek at the backstory of how The Post covered the biggest stories of the day, from the 1968 Washington riots to President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky to the Iraq War.
Downie, who got his start as an intern in 1964 and eventually rose to the paper’s top editorial job, promises to recount many of the stories the government hoped to quash — and if that sounds like a certain Oscar-nominated movie, it’s no coincidence.
Downie was a consultant for the 2017 film “The Post,” which starred Meryl Streep as Post publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Downie’s predecessor as executive editor, Ben Bradlee. Director Steven Spielberg told Downie he wanted to make the movie, which focused on the paper’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers over the White House’s objections, at a time when the idea of the news media standing against a hostile administration would resonate. “And that’s why this book will be timely, too,” Downie says.
Other sources of inspiration included legendary Post reporter Bob Woodward. “He ordered me to do it, and I always do what he tells me to,” Downie says with a laugh, “though he never did what I told him to do.” And a third factor that prompted Downie to go for it? Cardboard boxes.
The Post moved in 2015 from its longtime headquarters on 15th Street NW to a building a few blocks away on Franklin Square. Downie had kept an office at the old building long after he had officially left his day-to-day role at the paper, but he knew there wouldn’t be space in the streamlined new digs. As anyone who has ever packed up for a move can attest, discoveries can be made — and Downie says he unearthed a trove: “I realized there was a depth of material there, and a lot of it is applicable today.”
The rest was a yadda-yadda of proposal-writing, agents, negotiations, etc. Downie signed the deal last week (for a “modest advance”) and now faces something he routinely doled out as an editor and, now, as a journalism professor at Arizona State University: a looming deadline.
Downie says he is not panicking yet, but he is poring over old notes and jogging his memory via interviews with old colleagues. Though Downie is obviously a champion of journalism and of The Post, the book won’t be all soft-focus: The publisher says to expect reflections on where the newspaper failed — for example, by “insufficiently challenging” the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
Digging up parts of memory lane also will include some self-reflection, since the book will also cover his personal journey from a modest background in Cleveland. (Ivy Leaguers at The Post sometimes referred to their publicly educated colleague, an Ohio State graduate, as “Land Grant Len.”)
And that research seems to suit the former investigative reporter just fine: “I’m discovering things,” he says.