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Ben Bradlee – The Reluctant Public Diplomacy Officer

Benjamin C. Bradlee

Benjamin C. Bradlee (Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin/Wikimedia Commons)

Michael H. Anderson

30 November 2014. Washington and, indeed, much of the world, recently paid tribute to the legendary Ben Bradlee, the Executive Editor of The Washington Post from 1968 -91, who passed away October 21, 2014. His role in managing his paper’s sensitive relations with the government during both Watergate and the Pentagon Papers and leading his paper to 18 Pulitzer Prizes made him arguably the most influential journalist of the 20th Century.

Despite the in-depth coverage of his remarkable life (a Boston Brahmin, a Harvard student, a WWII Navy veteran of the South Pacific, a foreign correspondent, John F. Kennedy friend and Georgetown neighbor, a Washington-based bureau chief and editor, etc., etc.), one part of his long career got little attention — Bradlee was once a reserve Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA).  In today’s language, he would be called a public diplomacy (PD) officer in the State Department.

In the post-war, early 1950s, Bradlee left The Washington Post to serve as a young assistant press attache and then press attache with the U.S. Information Service (USIS) in Embassy Paris. In 1954, he resigned, but remained in Paris to become the European correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, which at the time was not yet owned by The Post.

Those interested in learning about Bradlee’s rather reluctant service as a diplomat would enjoy reading  — or re-reading — A Good Life – Newspapering and Other Adventures,  his irreverent 1995 autobiography. It has a wonderful chapter about his 1951-53 “adventures” in the Press Office of Embassy Paris, where he worked for an old friend, Press Attache Elias McQuaid; Public Affairs Officer Bill Tyler; and Ambassador James C. Dunn, a career diplomat.

In his book, Bradlee revealed that he flunked the USIA oral exam but passed after he got a second crack.  He recalled he accepted a USIS job offer at a salary of “$5,400 a year, plus a modest housing allowance.” Also, he wrote: “I had zero interest in becoming a career diplomat. What little I knew about the Foreign Service suggested that the cover-your-ass crowd frowned on balls and initiative, especially at the lower level. But the State Department was experimenting with journalists who spoke the appropriate foreign language to be press attaches.”

The book does an excellent job explaining what it was like to do Cold War press work at a large European embassy in a capital that hosted many big-name foreign correspondents and had anti-Americanism.  Bradlee, for example, was frustrated with Washington for its failure to provide sufficient press guidance to intelligently answer French journalists’ questions about the landmark 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  Also, he clearly wasn’t pleased by the “McCarthyism” bullying which tried to pressure USIS to ban from its overseas libraries a book like Theodore White’s “Thunder Out of China.”

Bradlee did love living abroad, especially in glamorous Paris, but he realized early that he really wasn’t cut out to be diplomat. He recalled: “I was never really trusted by the diplomats, because of my belief that, all things considered, a press attache ought to answer questions truthfully.”

And he was not all that happy with the “scut work” which had to be done in the embassy: “We had to attend certain cocktail parties, but to work, not play. We had to pick up guests at the end of a receiving line every so often, and guide them to the booze and chat them up a bit. One’s chances of finding someone interesting were poor, unless you count as interesting the odd French countess, who turned out to have been born Irish in Chicago, and had come to Paris with Mummy between the wars to land herself a title. The really interesting people had better things to do than go to embassy functions.”

Bradlee also had mixed feelings about dealing with different journalists: “The Americans were no problem. The good ones didn’t bother with press attaches; they knew the ambassador and his top aides a lot better than I did. The bad ones had no good questions, meaning no questions that were hard to answer.  The Brits were tougher, always showing off their shorthand skills and threatening to take down every bloody word you said. The French were tough for me at first, for I didn’t know them and their political shadings, and I didn’t speak French well enough to be sure I gave them the delicate nuances that had been given me by the policy wonks.”

After about two years with USIS, Bradlee decided it was time to return to journalism. He candidly said: “The embassy was something less than heartbroken when I told them I would be leaving.”

On a personal note, I only had the privilege of meeting Bradlee once – that was in the late 1970s. By then it was after Watergate, and he had become a genuine celebrity, and every journalist visiting Washington wanted to meet him. I was escorting a group of Asian journalists participating in the East-West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship program around the U.S. Somehow we were lucky to wangle a tour of The Post’s old newsroom on L Street in downtown Washington and a chance to exchange views with the Great Editor himself.

Bradlee didn’t disappoint. He still enthusiastic about his profession and as confident, charming, fascinating and dynamic in person as he was portrayed to be by actor Jason Robards, Jr. in the 1976 movie “All the President’s Men.”

Yes, I recall he wore his trademark Turnbull & Asser banker shirt, but I cannot recall a single thing he told the Asian editors that day. What I do clearly remember was that the experience was the highlight of the group’s entire U.S. visit. All realized they had met a very special individual who had had a positive impact on two great institutions – the press and the presidency.  Everyone realized they had encountered an American original. And today I realize — more than ever — that his leaving the Foreign Service was, of course, ultimately the public’s great gain.  He served us all far better as a journalist than he ever could have as an Ambassador or a PAO.

Dr. Anderson is a retired Foreign Service Officer, a member of PDAA and Public Diplomacy Council, and a long-time reader of The Washington Post. This essay first appeared on the Public Diplomacy Council Web site and is reprinted with permission of the author.


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