Harry Rosenfeld vs. Ben Bradlee: A Battle Between Two Tough Editors

By Jack Limpert

Harry Rosenfeld was a top editor at the Washington Post from 1967 to 1979, most famously playing a key role in the Watergate investigation (Jack Warden was Rosenfeld in the movie version of All the President’s Men). Now 84 and having retired in 1996 as editor of the Albany Times Union, Rosenfeld has published a memoir, From Kristallnacht to Watergate: Memoirs of a Newspaperman, that is most interesting when he’s describing his battles with former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, now 92 and still on the Post masthead as a vice president at large.

The Post reviewed Rosenfeld’s book in its Sunday Outlook section on November 24, assigning it to an outsider, Mark Feldstein, a longtime television reporter who now teaches broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. It’s a mostly positive review: “Rosenfeld doesn’t shy away from dishing dirt about politicians and the press.”

Four grafs of the Feldstein review focus on “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.” Rosenfeld’s family had fled Nazi Germany when he was 10, settling in the Bronx, with Harry graduating from Syracuse University in 1952 and then going to work at the New York Herald-Tribune.

Here are two Rosenfeld-Bradlee grafs from the Feldstein review:

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.”
Five days after the review in Outlook (a section Rosenfeld once edited), the Post published a letter from Robert G. Kaiser, who’s been at the Post since 1963 and is now an associate editor. Kaiser also is a former editor of Outlook; he went on to become assistant managing editor for national news and from 1991 to 1998 he was the Post’s managing editor under Leonard Downie, who succeeded Bradlee as executive editor in 1991. Downie retired in 2008, and, like Bradlee, is on the masthead at a vice president at large.

In his letter about the Post review of Rosenfeld’s book, Kaiser said Rosenfeld’s tenure as assistant m.e. for national news had not gone well: “He had lost the confidence of his staff and provoked numerous national reporters to complain to Bradlee about him. I know this because I was one of them. Harry was my pal, but he was woefully miscast as the leader of The Post’s national coverage.”

Here’s how Rosenfeld described his tenure as assistant m.e. for national news:

The bottom line was that during my editorship too many of the National staff were working on personal projects. It meant that we had to integrate Metro reporters. Talented and ambitious as they were, they lacked the experience and background that would distinguish their work from the start and permit the National staff to make its mark. The irony was that in the 1974 Pugwash, which took place in January, there was unanimous agreement that personal leaves should be sharply limited, say one per department per year. So much for the endurance of Pugwash decisions. If all these leaves of absence were intended to refresh the staff, they should have been offered to Metro, less so to National. And if they were symptomatic of a post-Watergate letdown, it is hard to understand why National staffers should have been particularly afflicted. Someone else did the heavy lifting, and National got to go on R&R. To quote a favorite poet, A. E. Housman: The world, it was the old world yet, I was I, my things were wet, And nothing now remained to do But begin the game anew.

The new game was soon underway. Bradlee, it was understood,
approached national coverage in terms of personalities, of winners and losers, the ones who were in and the ones who were out, and the perpetual shifts and fluctuations among those wielding power. It fascinated him and he soaked up tidbits, hints, rumors, and facts—anything that fed his passionate interests. My own view, which I found was shared by others on the National staff, was inclined to systemic coverage, to try to find out how ably government and its agencies performed by measuring them against their mandates and established regulations. The advent of the computer and data-driven reporting made this approach ever more plausible. These efforts at detailed data analysis were derided by Bradlee, who wanted to learn the “skinny.” Such dichotomy pretty much assured trouble.
In his letter, Kaiser also says: “Rosenfeld suggests in his book that he lost his job as assistant managing editor for national news in 1975 because he had insisted on aggressively covering revelations about an affair between Ben Bradlee’s former sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and John F. Kennedy. The National Enquirer first broke this story, and Rosenfeld thought The Post should pursue it. This, Rosenfeld writes, provoked “extreme anger” in Bradlee, who was personally close to JFK in the early 1960s. Rosenfeld quotes another Post editor as saying Bradlee would “get even” for his pursuit of the story.”

Here is how Rosenfeld describes the start of that fight with Bradlee:

“In March 1976, the National Enquirer, a tabloid devoted to celebrity gossip and scandal, was about to publish a story with the ingredients of a quintessential Washington exposé, the kind that Bradlee savored. Its cast of characters included John F. Kennedy, the charismatic young president assassinated about a dozen years earlier, and a beautiful divorced woman alleged to have been his mistress. The article told of their trysts in the White House while Jackie was out of town. Also featured were CIA connections and an unsolved murder. The article was based on an interview with a former Post editor and corporate executive, who was perceived as mentally disturbed.

“Bradlee, then vacationing with Sally in the Virgin Islands, thought the Enquirer story was “ ‘bullshit.” He emphatically didn’t think it was worth a story in the Post.  Of the occasions over the years at the Post that I was in conflict with my boss, this was the one with the most severe consequences. I strongly disagreed with Bradlee’s assessment and determined to act according to what I saw as my duty to the Post, to Bradlee himself, and in keeping with the spirit of the Watergate investigative reporting that had earned the paper international distinction. I could not walk away from what I had to do, particularly because the Enquirer’s account was in some ways questionable and needed to be put in context.”
A timeout in this Bradlee-Rosenfeld battle, with Bob Kaiser, at age 70, stepping in for Bradlee, now 92, to fire a few shots at Rosenfeld, now 84.

I’m interested in this fighting because I came to Washington in 1967 and watched the transformation of the Post under Bradlee. At The Washingtonian, where I worked for 40 years, we wrote a lot about Bradlee (and Sally Quinn) because the Post (along with the federal government and the Redskins) was one of the few institutions that most everyone in the sprawling Washington metro area connected with.

While Bradlee is most famous for the Post coverage of the 1973 Watergate break-in, his first big move at the Post was his 1968 ditching of the traditional women’s section, replacing it with an edgier, more controversial, better-written Style section. That move showed off one of Bradlee’s great strengths: attracting and hiring talented reporters and writers. Rosenfeld’s book barely touches that.

Another of Bradlee’s obvious strengths was his charisma. He probably was the best-looking, best-connected, best-known newspaper editor in the country. Along with their style differences, Bradlee and Rosenfeld approached journalism in opposite ways: Bradlee a people person with a short attention span, Rosenfeld more abrasive and more of a long-distance runner.

I knew Bradlee slightly, running into him often over the years, but he didn’t like the inside-the-Post stuff The Washingtonian ran and he hated our coverage of his relationship with Sally Quinn, so we never said much more than hello. I didn’t know Rosenfeld during his 12 years at the Post.

A pretty good inside journalism rivalry, and I’ve asked some DC journalists for their insights into the battle between the two men, and also have asked Rosenfeld if he wants to respond to the Kaiser letter.

More to come. Any comments welcome.
A Response from Harry Rosenfeld

My memoir speaks for itself, to quote the reviewer, in direct and unadorned language, including my admiration for Ben Bradlee as the editor whose leadership won The Washington Post its national reputation. Kaiser writes that I misled in citing my insistence on covering the Mary Meyer story over Ben’s objections played a role in my dismissal as assistant managing editor for national news.  He is right when he attributes it to my job performance and to complaints about me by a number of national staffers—which I don’t “acknowledge” but state as a matter of fact, along with other factors.

But my insistence on pursuing the story did play a major part in my removal and in its timing. I was party to the key conversations with Bradlee; Kaiser was not.

Of the people on the national staff I supposed went to Bradlee to complain about me,  it never occurred to me that Kaiser might be among them. He writes he did so even though he was my pal. To my mind, a pal alerts a friend to missteps and maybe goes so far as to tell him that he is taking his complaints to the boss.

As to his assessment that I was “woefully miscast” as national editor, the only word from him to me in the least related to the issue came in an inscription in his book on Russia that all these years has remained on my bookshelf. It reads:  “For Harry—whose confidence set me on the path that led to Moscow, and whose counsel and friendship I will always cherish.” It was dated February, 1976.  At the time, I was national editor.  Not exactly a woeful complaint.

Best, Harry Rosenfeld


  1. Jack Limpert says

    Facebook comments about the Rosenfeld-Bradlee post:

    Timothy Hays: I was lucky to be a guest at Harry’s dinner when he retired from Times-Union. William Kennedy was there, entertained us all nicely. Harry was one splendid editor, and remains a great writer and person. Today’s J-School crowd should appreciate his career, and wisdom.

    Robert Sam Anson: I believe Ben and Bob.

    Timothy Hays: You don’t have to be Debra Davis to realize you don’t screw with Ben.

    • I met Ben Bradlee at Politics & Prose and a presentation of “Katharine Graham’s Washington,” the follow-up to “Personal History.” He and the others from the presentation signed my copy of the book. I do wish I had his signature on “A Good Life.” When I mentioned to Donald Graham that my hometown newspaper is (still) family-owned, he impressed me by knowing John B. Johnson, editor and publisher of the Watertown (NY) Daily Times.

      Years earlier, I interviewed Harry Rosenfeld in his Capital Newspapers office for my master’s degree research on newspapers and politics in Albany. He knew I was working for the Schenectady Gazette, but he was gracious and helpful in the interview. I don’t think we talked about Watergate (1972 break-in and arrests, not 1973) or the Washington Post and his relationship with Ben Bradlee.

      By the time I saw “All the President’s Men” the third time, I had met three of the men portrayed in the film (Bradlee, Howard Simons and Bob Woodward) and had worked for Walter Rugaber, publisher of the Roanoke (Va.) Times & World-News. Rugaber’s byline shows up on screen on the New York Times Teletype at the Post after the first meeting with “Deep Throat” in the garage. I met Howard Simons at “William Kennedy Days” in West Sand Lake, NY, in 1984 and again in his office at Harvard where he was the curator of the Neiman Fellowships.

      We often travel in small circles.

  2. Harry hired me for the Times Union in 1990 and remains to this day someone I admire as an editor and as a man. Based on what I know of him and what I have read about Bradlee, there is no doubt in my mind that the two were oil and water, or maybe even oil and vinegar, which mixed when shaken but which have a natural tendency to separate. The revelations in Harry’s book of his childhood traumas and how that drove his life are fascinating and elucidating. I am sure that Bradlee would have had no way of understanding the impact of that on Harry’s life.

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