David Talbot interviewed the late great editor Ben Bradlee for his book Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. He asked him a question many people have wondered over the years: Why didn’t he, of all people, investigation the murder of his pal Jack Kennedy?
(From Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, by David Talbot, pp. 392-393)
“We began by talking about Bradlee’s memories of Bobby Kennedy, with whom he had a somewhat prickly relationship.
“I think that he maybe resented my relationship with Jack,” Bradlee said.
I told him about my book, and how my research showed that, after the shots rang out in Dallas, Bobby immediately suspected the CIA and its henchmen in the Mafia and Cuban exile world. Bradlee did not seem surprised.
“Jesus,” he said, in his trademark growl, “if it were your brother … I mean if I were Bobby, I would certainly have taken a look at that possibility.”
Then Bradlee made a truncated, but revealing remark.
“I’ve always wondered whether my reaction to all of that was not influenced by sort of a total distaste for the possibility that [Jack] had been assassinated by …” He did not finish the sentence, but the rest was clear: “by his own government.”
I pursued this angle with Bradlee. He had been the brother-in-law of CIA golden boy Cord Meyer; he socialized, like other Cold War liberals in the Washington press, with the agency’s top men at Georgetown salons. Did he ever make discreet inquiries in these CIA circles, I asked Bradlee, about what happened in Dallas?
“I’m sure I talked to [CIA Director RIchard] Helms about it privately, but as usual he dusted me off,” he answered.
“He was good at that, wasn’t he?” I said.
“Oh yeah, he’d ask you to have lunch with him and you’d think, ’Oh, God, we’re going to get a real good juicy pearl’ — and then you got nothing.”
[For more on Dick Helms see, The Gentlemanly Planner of Assassinations (Slate, Nov. 1, 2002)]
Then I asked Bradlee the question that had been looming throughout the interview. Why didn’t he do more as the editor of the Post to get at the truth?
“It was the fall of ’65 when I became managing editor here,” he replied, ”and I’ve got to tell you that … I was so busy with trying to, in the first place, trying to build a staff …. And so I spent an enormous amount of time trying to decide who to hire.”
It was a weak explanation, and we both knew it. I pushed him again.
And then Bradlee, who surely finds it hard to bullshit other journalists, gave me a brutally honest reply. He didn’t do more to investigate his friend’s death, Bradlee told me, because he was concerned about his career.
“I think I probably felt that since I had been a friend of Kennedy’s that — you know, this is just [two] years later, and the first thing that he does is come over to the paper that he’s hopefully going to run for a while — and he concentrated on that?”
He was afraid, Bradlee continued, “that I would be discredited for taking the efforts [of the Post newspaper] down that path.”
And then he added a wistful little kicker that was stunning in its understatement. If his newspaper had solved the monstrous crime, “it would have been fantastic.”
Yes, I nodded. “It would have been an amazing story.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Bradlee.
And that was it. No angst about the way he had put his ambition ahead of his loyalty to a friend, no moaning about what letting a crime of this magnitude go unsolved does to the soul of a nation. I knew Bradlee was old school — journalists don’t blubber, and all that. You cut your losses and move on. But his attitude was still weirdly emotionless, even by his hard-bitten standards.”