|Jason Robards (left) and Ben Bradlee
The death of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee a few weeks ago was widely noted, especially in Washington, D.C. where his funeral was the biggest send-off since Tim Russert six years ago. Bradlee was universally praised as a great editor, who took over an average newspaper in the 1960s and turned it into one of the best, exceeded today in influence by only The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He was the man who broke the Watergate story that brought down an American president. He had the unusual advantage of becoming a media star when Jason Robards captured his appearance and style so vividly in the 1976 film “All the President’s Men.”
Say nothing but good of the dead. However, with the 51st anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination upon us this weekend, we must note that Ben Bradlee was not a flawless editor. One of the great curiosities of his long tenure at the Post is that for a man who was friendly with JFK, and one who was constantly pushing his paper to greatness, he seemed to take little interest in one of the biggest stories of the 20th century – the murder of an American president.
We will never know exactly why for sure, and it was not until late in his life that Bradlee discussed the matter publicly. In 2007, David Talbot interviewed him for his book, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, and asked why his paper was not more aggressive in investigating that tragic incident. Bradlee answered vaguely, saying that he was new in his job at the time and was cautious about getting involved in what most people thought was reckless speculation about a high level conspiracy. He was speaking of 1968, five years after the assassination. It took that much time for the first critics to begin gaining credibility with challenges to the Warren Commission’s findings that a lone gunman killed Kennedy.
Very few knew it then, and by 1968 he was also dead, but Robert Kennedy suspected all along that his brother had been killed by a conspiracy of government figures. Whether he ever shared that view with Bradlee is unknown. What we do know is that in 1980, by which time the Washington Post had broken the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate stories, Bradlee was at the top of his game. He had no reason to be insecure. But that was the year a sensational story broke right under his nose, in another publication.
The publication was Washingtonian magazine, which had been around for some time and was widely read throughout D.C., particularly when it covered political matters. It ran a story that appeared at the same time in Gold Coast magazine and its related Florida publication, Indian River Life. The story by Gaeton Fonzi was the result of his five years work for two congressional committees that had reopened the JFK investigation. It began with Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, who had made his own examination of the information advanced by various critics. Schweiker concluded that the accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was not the “lone nut” the Warren Commission claimed. Schweiker said Oswald “had the fingerprints of intelligence all over him.” He asked Fonzi to check it out.
Fonzi, working in South Florida with anti-Castro Cuban sources, developed a link between an important CIA agent and Oswald. A very credible Cuban source had seen his handler, a mysterious Maurice Bishop, with Oswald in Dallas shortly before the assassination. Out of understandable fear, and the fact that he wanted to keep working with his CIA contact in efforts to overthrow Castro, he had kept the story to himself for years. It was a sensational piece of information, made even more credible with corroboration by other sources over the years. It was to become the germ of Fonzi’s book, The Last Investigation, which was published in 1993, and is now recognized as a landmark work on the JFK assassination. But in 1980, it was just a long magazine article.
In Florida it created little stir. Our presentation was not ideal. The story was so long we printed it on cheap paper and ran it as in insert. Gold Coast’s lifestyle audience was not the natural readership for such matter. Washingtonian, however, had been doing the kind of provocative journalism that Ben Bradlee admired. The publication of Fonzi’s story was a major event, so major that David Atlee Phillips, the CIA agent identified with Oswald, sued the magazine for $7 million, serious money at the time. The suit was ultimately dismissed. In Florida, we had expected all hell to break loose when the Washington Post followed up. We figured it would go all over the world fast. But Ben Bradlee’s crusading Washington Post also dismissed the story. It did nothing.
Jack Limpert, editor of Washingtonian at the time, recently recalled the non-reaction. “The Post and pretty much everyone else ignored Gaeton’s piece,” he said.
Now, it is not unusual for publications to ignore being scooped by a rival. When Gaeton Fonzi exposed a corrupt Philadelphia Inquirer reporter in the 1960s, both the Inquirer and rival Evening Bulletin ignored the story – until it broke nationally a few weeks later. Fonzi in the 1960s also challenged Arlen Specter, the man who came up with the impossible “single bullet” theory, in Philadelphia magazine. It set the city buzzing, but again the newspapers remained mute. Even compared to those important stories, Washingtonian’s JFK piece was a giant, and for the Post to ignore it seems an inexcusable lapse of integrity.
Fonzi’s magazine article evolved into a book, by which time he had developed considerably more information and his work was being followed up by a number of researchers. Even then, the Post largely ignored him. Ironically, one of those influenced by Fonzi was former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley, but he had a difficult time getting the paper to run some of his dramatic revelations. He wound up giving a story about Oswald’s CIA connections, and the efforts by the CIA to impede Fonzi’s investigation, to the Miami New Times.
One can only speculate on what might have been if the Post had used its investigative resources to follow Washingtonian’s 1980 story. Most of the people now identified as part of the conspiracy, and its equally sinister coverup by the Warren Commission, were still alive. Today all are dead, safe from the arms of justice. The list included high-ranking members of the CIA, important elected officials, possibly military leaders and mafia figures – although the latter, if involved, were not the prime movers of the crime. Jack Ruby, who killed the alleged assassin, was mobbed up, but also had CIA connections. That has come out in dribs and drabs over the last 30 years, but the Washington Post long ago could have broken down the wall of silence and provided the truth – if only it had the will.
Ben Bradlee – great editor. But.