Liz Smith: America …

“THE WINNING party will be the one that is more optimistic about America — even in the midst of a struggling economy,” writes one of my heroes Fareed Zakaria in Time magazine.

I believe this particular pundit is correct. And it’s not just wishful hoping for the Democrats either. I would take either party if they simply spelled out their plans, and made sense. But I agree with Fareed that “nostalgia is now commonplace on the right … a segment of the electorate is in general older, white, religious and deeply troubled by America … The Tea Partyers love America, but it’s an America that is an abstraction or a memory.”

And if we don’t change the way America has changed, I fear we are going to be left way behind.

THE ABSOLUTE best non-fiction book of the year is the one about the conduct of journalism and the press, written ostensibly to be a biography/history of the great Ben Bradlee of Watergate and the Washington Post fame.

This is a work from Random House by Jeff Himmelman who used Bradlee’s usual signature, “Yours in Truth” as the book title. He admits it would have been more fun to use Ben’s greeting to detractors — “Dear Asshole.”

Unfortunately, before it was published, this memoir ran into trouble when the author was accused of attacking one of his mentors, Bob Woodward, and doing dirt to Mrs. Bradlee (writer Sally Quinn). He made himself seem utterly disloyal in the eyes of many and he kind of “did in” his excellent book as a result. It hasn’t recovered and received a second chance but I’m hoping it will.

If you can rise above that fact, as the elegant Ben Bradlee did, this remains a work of journalistic art — the entire history of the Nixon-Watergate revelations with all the hits and errors, laid out as it actually happened. Thrilling! (And the rest of Ben’s incredible career — his unusual access-friendship with JFK … his relationship with his boss Kay Graham … his attempt to push the Washington Post past the New York Times, etc.)

I did not approve of the author including a torn-up letter from Ben to Sally found in the Bradlee files. It was never sent, nor was it intended to be sent. But it scandalized the enterprise. Although I disagree with this gossipy inclusion, it was enough to throw the work off course. The heroes of Watergate reporting still emerge from the cocoon of their grandeur — and even from their mistakes — Woodward and Bernstein in all their glory, helping bring down President Richard Nixon, The Washington Post and its fright at what it was doing. The saga of Ben Bradlee himself — along with Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow, one of the true giants of American journalism.

This book is energizing for those of us in the profession. It is history straight and true. I can hardly believe that Bob Woodward, one of my reporter idols, was upset by the mere suggestion that his boss, Ben Bradlee, sometimes didn’t feel entirely secure with his reporting. (Just this week Woodward brought out his own book, Obama’s Wars from Simon & Schuster — a work that paints both the president and Congressional leaders in such a bad light — but he’s still concerned with his Watergate legacy?)

The Bradlees and the Kennedys at the White House, May 1963. Photo: Cecil Stoughton

IN Yours in Truth, we get Ben Bradlee in all his charismatic in-charge sex appeal and dynamism, we get Katherine Graham and she gives total good value as an amateur who rose to the occasion, we get Carl Bernstein who could write and report in a manner his partner Bob Woodward couldn’t (and Carl is very good-natured about his demotion in all this history.)

Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward during 'All the President's Men' 1976 Premiere in Washington, D.C. Photo: RON GALELLA/WIREIMAGEWe get all the more minor players and some who were really important, we get the history of the tragedy of Phil Graham, we get a good picture of the controversial, not-to-be-denied reporter Sally Quinn and how her career was sidelined by her love of Ben and the resentment of so many. We get it all!

This should be “must” reading at the Columbia School of Journalism. Never mind what you think of the Cassandra who wrote it, who took Ben at his word to “do whatever you want with it,” who delved into things best unsaid and who paid the price and will live forever in the “disloyal” column of most of his detractors. (He is just a bit self-serving herein, but he is an excellent memoirist and historian. If Ben Bradlee no longer cares about his considerable legacy, then why punish the one who laid it all out for us to relish.)

I don’t know when I admired a book more. I wish I had written it. I wish I were capable of being called so “disloyal” in the search for truth.

THERE ARE few things that thrill me more than running into the giant talent Barbara Carroll at Swifty’s or Le Cirque. She is 87 years old, this genius of the jazz piano and celebrator of the best of popular music from the 20th century.

The Times’ Stephen Holden writes, “In Ms. Carroll’s musical universe jazz, classical and pop influences don’t collide so much as they gently brush shoulders as they dance by one another.” In my own memory, a performance of Barbara with Tony Bennett in the Pierre Ballroom some years back remains the apex of happy memories.

You can go see this fabulous lady Sunday afternoons through Nov. 11 at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, call 1-646-476-3551.

And it is the eternal shame of the Carlyle Hotel, Bemelman’s Bar, that they ever let Barbara Carroll get away. I’ll never forgive them for that ageist nonsense.

This column originally appeared on on 9/13/12

3 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    “nostalgia is now commonplace on the right … a segment of the electorate is in general older, white, religious and deeply troubled by America … The Tea Partyers love America, but it’s an America that is an abstraction or a memory.”

    Well – I’m middle-aged, white, non-religious and deeply troubled by SOME things about America. Sadly, one of those troubling things is the Tea Partyer abstraction: what they love is the white, suburban or small-town, churchgoing, Apple Pie America of Leave It to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show. And the clash of that fantasy vision with reality results in their demands: for a bigoted, closed-minded, hateful, sexist, exclusionary America. Because by God, all these minorities and gays and career women and immigrants just have NO place on Leave It To Beaver.

    There is a lot that I miss about the past, and a lot that I don’t, but I hope I will always have the courage and presence of mind to live in the actual present.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      According to the Tea Party and their ilk, Back In The Day there were no gay or lesbian people, men were men, and women wore girdles, Peter Pan collars, crisp dresses with crinolines and high heels to do their housework, spouses slept in separate beds, babies came from the cabbage patch, and everyone who counted was Christian and White and sprung by spontaneous generation from American soil. Those other dubiously human-like beings were all furriners or colored. A woman’s work ws in the home, and if she got smart, it was time for some Home Discipline.

      All white folks were employed, married with children, and content, with food on the table and god in the parlor. There was never any poverty, hard times, bread lines or cares. Dad was always right, and Mom worried he’d murder her if she burnt supper. He might, too. Unless she did it too many times, then he’d just have her committed. There was no rape, because all those women dressed like sluts and were obviously asking for it, and men had needs. Women just had ceilings that needed to be painted.

      Ah, the America-That-Never-Was of the GOP. Don’t forget the 47% of us who are living off of the Purple Wage. It’s the perpetuation of the Myth.

  2. avatar beantownbetty says:

    I have just discovered this website, and very pleased that I did. Liz Smith, you are an amazing woman and a terrific writer, I have bookmarked to read every day/week.

    (ps, I think I may have been sitting next to you at dinner last night?? with a couple of kids& spouse?)