Photo by Barry Schwartz
One of the most influential newspaper editors of twentieth century, Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, died last week. Bradlee was instrumental in turning the Post into one of the best papers in the country. The Pentagon Papers were published on his watch (along with the New York Times), exposing damaging facts about the Vietnam War forcefully hidden from the public. Over the course of the next two years in the early 1970s, he guided coverage of the Watergate scandal that helped force Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency.
Mark Felt, at his career peak, was Associate Director of the FBI. Near the end of his life a few years ago, he outed himself as “Deep Throat” — a pivotal source of information for the Post (and the reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) about the Watergate break-ins and the following coverup – all leading to the only resignation of a President of the United States.
Both men, one might assume, operated out of liberal ideology, promoting their views through their actions.
Not true. Neither were ideologues.
David Remnick, the current editor of the New Yorker (who worked for Bradlee as a reporter) wrote in his New Yorker remembrance last week: “After a trip to Vietnam, in 1971, he ‘ended up feeling uncommitted politically as usual,’ he once said. ‘By instinct and habit, I was more interested in the whatness of the war rather than in the rightness or wrongness,’” This is exactly what you want from a principled, skilled journalist, slant or not.
Mark Felt, despite his central role in the Watergate scandal, did not in any way consider himself a liberal; rather, he saw himself as a public servant and his actions as a civic duty. He saw the bigger picture. Felt became so unhappy with the Nixon Administration’s determined and relentless undermining of the Constitution he was impelled to break away from a career’s worth of loyalty to help expose years of illegal and unconstitutional behavior.
What, you might legitimately ask, has any of this to do with having a creative career?
These men saw beyond themselves and their slice of the world. Their actions revealed a strength of character enabling them to cut through anxiety and doubt, come to a resolution, and act.
In other words, they did their job.
Competition from colleagues in the creative class is intense. But that’s always has been true; this is not news. There is more than one path to remain in the game, but none of them are any good unless you stay focused, provide a great product and great service, stay engaged, and pay attention to the world around you.
Bradlee and Felt connected their actions, their mission, and a vision for the future. They were just doing an honest job.