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Political Paradoxes: “The Post” and the Pentagon Papers

Scene from “The Post.”

Among the stack of DVD’s received from studio publicists last month was Stephen Spielberg’s “The Post” that is both an homage to a newspaper that has propagandized for every imperialist war as well as a surprisingly candid examination of how it became possible partly through the internecine social ties between the paper’s owner and the warmongering political establishment.

The film is based on the decision of the Washington Post to defy the government’s ban on publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 in the aftermath of the same action taken against the New York Times. To understand how paradoxical “The Post” is, it contains both a sympathetic portrayal of A.M. Rosenthal as well as ones sympathetic to his opposite numbers Daniel Ellsberg and Ben Bagdikian.

Although Ellsberg certainly doesn’t need any introduction to CounterPunch readers, Ben Bagdikian is one of the 20th century’s great media heroes. Not only was he instrumental in pushing the Post into defying the government, he was a tireless critic of the media establishment that tolerated Washington Post owner Katherine Graham socializing with Robert McNamara at the same time he was escalating the monstrous war against the Vietnamese. In 1983, he wrote a book titled Media Monopoly that was certainly an influence on Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Played to perfection by Bob Odenkirk, Ben Bagdikian is the film’s moral and political center even though he plays second fiddle to Tom Hanks who is cast as Ben Bradlee.

After Bagdikian met with Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, he obtained a copy of the Pentagon Papers and was as determined to publish them as was Neil Sheehan at the New York Times before him who viewed the Vietnam War in exactly the same way. It might help to understand the role of people like Ellsberg, Bagdikian and Sheehan by recalling what Marx observed in “The Communist Manifesto”:

“Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.”

While Ellsberg, the former Marine and strategic analyst for the Rand Corporation, and elite journalists like Bagdikian and Sheehan were by no means members of the ruling class, they certainly were its willing servants up until the time when the Vietnam war had begun to traumatize most of American society and threaten the stability of the capitalist system.

On the other hand, Katherine Graham certainly was a member of the ruling class and both an obstacle to the Washington Post defying the government and ultimately the person responsible for removing it. In one of the most revealing scenes in the film, we see Bradlee and Graham arguing over the wisdom of challenging Nixon with him charging her of being too cozy with those wielding power. She astutely reminds him of his own closeness to JFK that was just as much a violation of the of the need for an independent press. Graham is played by Meryl Streep who basically reprises the performance she gave as Margaret Thatcher in a 2011 biopic. It is the same kind of patrician dowager role but without the British accent. Nancy Marchand, the newspaper owner in “The Lou Grant Show” would have been much better but she died 17 years ago.

Despite her establishment credentials, Graham was much different when she was a college student. Being shaken by the Great Depression in the same way that her reporters were by the Vietnam war, she was a serious activist. When at Vassar, she took a bus to Albany with other students to protest a loyalty oath. In 1936, she wrote an article for a student newspaper complaining that Hollywood lacked the guts to make a “genuine Left wing” film. This was prompted by moves to censor a film based on Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here”, a cautionary tale about the rise of American fascism. As a board member of the American Student Union, she took part in peace demonstrations, struggles to abolish ROTC on campus, efforts to promote desegregation, and fundraising for the Spanish Republic.

Tom Hanks is not much better being cast against type as the bullheaded Ben Bradlee. If you really want to find out about the real man, you are better off watching the documentary “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” now playing on HBO. While certainly a tribute to Bradlee, it contains information that put him into context as a typical ruling class spokesman. Bradlee participated in the Grant Study when he was a Harvard University student. This was an attempt to provide objective measurements of how men succeeded in bourgeois society with decidedly social Darwinist implications. For example, it concluded that the most-conservative men ceased sexual relations at an average age of 68, while the most-liberal men had active sex lives into their 80s. To my knowledge, Marxist students were not included in the study.

There was a similar study at Columbia University. In searching for what makes men (and it was white men in particular) successful, the Ivy League was resorting back to the sort of racist studies Francis Galton pioneered. It was the last hurrah of eugenics that died out in the 1950s when the Civil Rights movement and the defeat of Nazism made such pseudoscience unacceptable.

Ben Bagdikian was not likely to be selected for such a study. He was a survivor of the Armenian genocide and barely so. While escaping the Turkish killing machine as an infant, he was left in the snow by his parents who were climbing through mountainous snow drifts. He was only picked up after he began to cry.

Like Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, this is a film in which the elites debate among themselves. What is utterly missing from the film is the role of the Vietnam antiwar movement that persuaded Ellsberg to act and, as well, persuaded GI’s to begin “fragging” their officers or holding meetings in Vietnam over whether they would take part in a patrol. You see protesters rallying in front of the NY Times building but this does not give you any sense of how much pressure a half-million protesters in Washington can exert on policy makers.

While Graham and Bradlee refer to their compromised past in the key scene alluded to above, it hardly gives you a sense of how low they could sink. In 1940, Katherine Meyer, the daughter of the Post’s owner Eugene Meyer, married Philip Graham, a brilliant graduate of the Harvard Law School who would work in the Lend-Lease Administration and then enlist in the army where he worked in intelligence.

After the war, Philip Graham took a job as Eugene Meyer’s assistant where he would be groomed as his eventual successor. His wife stayed in the background, serving as hostess at parties or salons to which Washington’s top politicians and power brokers were invited. The film depicts these soirees in all their repulsive glory.

With their growing wealth and political clout, Philip and Katherine Graham began to identify more and more with the Democratic Party elites, who were using the political capital acquired through the defeat of fascism against the newly discovered Communist “threat.” Before long, the Washington Post would become a pillar of the Cold War. Phil Graham took to this new crusade with great relish, believing that the press should serve as a handmaiden to the anti-Communist cause.

Among the Grahams’s guests at social functions were people like Frank Wisner, an OSS veteran who had become the director of Office of Policy Coordination in 1948, the covert operations arm of the CIA. Wisner had begun to recruit foreign students and infiltrate trade unions with an eye to defeating the reds. Philip Graham helped Wisner devise a plan called Operation Mockingbird that would recruit journalists to the cause.

Ben Bradlee would eventually become a regular at the Grahams’s salons and then a top editor at the Post. Bradlee played a key role in a massive propaganda campaign against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg while serving as a press attaché to the American embassy in Paris in the early 1950s. In a document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Davis reveals that Bradlee had advised the assistant prosecutor in the Rosenberg case that he had been sent to Paris by Robert Thayer, who was head of the CIA in Paris. The prosecutor writes, “He [Bradlee] stated that he was supposed to have been met by a representative of the CIA at the airport but missed connections.” Apparently, Operation Mockingbird was in full tilt. Versions of Bradlee’s dispatches would appear in the pages of the three largest circulation French morning newspapers.

When Bradlee eventually showed up for a job interview with Katherine Graham, who had taken over the paper after her husband had killed himself (he was manic-depressive), she asked him how he planned to cover the Vietnam War. Bradlee said he didn’t know, but that he’d hire no “son-of-a-bitch” reporter who was not a patriot.

Like a Rorschach test, “The Post” is open to multiple and contradictory interpretations. It is a clarion call for freedom of the press and the need to challenge the state even to the point of breaking its laws when it comes to serving the public interest. Nobody could possibly miss the obvious parallel with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, the Daniel Ellsberg of our time. It is also an attempt to shore up the authority of a newspaper that conforms to the liberal establishment’s Russiagate agenda. Spielberg stated that he decided to make the film because of Trump’s bullying over the “fake press”.

One only hopes that he will remain vigilant about the responsibility of the press since the Post’s current owner Jeff Bezos shows little concern about the working people who are under assault that while not so nearly as dramatic as what occurred the 1930s might be regarded as victims of a slow-motion Depression nonetheless. Ultimately, as A.J. Liebling put it, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. Keep that in mind during CounterPunch’s next fund drive.

More articles by:

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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