THE BLOG
02/03/2009 08:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Conversation with Len Downie Cracks the Mystery: I was Wrong

Good journalists are trustworthy but they don't trust anyone else. Ever. At least not at first.
What's the old reporter's cliche? "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Challenge assumptions/challenge authority. That's the way it ought to be. It's lonely, but you've got to watch human nature like a hawk.

That's why I took my file with me when I went to the bathroom at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club the other night. It made washing my hands awkward. But no way was I leaving it behind in the waiting room where longtime Washington Post executive editor Len Downie was sitting there ready to steal it.

Really. I'm not kidding. He confessed a few minutes later when we were on stage in a Q&A about journalism and his new suspense novel, "The Rules of the Game."

"When you took your file with you, it was so I couldn't read your questions," in advance, Len reported in front of everybody. "Both of us know that's how reporters work. If you'd left your file, I would have read your questions."

The whole theft thing made me feel so much better (especially that I'd had the presence of mind to remove the evidence). My instinct had been wrong about this guy who ran the Post for 17 years until he retired in '08 and was a key editor there as far back as Watergate; He definitely had a few down-home moves.

And for years I thought Len Downie was kind of a stiff, a little dour, maybe even sanctimonious and way overly earnest with his obsession about not voting to avoid compromising his paper's objectivity, and claiming not to actually hold a political opinion. That sounded silly to me and I"ve said as much on this very blog.

But he turned out, during the course of an hour, with his gracious wife, Janice, laughing uproariously in the front row, to be a stand-up character, much livelier and with a sense of humor considerably more robust than his longtime friend and former managing editor, Robert Kaiser, suggested when he said Downie had no charisma. What kind of pal says that, anyway?

"The thing about Bob," said Len, "is that he thinks he's got charisma, and he doesn't."
Right there with a live audience I accused him of looking like he shopped from a J. Crew catalogue and of having a Blagojevich kind of hairdo. He laughed at the latter and said he didn't know what I mean by the former. I told him I was the one asking the questions. His wife confided before the event that she was planning a shopping trip to aging hip-chic clothier Wilkes Bashford the next day so maybe she bought him something besides The standard Post uniform: loafers, blue blazer and khaki pants/grey slacks.

I goosed him about the '50s-style sex scenes in his book by stringing together a list of his many descriptive phrases about women's bodies all into one sentence. He took it in good humor and blamed himself as a first-time novelist and his wife for telling him he needed to have more sex in the book if he wanted it to sell.

He did defend the Post and told practiced stories about his flamboyant predecessor, Ben Bradlee. He also expressed the standard self-interested view that newspapers and books will survive the current typhoon of changing habits and broken business models and called the spinning vortex that's raging in front of our profession right now "exciting." Yeah, like a drowning.

Other than that, he surprised me.
At a minimum I have to skin back. Consider this post a correction of my earlier impressions of him. Are you skeptical, like a good reporter, about my change of heart? Well just remember: he's not the Post editor now so it's not like he could offer me a job anymore.

Throughout our exchange, Len was pretty candid, even blunt. And he kind of explained his no voting/no thinking policy as editor more or less persuasively. OK, I'm still not fully convinced he actually blocked out of his head real opinions. But he offered a good, human rationalization.

He royally dissed the New York Times, his main competitor during his years as Post editor, and said they needed to cut their newsroom, which might horrify purists. "A lot of excess costs built in" to the operation, was how he put it. "They're going to have to get serious about things they've been high-minded about in the past." Wait. Len? Len Downie?

I clearly needed to challenge my own assumptions.
How about this: "I've always had a good opinion of the National Enquirer. They do get their facts right, though they sometimes pay people for them." Now this is someone I could really get to like.

Since he's been retired, he finally has opinions. He's "impressed" with the way Barack Obama is "communicating with the American people directly through the internet." But there's "a striking similarity in the way he has controlled the press," which is "exactly the way George Bush came to town."

The Clintons hated him and one of them - he wouldn't say which - accused him of being jealous of Bradlee for bringing down Richard Nixon and wanting to do the same to Bill And Hill. No Obama languid qualities there.

He also did have exceptions to his no opinion zone, even before, "when someone lies to me as John Edwards did. I get mad about it and have an opinion that he's a liar."

Len is not keen on "power journalists becoming celebrities and, increasingly, celebrities trying to become power players." Bono, meet Geraldo.

He called the newsprint business "a cartel more efficient than the oil cartel," said there are newspaper companies that will disappear, leaving several cities without papers "this year" and that the newspaper business is "on its knees", unclear "whether or not it's going to continue" (but the Post will, maybe because they have a non-journalism business, Kaplan, that's making money.)

This establishment press Brahmin also believes "anyone can be a journalist" and compares bloggers with the printers in the American colonies, "providing journalism that's sometimes reliable, sometimes not. They're the original bloggers." But he doesn't like the phrase "citizen journalism." He thinks it's just one of those "faddish phrases" from the web world.

We are a "hide-bound, tradition-oriented profession," says the guy whose newspaper is a big part of that tradition. "We have to open ourselves up to all the possibilities, or we're going to die."

Len is spending the next year on a mission from Columbia University "to see if there are any models that look promising" in terms of paying and supporting a future for journalism. "Right now I just don't know."

But he must be a hopeful guy, even after over 40 years as a paid skeptic. His reporter/protagonist in the novel gets slapped around by reality, going from a naive young woman to a tough, savvy manipulator of sources. Len's model was Bob Woodward, who he saw make the same transition in only two years during his Watergate reporting. In the end, though, she gets the story, busts the bad guys and sets the world on a more righteous footing.

Hollywood is calling - just don't leave the script lying around, Len.

You can listen to the whole program here.