Bruce Henderson

Ten years ago, I met Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee at a Washington D.C. cocktail party at the home of NBC’s Tim Russert. Gushing a bit, I told the legendary editor that as a young reporter in the 1970s — after the Post won a Pulitzer for its Watergate coverage — I aspired to work for him, a hokey but true line I’m sure he had heard hundreds of times.

“I wrote you a letter and even sent you clips. You were very kind to answer back and say some nice things.”

Bradlee nodded, and asked politely where I had worked.

“At a small, muckraking newspaper in Livermore, California,” I said. “I was lucky enough to have a gutsy woman publisher who gave us the freedom to report even if it cost the paper advertisers, which at times it did.”

His eyebrows shot up and he grinned. “I was lucky like that, too.”

Bradlee said his own career began at a small, muckraking paper in New Hampshire. We agreed that starting out someplace other than a large metropolitan had been a great way to launch our journalism careers because smaller papers offered opportunities to cover varied events and people.

I have long believed that had I gone to work for the San Francisco Chronicle at the age (23) I came to the Independent in 1970, I would have been delegated to writing obits and the like for years as I waited for experienced reporters to die, be fired, or otherwise move on before I won a coveted beat, like city hall. Instead, I hit the deck running at the Independent, covering local politics — city councils, school districts, local members of Congress, state legislators — as well as myriad other news and feature stories. Whether I generated the idea or it was assigned to me by editor Bob Several, nothing was off limits to this young reporter. And, boy, did I push the envelope.

In 1973 — the same year the Post won its Pulitzer for Watergate — I took it upon myself to investigate conditions at Santa Rita county jail. One day, while snooping around on jail property, I was arrested and thrown into a holding cell at the very penal facility I was investigating. I was sprung from behind bars a few hours later by Independent reporter Walt Hecox, the Independent’s resident member of the Establishment. Naturally, Walt was on a first-name basis with Municipal Judge Joe Schenone, who not only decided my bail but also presided at my trial, which turned into the longest jury trial in Livermore’s history (four days) before my acquittal. I then turned around and with the help of the ACLU sued the county sheriff for not allowing the press to interview inmates. In an out-of-court settlement, the sheriff agreed to end his no-interview policy, and soon, I returned to the jail to conduct the first press interview at Santa Rita.

Through my months-long investigation of Santa Rita, I received the undying support of publisher Joan Kinney, who paid my legal fees and promised that my wife and children would continue to receive my paycheck if I was convicted and went to jail. She encouraged me to stay in the fight against the sheriff and find out what was going on at the jail. (One scheme I uncovered involved county-owned cattle, grazing in the hills above the jail that were meant to supplement the diet of the inmates, but were being sold and trucked out at night by some guards who were lining their own pockets.)

Another time, I well remember Joan and Associate Publisher David Lowell passing by my desk and complimenting me on a front-page article. I no longer recall the subject of the story, only that it upset a car dealer who canceled his ad. Yet there were Joan and David, who between them were responsible for the financial well-being of the paper, encouraging me to “keep up the good work” without nary a word about the dire consequences to the paper’s bottom line.

When it was time for me to move on in 1975 to other reporting and writing horizons, I took with me everything I had learned and practiced at the Independent. Getting the facts right, interviewing all kinds of people about all kinds of things, distilling every story to its very essence so the readers will care, and doing it all on a deadline. These tools served me well as a magazine writer in the 1980s, and are used by me today in my book-writing career.

Although I never worked for Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post, I am grateful to have lived my own Golden Age of Journalism at the Independent.

Editor’s Note: Bruce Henderson is the author of more than 20 books, including a #1 New York Times bestseller. His latest, HERO FOUND: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War (Harper), is a national bestseller. He lives on the Peninsula. He can be found on the web at www.BruceHendersonBooks.com.