Obituary: Henry Brandon
Friday 23 April 1993
HENRY BRANDON was the Chief American Correspondent of the Sunday Times from 1950 to 1983, and for the latter part of that period also an associate editor of the paper. Known for his range of contacts in Washington and in the diplomatic world everywhere, he became something of an institution in Washington and an important part of the team which, under Sir Denis Hamilton and Harold Evans, gave the Sunday Times an authority it has never quite recaptured.
Born in Prague in 1916, when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Brandon was educated at the universities of Prague and Lausanne and came to England with the exiled government of Eduard Benes in 1938. The following year he joined the staff of the Sunday Times and served as a war correspondent in North Africa and Western Europe before covering the San Francisco conference at which the United Nations was born in 1945. The paper sent him to Paris for two years and he had another two years as a roving correspondent before settling in Washington in 1950.
Brandon was the supreme exponent of the access school of journalism, and as such he was ideally fitted for Washington journalism from the Eisenhower years to the Reagan administration. It was a time when the main task of the Washington correspondent, and especially of the correspondents in Washington of British papers, was the interpretation of a powerful elite which, while it professed openness, kept many secrets.
Until the 1960s, British journalists in Washington enjoyed a remarkably privileged situation which dated back to the Second World War. Not only had Britain been the key ally in an adventure in which many of those who ran Washington had made their reputations; many Washington policy- makers and journalists had enjoyed their time in London and made many friends there. Brandon was a contemporary of the American generation who had made their names in the war: he was one year older than John F. Kennedy. He was a bachelor who played a respectable game of tennis, skied well and was well-equipped for social success in the Georgetown dinners where diplomats, journalists and intelligence officials mingled with the old Washington families - the 'cave- dwellers' - and a carefully screened sprinkling of politicians. As a result he was greatly in demand socially, and he knew how to smelt the scrap of dinner-table gossip and the ore of after-tennis confidences into the coin of journalistic knowledge. 'It can be said on the highest authority', he would write; and however irritated you might be as a journalistic rival you could never be quite sure that he had not spoken to the all-highest in the White House himself. His discretion was legendary. If you asked him a question - 'What do you hear, Henry?' he would almost always reply with another.
In the Kennedy administration, especially, and even more so under Nixon, there was always another level of truth to which the well-connected journalist could reach, below the surface even of off-the-record briefings, and few, foreign or American, were as expert at this as Brandon.
If his contacts in Georgetown and in the Kennedy administration were wide, it was, surprisingly, under Nixon, who was anathema to the Kennedy people and regarded as beyond the pale in the more snobbish houses in Georgetown, that Brandon came into his own. He struck up a genuinely close friendship with Henry Kissinger, who spent many of his Sundays round the pool at Brandon's house. However, Brandon was horrified to discover that his name had been given by Kissinger's office to the FBI in order that his telephone should be secretly and illegally bugged. When Brandon sought an interview with his friend to put this to him, Kissinger denied it, though it is hard to believe that the wiretap could have been placed without his knowledge. He used his contacts with Kissinger discreetly and effectively to interpret his and President Nixon's foreign policy; and he also took advantage of this connection to acquire remarkable contacts in Europe which he nourished on regular visits, usually managing to fit in some skiing with his diplomatic reporting.
As a journalist, Brandon's forte was knowing what was likely to happen and interpreting events as they took place. His grasp of American domestic politics and of the American mood was less sure. But from the San Francisco conference until the collapse of Communism he watched the whole course of the Cold War.
He wrote a number of well-informed books, among them As We Are (1961), In the Red (1966), Conversations with Henry Brandon (1966) and The Retreat of American Power (1972). His published memoirs, though as well- informed as would have been expected, were a disappointment to those who expected revelation; discretion had become an instinct.
In 1970 he married Mabel Wentworth, known as Muffie, a woman with equally wide social contacts in Washington who served briefly as a social secretary to Mrs Reagan. After his retirement, Brandon became a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he also worked as a columnist for the Washington Star.
Brandon's strengths and weaknesses as a correspondent derived equally from the circumstances in which he learned his trade: as a journalist who felt himself part of the great campaigns, first against Fascism, of which he had himself been a victim, and then against Communism. Like other contemporaries - Alastair Buchan, for example - his close links with the US officials who fought the Cold War made him far better informed than most younger correspondents. They also made it hard for him to understand the deep currents that were changing American society from 1960 onward.
In one of our last conversations Henry Brandon lamented that it was no longer possible for a British correspondent in Washington to have the access we had both enjoyed in the 1960s. It was generous of him. Few journalists have ever enjoyed the access he had to successive generations of political and diplomatic leaders in Washington. It is easily forgotten that access means trust, and that Brandon earned that trust by hard work and reliable discretion over more than four decades.
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