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Kenneth Bacon, 64

Matt Schudel

Kenneth H. Bacon died Aug. 15 at the age of 64. He may not have been well known to the general public, but he was a gentle-voiced Washington insider who quietly worked in the city's higher reaches of journalism, government service and international charity.

For most of the eight years of the Clinton administration, Bacon was the bow-tied chief spokesman at the Pentagon. He explained the intricacies of the post-Communist civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo to the American public and described the horrific events of Oct. 12, 2000, when the USS Cole was attacked by terrorists in Yemen's Aden harbor, killing 17 U.S. sailors and wounding 39.

Before his Pentagon service, Bacon had been a well-regarded reporter at the Wall Street Journal for 25 years. During the Clinton administration, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was sent to work in Bacon's office, where she got to know Linda S. Tripp. Tripp recorded some of their telephone conversations, in which Lewinsky admitted she had had an affair with Clinton.

When a New Yorker reporter learned that Tripp had been arrested at age 19, she (the reporter) asked Bacon if Tripp had admitted on her employment application at the Pentagon that she had once been arrested. Bacon, in apparent defiance of federal privacy laws, allowed a deputy to release the employment information.

During the hysteria that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in December 1998, conservative journalists and lawyers seized on the Tripp episode as evidence of a White House conspiracy. As part of a lawsuit, Bacon was subjected to seven hours of interrogation -- after reading all 400 pages of the transcript, I think I can use that term without exaggeration -- and was vilified for years in the pages of the Washington Times and Weekly Standard for supposedly damaging Tripp's reputation.

In retrospect, it all seems so strange and so long ago, but the toxic partisan anger that seems to have become endemic in our country has not, alas, dissipated with time.

From all that I could learn about Bacon, he was not particularly ideological in any way and was a model of even-tempered fairness throughout his career. He worked for the Wall Street Journal, which no one would claim is a tool of the left. In researching his obituary, I could not find a single overtly political statement that he ever made -- unless you consider caring for people without food and shelter to be political.

Bacon apparently had some independent wealth, and people who worked with him at the Journal told me that at the end of the year, he had to be reminded to cash his paychecks, to keep the paper's accounting system in balance. Former Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks, who was a colleague of Bacon's at the Journal, described him as "someone out of a Ward Just novel," meaning that he was a quietly cultivated Washington figure who knew all the right people and, in a deeper sense, knew how get the right things done.

When Bacon went to the Pentagon, Ricks told me, he went out of his way not to give his old colleague any special privileges or journalistic scoops because he (Bacon) did not want to be accused of playing favorites.

For all his success as a reporter and his high profile at the Pentagon, Bacon probably made his greatest contribution to society in his final job, as president of Refugees International, an advocacy group for the world's 12 million refugees. He was among the first people to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and to the problems of resettling refugees from the war in Iraq. In practically his final breath, he gave seed money to Refugees International to establish a center to study the problem of dislocation as a result of global warming.

In July, Bacon wrote an essay for The Washington Post about his struggles with cancer and with the health insurance industry. The essay can be found here.

Ken Bacon seems to have been an exceptionally generous person who made a deep and lasting impact on the world. He also seems to have been the kind of person Washington needs more of.

By Matt Schudel  |  August 15, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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It's gratifying to know that you bothered to contact associates like Tom Ricks and read all 400 pages of a deposition transcript for what a casual reader would think to be a routine obit. Thanks for the professionalism.

I can second your assessment: Ken Bacon was a kind and generous person. I can report, however, that he was a really, really aggressive charades player. But I don't begrudge him his victories at all.

Posted by: emcnulty | August 15, 2009 6:01 PM | Report abuse

I barely knew Ken except to say "hi," but observed him, Darcy (and, on Xmas eve, all his kids) singing in the tiny volunteer choir in the balcony of our small DC church every week for years. I often caught him smiling at my kids during the service(He sat right above us). Take my word for it, ours is decidedly not a church to draw "power brokers" eager to see and be seen. Ken was clearly one of those special souls who persisted in Washington for all the right reasons. I know he will be roundly missed.

Posted by: whitneyredding | August 16, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

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