Looking Back at Ben Bradlee: “He Wasn’t Afraid of Anything”

This was first posted on October 11, 2014. Ben Bradlee died on October 21, 2014, at the age of 93.

By Norman Sherman

Here’s what I remember about Ben Bradlee: He never looked or acted like the WASP he was—there was nothing reserved about his style or appearance. Some who worked for him disliked him, others loved his passion for high-impact journalism. He was not quite an enigma; he was a combination of finishing school and the street.

In 1974 I interviewed Bradlee for a Washingtonian profile—Woodward and Bernstein were national heroes and they were that mostly because Bradlee pushed them, scared them, inspired them, and printed them.

I did not know Bradlee all that well when I interviewed him. We hadn’t talked for several years and I hadn’t asked my first question when he said, “Look, pal, I know what you’ll write. People say I’m cruel. I’m not.”

Some people did say that. He was tough. He could snarl and be disdainful. He was not an easy boss, but he usually was an encouraging one, and sometimes an inspiring one.

That he was in a newsroom seemed a bit unlikely. His roots were old Boston. The Bradlees and Crowninshields (his middle name) came to America in the 1700s and became well-to-do. They had been high and rich society for most of the years after. Young Ben went to St. Mark’s, a school just outside of Boston for children of the elite.

While at St. Mark’s, he spent four months in bed with polio. A classmate died, but Bradlee recovered and went on to Harvard and then into the Navy during World War II where he earned nine battle stars in the Pacific.

When he got out of the Navy, he looked for work but said he found himself handicapped by his “superwasp education . . . I didn’t know anything useful.” He took a class in fiction writing with James T. Farrell, the author of Studs Lonigan, which taught him that he would never be a novelist.

He decided to look for work as a journalist. After a bit he became Washington bureau chief for Newsweek and then to moved to the Post. His rise there was quick but controversial—to become the top editor he seemed to stomp on a friend.

However he got there, he was good at it. He once told a White House staff aide that he was “picking fly shit from the pepper with boxing gloves.” The aide was a young Pat Moynihan, who later became a senator from New York.

He had a common touch with friends in high and not-so-high places. He was a friend of a Georgetown pharmacist, Doc Dalinsky, and spoke at Doc’s wife’s funeral. He also had spent a lot of time with Jack Kennedy at the White House. His friends included giants of politics, law, and journalism and interns in the news room.

His style showed his background but it also could be bizarre. One noon, a K Street lawyer, a polished friend of President Kennedy, was on his way to lunch with a couple of clients. He spotted Bradlee. dressed in a loud glen plaid suit, and they stopped to talk.

When the lawyer rejoined his companions, one asked, “Who was that?” The answer was, “He’s the editor of the Post.” The response: “Jesus, I thought he was your bookie.”
Excerpts from the 1974 Washingtonian profile of Ben Bradlee:

He’s at home, in his term, “prowling” through the busy city room of the Post. Or at a Redskins game where his friend Joe Califano describes him as a “profanely enthusiastic fan on his feet with an instant analysis of every play. He’s a Monday morning quarterback who won’t wait until Monday morning.”

Several years ago he walked into the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors with Eugene Patterson, then the managing editor of the Washington Post. Bradlee stopped, surveyed the crowd, and in his raspy voice said, “There isn’t one goddamn editor here I’d hire.” Patterson replied, “That’s okay, Ben, there isn’t one editor here who would hire you.”

A Harvard classmate says, “Bradlee went into the Navy pretty much a rich kid without direction. He found himself in that destroyer and came out a totally different man. He was bred to be a snob, he has had nothing of the snob in him since the war.”

When Bradlee heard of a new paper starting in Manchester, New Hampshire, he raised $10,000 for a ten-percent interest in it. A third of the money came from his own savings, the other two-thirds from his mother and an uncle. It was Bradlee’s first serious newspaper experience and it gave him a taste of successful investigative reporting under the tutelage of Ralph Blagden, an experienced editor from St. Louis.

Blagden, who thought putting out a paper should be fun, found the young Bradlee “a never-ending source of joy. Ben wasn’t afraid of anything. He learned fast and I could send him in where experienced reporters would find the job difficult. He could deal with violently angry men who hated our paper and still get the facts.”

The Post during the late 1940s, according to Ben Gilbert, “liked a good trial story and was crusading on law enforcement in the city.” Bradlee, assigned to the courthouse, says, “I had the gangbuster beat—cops and gambling.” Bradlee liked the courthouse characters and atmosphere and befriended a number of criminal lawyers, among them Edward Bennett Williams, who remains one of his closest friends.

There were day-to-day lessons for a relatively inexperienced Bradlee to learn, and he did. One stands out particularly in his memory. In 1950 he covered a racial confrontation in DC’s Anacostia area where the Progressive party was leading an attempt to integrate the swimming pools. Bradlee watched as several hundred blacks fought with several hundred whites. When the ugliness subsided, Bradlee returned to the Post to write his story, which he considered important.

He discovered that the riot he saw was to be called an incident and buried on an inside page. As he argued with the editor about its treatment and placement, Philip Graham, dressed in a dinner jacket and just arrived from a dinner party, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Come upstairs.” There in Graham’s office were Julius “Cap” Krug, the Secretary of the Interior, and Oscar Chapman, the Undersecretary. After Bradlee described the scene as he had seen it, Graham turned to his visitors and said in effect, “We won’t run the article tough and prominent if you will agree to open those pools next year for everyone.”

The upstairs scene offended Bradlee’s concept of journalism, but was in keeping with Graham’s idea and compulsion to use the paper—and his power—as a vehicle not just for reporting but for changing public policy by direct involvement. Bradlee did not think then nor does he now believe that was the proper role for the newspaper.

Defenders of Bradlee insist that his toughness is a necessary part of running a first-rate newsroom. In a profession where mobility can be reasonably high and dissatisfaction almost inherent in the daily pressures, one man’s toughness is another’s cruelty. The editor of another major daily says, “You have to crowd people to get the best out of them.” A former Post reporter points out, “The [Washington] Daily News used to be the happiest shop in town. It even died happy.”

The complaints from some of those who have left, as well as from some wounded birds who remain in the nest, have, however, a too-frequent common theme to be ignored. You cannot believe Bradlee. His promises when he looks back always have a qualifying out. He’s a con man who believes himself no matter how he contradicts what he previously told you. He creates tension beyond what is necessary.

Katharine Graham, disagreeing with some of the charges, says, “Ben’s great virtue may also be his weakness. He moves fast, sometimes too fast, makes quick decisions, and most of the time he is right. But when he is wrong, he does, indeed, rectify the error and does not live with it.”

Note: Here are four grafs from Norman Sherman’s 1974 Washingtonian story that were not in his 2014 post:

Bradlee takes the First Amendment and the role of newspapers in a democracy seriously. It may, indeed, by the only ideology he has.

In a recent speech, he said, “I wondered at what exact moment did I myself confront freedom of the press as a passionate, personal, immediate reality instead of a glorious concept, lovingly taught but cherished from afar, from a seat in the audience instead of a role on this vital stage. The moment was 10:30 a.m. Thursday morning, June 17, 1971,  when silver-haired Ben Bagdikian, his shoulders bending under the burden of two heavy cartons, staggered up the stairs of my house in Georgetown and dropped the Pentagon Papers on my living room floor. For the next fourteen hours, freedom of the press, and all the legal baggage that surrounds it and tends to make it impersonal and remote, became as vivid and personal to me and my colleagues at the Washington Post as life itself. . . .

“[Katharine Graham’s] simple, declarative decision ‘I say we print’ launched far more than the legal actions that ended in vindication two weeks later by the Supreme Court. In a real sense it marked the beginning of the journey which placed the Post once and for all on the cutting edge of history and journalism. . . .

“As Walter Lippmann has pointed out, the theory of a free press is that the truth will emerge from free reporting and free discussion, not that the truth will be presented totally, or instantly, or perfectly in any one account. . . .This theory makes some members of the press uncomfortable. We are uneasy at the implicit admission that there might be less than total, instant, perfect truth in any one story. . . .”

If his arrest in Paris ended his apprenticeship, the Pentagon Papers established beyond doubt his own sense of role in American life and journalism. Bradlee is a journalist first and a human being, cruel or compassionate, second. It is a priority he may deny and which others may find unreal, but it alone explains his behavior.

Thus a story heard or overheard at a dinner party, on a tennis court, or over a drink with friends, from the President of the United States on down, is fair journalistic game for Bradlee.

Bob Woodward recently told the Women’s National Democratic Club, “The Post is not interested in what you did yesterday or what you reported today. They are interested in what you’ll have tomorrow.”

But Bradlee’s own life—and he works incredibly hard—has been as much the victim of his drive, goals, and ambition as those around him. He lives today in a Watergate apartment, separated from his second wife, contemplating his future with undiminished vigor, both professionally and personally. At 53, he looks forward to doing what he has been doing for another half-dozen years at least, as he talks seriously of a third marriage, this time to a Quinn of Maryland.

He generally lunches in the area of the Post, sometimes with his colleagues, but in no fixed pattern, and more often with his friends from outside. He limits his lunch drinking to one Dubonnet on the rocks with a twist.

His evenings are now more relaxed than they have been for years. He spends more time watching television (“Kojak” is a current favorite), reading, or having dinner with special friends: Art Buchwald and Edward Bennett Williams, with whom he also watches every home Redskin game, Phil Geyelin, Meg Greenfield, Joe Califano, Doc Dalinsky, and Howard Simons.

And finally, of course, there is simply the measure of what he has done at the Post. While the Watergate stories are by no means his glory and responsibility alone, they undoubtedly would not have been written without him. In more general terms, he has made the Post, in Ben Bagdikian’s description, “a first-rate paper worthy of national respect.”

Or as Katharine Graham puts it, “He is an extremely good editor and maybe a great one.”

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