Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 30, 1995

On Campus:
Ben Bradlee Charms, Enlightens At Kent Lecture

Steve Libowitz

     The man who took the stage at Shriver Hall Wednesday night
to deliver the Kent Lecture didn't look at all like Ben Bradlee. 

     Ben Bradlee was supposed to look like Jason Robards, the Ben
Bradlee of the film All The President's Men, the man who seemed
as powerful and charismatic and colorful a newspaper man as the
man himself could ever possibly be. But in person, Ben Bradlee
does a pretty good Bradlee himself. At 74, he stands tall and
straight, his shoulders broad, his voice raspy and touched still
with a slight Boston accent. His well-lined face, tan and gently
rugged, suggests less an outdoorsman's life than a thoroughly
traveled life well lived. And that is what he came to Hopkins to
talk about.

     Doubling as the second presentation in the School of
Continuing Studies' noncredit Odyssey course Press and
Presidents, the former executive editor of The Washington Post
was scheduled to discuss Richard Nixon and his tortured
relationship with the press. But he made only one reference to
the topic.

     "I want to thank Richard Nixon for his help," he said--
interrupted by a burst of laughter from the audience--"in
furthering my career." Amid a few lingering chuckles, he added,
"It really is ironic, isn't it, that Nixon, who hated journalists
and hated The Washington Post in particular, did so much for our
current health?"

     What Bradlee shared most with his audience were anecdotes
about his good life, which also happens to be the topic of his
current, best-selling memoir, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other

     "I came to tell you nothing more than what it was like to be
editor on the way up, when I got there and on the way after. I
don't say down," he said to more laughter. After thanking Nixon
for being among those who catapulted him onto the public stage, a
place his journalism mentors had cautioned him against years
before, Bradlee gave a nod to the image factory that helped make
him a celebrity.

     "And then along came [Robert] Redford and Jason Robards," he
said, referring to two of the stars of the film that dramatized
the Post's coverage of Watergate. "I tell you, nothing in my
otherwise excellent education prepares you for watching some guy
swaggering around, using the "F" word repeatedly ..." He gave a
stab at mimicking a nuance of Robard's bravado performance. "I
didn't know how to handle that.

     "I would have kind of liked to have seen the movie in the
theaters, but I was scared I would have been spotted by people
who would say, 'Look at that poor guy ... he goes there every
Saturday morning,'" he said, with a stand-up comic's deft timing.
Again, the audience laughed heartily. 

     And that's how the evening went. Bradlee primarily
punctuating his résumé with humorous anecdotes and the audience
responding gleefully.

     But for a twist of fate at the beginning of his journalism
career, Ben Bradlee might have ended up at the Baltimore Sun. He
was looking for work after being fired from his first newspaper
job in New Hampshire by publisher William Loeb. He had letters of
introduction to editors at The Sun and the Post. But when his
train stopped at Baltimore's Penn Station in 1948, it was

     "It's true I didn't show up for my interview at the Sun," he
said. "But you can't believe how hard it was raining.... A man
could have gotten hurt it was raining so hard."

     But as has been the case all his life, Bradlee's luck and
timing were impeccable. He got the job at the Post in 1948 as a
reporter, leaving it in 1951 to join the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
In 1953 he was named Newsweek's foreign correspondent, returning
to the magazine's Washington bureau in 1957. And that's where he
remained until 1965 when he joined the Post at the invitation of
owner Katherine Graham, whose publisher husband, Phil, had the
year before committed suicide, leaving the paper's future in

     "Those were fantastic years," he said. And he gave the
audience a glimpse of  the history that passed across his
editor's desk until his retirement in 1991:


     The two met while strolling baby carriages, Bradlee said. He
had just returned from Europe, and the junior senator from
Massachusetts had just moved his family into the Bradlees'
Georgetown neighborhood. They quickly formed a close friendship,
which would make it both easy for the newspaperman to have
intimate access to a president and difficult for him to maintain
complete objectivity, or at least the appearance of it. Bradlee
doesn't apologize for his relationship with JFK, or for not
reporting on what has become the well-known secret of Kennedy's
marital infidelities while president. "I probably saw Jack 130
times during his 1,000 days as president, and 95 percent of those
times we were with our wives, either at dinner or at our homes,"
Bradlee said. "And believe me, on those occasions we never
discussed the president's extracurricular activities ... or
anyone's," he concluded wryly.

     Watergate. "I always had to worry a little about Woodward
and Bernstein," he said affectionately of the two Post reporters
whose investigative reporting led to Nixon's resignation. "They
were such extraordinary characters." Bradlee tells the story
about Bob Woodward's reliance on his informant, "Deep Throat,"
during the Watergate investigation. "The source never seemed to
get it wrong, so I never asked Woodward to tell me who he was."
After the book and the movie about Watergate, Bradlee felt
compelled to talk to his reporter about the pressure he would no
doubt feel to reveal his source. "So I took him out to the park
and sat him down ... and asked him the identity of Deep Throat."
At that, the audience began to rustle in anticipation. "And he
told me," Bradlee said and paused. "But I won't tell you, so save
your breath," he said mischievously. 

     In the brief question-and-answer period that followed his
talk, however, Bradlee did offer that "[Deep Throat] is a living
male, and Woodward has said he'll identify him after the man dies
... probably the next day ... maybe that same night."

     Bradlee concluded his talk engaging the audience in a game
of "Would you have printed it?" 

     He tells of the time in 1977 when Bob Woodward told his
editor that the government was making secret payments--"walking
around money"--to Jordan's King Hussein, a long-standing
arrangement about which newly elected President Carter swore he
was never told. After much deliberation, including a command
conversation with the president in the Oval Office, Bradlee
decided to run the story. "After all, Carter hadn't known about
it, and he had stopped the payments the morning we met in his
office. ... I got a handwritten note from him right after that
telling me he thought I had done a bad thing. But that was that."

     A story Bradlee didn't print concerned the existence of a
U.S. Intelligence underwater listening device code named the Ivy
Bell, which was supplying the government with the position and
movement of every active Soviet submarine. When the Soviets
finally discovered it, Bradlee was more inclined to run it.
"Everyone seemed to know about it now except the American
people," he said. Bradlee was told that if he ran the story, the
paper would be prosecuted for treason. 

     He recounted how the heat was turned up when then-President
Reagan called Post publisher Katherine Graham at home, getting
her out of the shower to tell her the consequences that would
result if the story ran. "So she's dripping wet and taking notes
like mad even though she didn't know what Reagan was talking
about. In a few minutes, she realized he didn't know what he was
talking about either," Bradlee said. "He was obviously reading
from cue cards and kept turning them over and over repeating
himself." Bradlee finally decided to run the story anyway before
it leaked or someone else picked it up. And the night before it
appeared in the Post, NBC ran the story for about a minute and a
half. "We figured they gave it about 125 words," Bradlee said.
"We can't even clear our throats in 125 words."

     Taking time at the end of his talk to respond to a few
questions, Bradlee said he agreed with the Post's decision to run
the Unabomber's statement, gave a resounding thumbs down to
Robert MacNamara's apology for the Vietnam War--"Too little too
late," he shouted over the audience's applause--and said that he
would not discourage his grandson from following him--or his own
son--into the newspaper business.

     "You're looking at a guy who has never gotten bored one day
in his job," he said.

     And by many measures, that is a good life.

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