Ben Bradlee, R.I.P.

Updated:
Posted in: Other Commentary

On October 21, 2014, Ben Bradlee, who had served as the top editor of The Washington Post during the Nixon Administration, died at age 93. It was not unexpected, for several weeks earlier his wife, Sally, had appeared on C-Span with Brian Lamb and explained that Bradlee had entered hospice care with severe dementia and was sleeping twenty hours a day and eating little. A few days before his passing, I learned from a friend who was close to Ben that the end was near.

Given Bradlee’s legendary standing in the journalistic community it is not surprising that there has been an outpouring of complimentary commentary on his fabled career, with all of it noting that much of his legend centered on his handling of the so-called Pentagon Papers and Watergate. I can add nothing to the reports on his World War II experiences in the South Pacific, his skills as a French speaking (with a Boston accent) foreign correspondent in post-war Paris, his friendship with Senator and later President John F. Kennedy, and his years at Newsweek where he convinced the publisher of The Washington Post to acquire the financially floundering magazine, which it did, with Bradlee receiving a finder’s fee in stock that would later make him a very wealthy man. But I do know a good bit about his journalistic coverage of Richard Nixon, so I might offer a few passing footnotes.

My Last Visit With Ben

Ben Bradlee served in top editorial positions at The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991, and was associated with The Washington Post Company until his death, for he remained vice president at large until that time. Over the years we became acquainted at events undertaking post-mortem panel discussions on either the Post’s handling of Pentagon Papers or Watergate—or both. Often before or after the formal session, Ben would have questions about Nixon and his White House, trying to better understand the man on whom he had made his journalistic bones, so to speak. Sometimes I could answer his questions, other times not. But it was always fun to engage with him for he went right to the heart of any issue.

On June 17, 2012, The Washington Post took note that forty years had passed since the arrests of five burglars dressed in business suits and wearing surgical gloves in the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee, with the Post publishing its first Watergate story the next day. For the 2012 occasion, the Post leased the entire top floor of the Watergate office complex (then being renovated) and invited several hundred of the Washington “Who’s Who” for cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and panel discussions about the Post’s coverage of Watergate. (For the first nine months following the arrests at the DNC it had been only the Post that seriously covered the story, with other national news organizations largely ignoring it.) Ben made a brief on-stage appearance at the event, but said little. It was well known in Washington that he was suffering dementia, but at 90 years of age he still looked great and gave all smiles and waves to the several hundred invited guests at this Watergate fortieth reunion of sorts.

Following this gathering Ben and his wife Sally held a small dinner buffet for those who had participated at their home in Georgetown—a house that had once belonged to Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln, which had been refurbished by later owners, including Ben’s wife Sally. I looked forward to visiting with Ben, but given his smiles-and-waves only appearance at the Watergate event, I did not expect much of a conversation, if indeed he even would remember me. Because I was heading for teaching a continuing legal education class with my co-presenter, Jim Robenalt, Sally graciously had included him in this small gathering, as well as Jim’s wife Joanna, a longtime reporter/editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

To my delight, our host that evening was the Ben Bradlee of old. After being introduced to Jim and his wife, he remembered and called them by name the entire evening, even flirting with the very attractive Joanna Connors Robenalt. (Jo thought he was flirting with all the ladies.) More strikingly he remembered a story I had told him about J. Edgar Hoover in a conversation we’d had a decade earlier at an American Bar Association conference in Palm Beach, Florida. (Hoover had told me that Post syndicated columnist and muckraker Jack Anderson regularly dug into his trash cans in the alley behind his home where every morning Hoover’s housekeep deposited dog waste from newspapers left out at night for them: “Mr. Dean,” Hoover had declared, “Jack Anderson will go lower than dog shit for a story.” Ben had liked that story and had not forgotten it, much to my amazement.

Watergate and Pentagon Papers Coverage

Our conversation that evening some two years ago did drift in and out of Watergate. I mentioned I was working on a book that would be based on Nixon’s secret tapes, which were filling in many gaps in my knowledge. Until that evening’s conversation I had not known Ben have covered the Nixon/Kennedy 1960 presidential race. He explained that was when he first took a hard look at Nixon, he thought Nixon had lost that race because he was “a bungler,” and while I cannot recall all Ben’s words, in essence, he was telling me that he did not find Nixon nearly as clever or sharp as his reputation. He thought that Nixon’s ham-fisted cover up of Watergate and the other abuses of power in which he was involved were merely more evidence of Nixon-the-bungler than Nixon-the-criminal. At the time I was not far enough along in my work on the book to know if Ben was correct or not. Today, I know he instinctively nailed it. This is the bottom line of what the Nixon tapes reveal: Nixon bungled away his presidency, as I report in The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.

Bradlee made another interesting observation that evening. With the passage of time he felt Watergate was not all that serious a matter. By comparison, he told me using colorful language, the Iran Contra scandal of the Reagan Administration was a much more serious matter, and notwithstanding an Independent Counsel investigation, and any number of intense journalistic efforts to dig out the story, the full story had never been told. Ben had little doubt that Reagan had been involved in activities that were far more deserving of impeachment than Nixon’s bungling cover-up.

Nor had been lost Ben’s sense of humor, for he was deeply appreciative of all the news copy Richard Nixon had provided the Post, and it had only helped the newspaper’s credibility when word leaked out that Nixon was banning Post reporters from the White House.

There was only a fleeting discussion of the Post coverage of the Pentagon Papers. Ben told me that he was driven by two matters. He said he had been pissed that the New York Times had scooped them on what should have been a Post story, so he went after the papers to catch up. And when Assistant Attorney General William Rehnquist (later Justice and Chief Justice) had called the Post and read them a stilted legal warning about what would happen if they published the secret classified material that Dan Ellsberg was leaking (quickly dubbed the Pentagon Papers), that he realized the Justice Department did not know what it was talking about. He had been in military intelligence during World War II, and familiar with classified materials from his work as a foreign correspondent, he knew the material they—and the New York Times—had was not really worthy of the classifications given it. It was more junk than secrets, more government lies being covered up than important national security information being revealed. Again, he thought Nixon’s response was bungled.

I was fortunate to visit with Ben on a good day. I know others who are in the process of the long goodbye of dementia, and it is terribly difficult for those who love and care for them. I have deep sympathy for Sally Quinn Bradlee, who has not only lost a man she loved but done so through a painful process. All who had the pleasure of knowing Ben understand that while Jason Robards did a wonderful job portraying him, in the movie “All The President’s Men,” Ben was much more colorful, dashing, daring, and I suspect demanding. And he clearly understood Richard Nixon better than most editors of the era, for which the entire country can be grateful. While he thought Nixon a bungler, he correctly thought him dangerous as well.