Ben Bradlee (interview)  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1995

Ben Bradlee (interview)   

The best-known newspaper editor of his era, retired and writing his "memoirs," talks about his book, the state of the newspaper business, Janet Cooke, Watergate, Jack Kennedy, journalists as pundits, why he won't drive on the Infobahn – and life in the slow lane.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


Sitting in his spacious office on the seventh floor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee – who ran the news operation on the fifth floor until his 1991 retirement – produces a 700-page manuscript that someone else has heavily edited in bright colors. After 26 years of tearing apart copy, Bradlee is on the receiving end: Simon & Schuster's legendary editor, Alice Mayhew, is revising the prose of one of journalism's giants.

His book, due out in September, will focus on the "incredibly lucky, good seat" Bradlee has occupied during his 73 years. Born of Brahmin stock in Boston, Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee had no shortage of formative experiences in the first half of his life – polio as a child, deck officer of a destroyer in World War II at age 21, a stint as a Newsweek foreign correspondent, a friendship with John F. Kennedy.

For the second half, he ran the Washington Post as its executive editor, overseeing its transformation into one of the nation's best and most influential dailies.

Now, after a high-profile, high-pressure tenure during which the Post published the Pentagon Papers, won 18 Pulitzer Prizes and toppled a president, Bradlee seems different from the hard-charging, profane figure immortalized by Jason Robards Jr. in "All the President's Men." The charm remains, but he no longer has to be the tough guy in complete command.

At the Post, he's vice president at large. He pinch hits for Katharine Graham, or gives speeches for the advertising department. Surprisingly, Bradlee, known for his short attention span, now acts as a morale booster, listening patiently to disgruntled newsroom staffers.

Ben Bradlee has scaled down; he thinks smaller, he says. For years, his involvement in journalism prevented him from taking advocacy roles. Freed from those shackles, he's raising funds for the Washington, D.C., hospital where his son had open-heart surgery; trying to wrangle money out of the Maryland legislature for St. Mary's College, where he's a trustee; running a museum in southern Maryland; rebuilding a historic church.

He has more time for his third wife, novelist and former Washington Post Style section diva Sally Quinn, and their 12-year-old son, Quinn. You won't find Bradlee surfing the Internet or watching local television news (he thinks they're both terrible ways to get information). When he's not writing, he's clearing fields on his riverfront property in southern Maryland or growing unusual trees in his nursery. Once relentlessly competitive, he now seems content.

AJR: Talk to me about your book.

BCB: I am writing..the word is very hard to get across my lips, but I am writing a memoir.

AJR: Why is that hard to say?

BCB: Well, Churchill writes memoirs. Journalists and editors don't write memoirs. Anyway, I am writing a book about the really incredibly lucky, good seat I have occupied in my life. I've been involved in a lot of sea changes in this country. Wars. Depressions.... Time with Kennedy. And I've been here longer than God.

AJR: Is writing hard or is writing about yourself hard?

BCB: Both. I'm not one of these Southerners to whom writing just comes naturally.

AJR: How about writing about yourself?

BCB: Writing about yourself is very hard. Very hard. Us Bostonians are taught not to do that. We don't talk about ourselves. We don't talk about women. We don't talk about money. We don't talk about all the good stuff.

AJR: Are you going to do that? Talk about women, money?

BCB: Yeah.

AJR: Let's talk about the news biz. Do you think the newspaper business is becoming so corporate that it's difficult for great individual or idiosyncratic editors to emerge?

BCB: I don't know. You are not going to corner me into saying anything about the Washington Post today. I used to love the newspaper business because if you had an idea, you could get it into the paper immediately, in a matter of hours. Now you have to watch out and worry about who you are offending and blah blah blah. So it's changed.

AJR: Why?

BCB: I don't know. Because we've become very establishmentarian.

AJR: Are news organizations today too afraid, too worried about being politically correct, about being loved?

BCB: There's some of that I see. We all like to be loved but if that's a driving force in your life, it's really not a good business to be in... It's sort of a legend in the business that the best editors are fearless and nobody pushes them around. If the president of the United States calls up and asks you not to print something, you say fuck you and print it. I don't want you to use that language.

AJR: But you're notorious for that kind of language.

BCB: I know it but I'm trying to improve.

AJR: Is there less risk taking or more?

BCB: What happened is we've become so big, everybody knows us. We all of a sudden became high profile people. That isn't necessarily good. It's hard to say that it isn't pleasurable because some of it is pleasurable. Some of it allows you to do really much more than you could have done without it. You can attract better reporters. People answer your phone calls. That's happened in journalism, especially in this town. Journalists of all stripes in this town are big figures. [The Wall Street Journal's] Al Hunt. [Columnist] Bob Novak. These people, they're on television every 20 minutes. They cast a serious shadow.

AJR: How has that affected journalism?

BCB: I don't think it's affected it very well.

AJR: You just mentioned the pundits. Some of them are paid quite handsomely to give speeches. What do you think of that?

BCB: I wish it would go away. I don't like it. I think it's corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don't tell me you haven't been corrupted. You can say you haven't and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won't. You can't. I would like to limit speeches to nonprofit institutions. But even that is a little phony because they've corrupted the nonprofit institutions out of shape. If you talk to a college, a school, a university, a charity, that's OK.

AJR: So what you mean is don't talk to a business or a trade organization?

BCB: Yeah, I was opposed to that while I was doing it, mind you.

AJR: You did it?

BCB: Well, in my time I probably made a speech....

AJR: And was paid?

BCB: And was paid, sure... I did mostly schools and colleges and foundations. But I did something for automobile dealers or something. I don't remember. I'm not trying to duck it because I did it. If I needed a new car or a swimming pool, I always had a little something I needed an extra couple of bucks for.

AJR: Let's get back to the news business. What do you think are the best trends in journalism today?

BCB: I'll surprise you. If I were trying to tell you the most obvious difference between the Washington Post of 1970 and the Washington Post of 1994, it would be design. It's striking. Striking how hard the papers were to read in the '60s and '70s.

AJR: What are some of the worst trends?

BCB: I think the excesses of personality, celebrity, privacy. Who's screwing whom. All of the O.J. Simpson trial. Diana. "Hard Copy" kind of journalism.

AJR: Like Tonya Harding? That's another example.

BCB: Yes, exactly. But I gotta tell you. Did you read everything about Tonya? I thought Tonya was a great story. A little motel, mobile park rat.

AJR: What about the future of newspapers? All this talk they'll be put out to pasture by the information superhighway?

BCB: I'm getting to a stage where I'm not going to get involved in that thing... I don't think it's a comfortable way to get information. You can't take it to the john. You can't put it under your arm and go to the subway.

AJR: It used to be said that the New York Times is a symphony and the Washington Post a jazz combo, but in recent years it seems that the roles have switched.

BCB: I think they're both awful good.

AJR: Back to the jazz combo, what do you think the Post is today?

BCB: I think there was a time when the Post was much more exciting to read. It was a better read. It was easier to read. It had jazz in the sense of jazzier. It wasn't taking itself so bloody seriously... I think [the Times] copied us or they followed a trend. They've had terrible trouble [competing] with our Style section, all good newspapers have had trouble with it.

AJR: Let me jump ahead and ask a question that relates to that. In terms of your big successes as editor of the paper...

BCB: Sure, it was the Style section.

AJR: More than Watergate?

BCB: It'll probably last longer, sure. Watergate was a story. This was a way of interpreting society.

AJR: Watergate was a story but I think it was also the birth of a different kind of reporting – more aggressive, less respectful of the establishment, more investigative reporting. It certainly spawned an era of Woodward wannabes.

BCB: I think the great lesson of Watergate was probably the stick-tuitiveness of the Post. The fact that we hunkered down and backed the right horse. I think that was a wonderful lesson for publishers too.

AJR: I've read many articles about you. I kept seeing the words "creative tension." Are these stories about the Post pitting two young reporters against each other..

BCB: That's just outrageous. When I was down there..and I had an idea, I'd get up out of my chair and go do something about it... But what happened in this particular time is that some other editor three days before had assigned another reporter to do the same thing. A day later they met and said, "What's this?"

AJR: So is this a myth?

BCB: I never get interviewed by anybody that it doesn't come up... I mean it is sinful to give two reporters the same assignment and see who does the best.

AJR: One thing I read was a story about [someone] sending you some young job supplicant who had a very good pedigree and you said, "Eh, nothing clanks when he walks." What does that mean?

BCB: Well, I mean, c'mon. You don't know? You know, it's a vulgar reference to "There's no strength in him." When he comes into a room you don't hear anything, the room isn't changed. It stands for a hundred things. It was a shorthand I probably should never have said.

AJR: Obviously, you and Post Executive Editor Len Downie have different strengths. Can you talk about how the Post is different today than it was under you?

BCB: I can't really. I think the Post is infinitely better run. It's administered a lot better. That didn't turn me on, that kind of administration. Downie is fantastic at it. Loves it.

AJR: How have you changed since retiring? Are you more mellow, less interested in the news?

BCB: I'm awfully interested in the news. I mean I'm a junkie. People ask me that in terms of writing, do I get, quote, even? I can't remember who the hell I'm mad at. There's only a couple of people I really don't like.

AJR: Have you adjusted to life out of the limelight?

BCB: Damn right. I've got an awful lot on my plate... I think smaller than I used to.... I'm less interested in wiping out hunger than I am in rebuilding a church or putting a roof on a church or sending a kid to college.... Not that I'm more tolerant of hunger or overpopulation but there's not a hell of a lot I can do about it.

AJR: As editor of a paper that brought down a president, what do you think of the coverage of this president?

BCB: I think they're tough on him. Very tough on him.

AJR: Too tough?

BCB: No, I didn't say that... I think [President Clinton] got in a terrible bind over the girlfriend issue and I don't think he ever recovered... When he did that thing with "60 Minutes"..he talked about how [he and Hillary Rodham Clinton] have worked it out... Then the first question after that is: "Did you get it on with Gennifer Flowers?" and he said, "No," and everyone in the world knew he was lying.

AJR: Are you saying he got what he deserved?

BCB: I'm just saying he's a victim of his own making. I don't see a whole lot in Whitewater.

AJR: I asked about your biggest success, what about your biggest failure?

BCB: Janet Cooke's name comes up. That was a terrible blot on our escutcheon. I'd give anything to wipe that one off.

AJR: [Post ombudsman] Joann Byrd said people still bring up Janet Cooke.

BCB: Sure they do. It's in the vernacular. Janet Cooke. It's such an interesting case. I have quite a lot to say about it in the book, how come it happened. But if you think that any institution is not open to the sabotage of someone like that, you're crazy. Somewhere along the line, journalism requires two people to look each other in the eye and trust each other.... Gee, she's a great actress. She was. The detail in that story would blind you if you read it again. I read it every so often just for my soul.

AJR: When you see yourself written about, is there anything that's incorrect?

BCB: One thing about aging is that you can't remember all that shit. Creative tension comes awfully close. Most of all I think it's a general impression that makes me appear to be much more self-consciously posing as a swashbuckler.... Of all the things people will tell you about me, I'm not a phony.

AJR: How do you feel about being called a legend?

BCB: I had a good seat. I came along at the right time with the right job and I didn't screw it up.

AJR: In 1975, you wrote that book, "Conversations with Kennedy." After that you were criticized for not including his philandering. When you said you didn't know about it...

BCB: Nobody believes that.

AJR: Nobody believed you or it was said that you were so close to the seat of power that your vision was obscured?

BCB: Well, they're going to say that again. I don't know how to convince anybody of that. I'd heard stories that he'd had girlfriends, of course. But journalism was not the inquisition process that it is now. You didn't have FBI investigations of your friends. I saw Kennedy almost exclusively with my wife and his wife. A foursome. Alone. Now philandering doesn't come up easy as a subject. It really doesn't. I couldn't say, "Jack, is it true that you got it on with so and so?" I didn't even know about my sister-in-law. He was having an affair with her. My wife didn't even know about it.

AJR: You knew about it before you wrote the book, didn't you?

BCB: Yes.

AJR: But you didn't include that?

BCB: No, because I didn't have a conversation with Kennedy about it... My rule used to be if private behavior didn't interfere with public business, then it stayed private.

AJR: Used to be?

BCB: I can't keep that up now because it doesn't work. I mean Sally and I got written about endlessly. Ben Bradlee and his live-in girlfriend. I got so sick of that I could spit.

AJR: Why?

BCB: I didn't feel like that was anybody's business. I wasn't hurting anybody.

AJR: So are we going to learn in your book about..

BCB: Deep Throat?

AJR: Yeah.

BCB: No.

AJR: So you won't tell?

BCB: Nope, I never have.

AJR: Does Sally know?

BCB: She does like hell. I've never told anyone. And Sally is permanently pissed that I've never told her. l

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