Forty-eight years ago, Ben Bradlee was milling around at lunch hour at a Brentano’s bookshop in Washington, D.C. “The room got quiet. Then people began whispering. You heard ‘Kennedy.’ Then you heard ‘assassination,’ ” Bradlee recalls. Bradlee, then a reporter for Newsweek and a close friend of the young president, ran up 12 stories to his office in the National Press Building to watch the Newsweek ticker spit out the story, with the lead rewritten five or six times. Each rewrite, though, did not change one fact: His friend, John F. Kennedy, had been shot in Dallas.
Bradlee and Kennedy became friends when the two moved in on the same block of N Street in Georgetown. Bradlee was assigned to cover Kennedy’s campaign, but he had a slight advantage over the other reporters: an alleyway between his house and Kennedy’s. As a covey of journalists would wait for the young senator in front of the house, Kennedy would slip through the alley to Bradlee’s home. “I don’t want to disappoint too many people, but ... the number of interesting political, historical conversations we had, you could stick in your ear,” Bradlee recalls. “It wasn’t that many.”
Instead, the two talked about what any other men might: mutual friends, their young families — and, of course, “We talked about girls.”
The two men, pictured at right sailing, remained friends through Kennedy’s presidency. When Kennedy was killed, Newsweek tore up the first half of the magazine, scrambling to fill it with the news. Bradlee’s editor asked him to write a remembrance of the president. Bradlee sat down to type:
“History will best judge John F. Kennedy in calmer days when time has made the tragic and the grotesque at least bearable. And surely history will judge him well — for his wisdom and his compassion and his grace,” he wrote.
Looking back on the death 48 years later, Bradlee pauses and says, “It seems so long ago now.”
Bradlee’s Newsweek essay would go on to be published as a slim book titled “A Special Grace.” He ended it thus: “John Kennedy is dead, and for that we are lesser people in a lesser land.”
(See a close up of the November 23, 1963 Washington Post front page here.)