Four decades ago, Ben Bradlee told us his general theory of newspapering and life: “Nose down, ass up and moving steadily forward into the future.”
He understood the past and its importance, but he was utterly liberated from it. The past was history to learn from. And he refused to let himself be emotionally encumbered by it or deterred by either the lows or the highs.
The military analogy, so often a cliche, holds in his case: a great general, calm in battle, with the love and affection of his troops, of whom he was as protective as he was aggressive in sending them on their mission.
He was an original of his own creation, different from everybody else in his newsroom — different in temperament, different in outlook, and different even in his physicality and his language (a mix of high-church English and the locution of a savvy sailor). He transformed not only The Washington Post but also the nature and priorities of journalism itself.
He was not a man of regret — ever, it seemed. He was never cynical, but persistently skeptical. And the thread that ran through his life — remarkably, without self-righteousness — was reverence for the truth.
One of the measures of Bradlee’s command was how he dealt with errors and mistakes, perhaps the most uncomfortable responsibility of a journalist. This is a real test of strength, competence and commitment to the truth.
We lived in the trenches with Bradlee during the reporting of the Watergate story, and almost exactly 42 years ago, we made an epic mistake: claiming in a front-page story that secret grand jury testimony had established that Richard Nixon’s White House chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, had controlled a secret fund used to finance the break-in at the Watergate and other illegal undercover activities.
The story, four months after the White House had labeled the break-in a “third-rate burglary,” represented a huge advance in bringing the crimes of Watergate closer to the Oval Office. Our problem was that there had been no such grand jury testimony — though it turned out we were right that Haldeman had controlled the fund, and controlled much more.
“What happened?” Bradlee asked us. The White House and the president’s supporters were unleashing a barrage of denunciations and denials that seemed credible. We were not sure what our mistake was and were on uncertain ground this day in October 1972, and we were scrambling ungracefully.
“You don’t know where you are,” Bradlee said. “You haven’t got the facts. Hold your water for a while. . . . We’re going to see how this shakes out.”
Finally, Bradlee spun in his chair, put paper in his old manual typewriter and began to type. After a few false starts, he issued his statement: “We stand by our story.”
There was no rancor or anger toward us, even though he would later say that this was one of the lowest points in his 23 years as executive editor of The Post.
We had made a stupid, rookie mistake, and the stakes were enormous. Our principal source, the Nixon campaign treasurer, knew that Haldeman had controlled the fund — and he had testified before the grand jury. But he had not been asked about Haldeman. We assumed that he had, thus violating a cardinal Bradlee rule: “Never assume anything.”
Bradlee’s support at this lowest moment was more than a comfort and a vote of confidence. We knew he believed that we were on the right track, but we had stumbled — nearly fatally. He was a lifeline of calm reassurance. (His wife, Sally Quinn, has said that she never observed Ben experiencing even a moment of depression.)
For Ben, it was again a question of the facts. What were they? Had they been verified? Who said something different?
You had not lived as a reporter until you underwent a Bradlee interrogation. At one point during that excruciating episode, we were summarizing for him what one of our sources had said.
“No,” Ben insisted, “I want to hear exactly what you asked him and what his exact reply was.”
When we finally untangled our mistake about Haldeman a few days later — and had developed additional evidence of his control of the secret fund — Ben had already moved on.
His question was, “What have you got for tomorrow?” In other words, steadily forward. Nose down, ass up. How were we next going to explain to readers — and to him — what was going on and why?
When director Alan Pakula was looking for an actor to play Bradlee for the film version of “All the President’s Men,” Jason Robards Jr. seemed a natural choice. Pakula told us later that Robards was initially enthusiastic, took the script home, read it and came back perplexed.
“I can’t play Ben Bradlee,” Robards said.
Why? asked Pakula.
“All he does is run around and tell the reporters, “Where’s the f---ing story?”
“That’s what the executive editor of The Washington Post does,” Pakula explained. “That’s his job. All you have to do is find fifteen different and dramatic ways to say, ‘Where’s the f---ing story!’ ”
“Ahh!” replied Robards. He took the part, played it as if he had lived in Bradlee’s skin all his life, and won the Academy Award for best supporting actor.
When Ben heard this story, he laughed out loud. Yes, he said, he had to be the motivator in chief. But no, he chuckled, there was a bit more to the job.
Bradlee had a unique restlessness. This characteristic was identified early in his life. He was part of the famous Grant Study of Harvard freshmen in the late 1930s. Social workers and psychologists interviewed and followed the 268 subjects (Bradlee called them “guinea pigs” in his memoir) through life. An early interviewer reported on this “restlessness,” adding, “There have been times when he has drunk too much alcohol, but this does not satisfy him.”
In a sense, nothing satisfied him fully. He kept raising the bar on everyone — himself included. From the day he took over as editor of the paper in the 1960s, he would prowl the fifth-floor newsroom looking for the action, or who had the good story or the latest gossip. Bradlee’s physical command and elan — a kind of leadership in itself — was famous and much imitated (horrendously by too many acolytes who started wearing Turnbull & Asser shirts, to the point where the newsroom sometimes suggested a Savile Row showroom). As he stopped to visit with reporters, chest outstretched, a look of curiosity or delight crossing his face, work often ceased, and from perhaps a hundred or more desks, the eyes of his staff would be trained on him, trying to read the signals. If two or three of his reporters were in a knot talking, he approached them. Maybe they had something, and he wanted to hear.
Be aggressive, he insisted. “I am very sympathetic with reporters who push,” he told us in a 1973 tape-recorded interview for the book we were writing about Watergate — which would eventually become “All the President’s Men.” “And it makes me feel terribly comfortable and particularly comfortable about being an editor who pushes back.”
He did not edit the paper for his friends or for those in high places.
When we were pursuing a story about the role of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, in selecting 17 White House aides and newspaper reporters to be wiretapped to find sources of news leaks, Kissinger exploded when we informed him that we were going to quote his remarks to us in the paper. “What?!” Kissinger exclaimed. Those were not the rules he observed with other reporters. His voice was rising. “I don’t have to submit to police interrogation about this.”
Soon, we were summoned to meet with a group of the paper’s senior editors in the office of Bradlee’s deputy, Howard Simons. Bradlee, who was out of the building, phoned in and, imitating Kissinger in an exaggerated German accent, delivered his news. “I just got a call from Henry. He’s mad. You decide what to do. I’ll play reporter and read you what Henry said and you can use it if it will help.”
In the ensuing debate, the story was delayed and we got beat — not for the first or last time, by Seymour Hersh of the New York Times — though Kissinger’s quotes to us made their way into The Post soon after and, eventually, into a number of books.
The appearance of Hersh’s byline on crucial Watergate stories in the Times thrilled Bradlee. “We no longer controlled [the story] by ourselves,” Bradlee told us a few months later in the same taped interview. “That was a joyous time.”
Bradlee was not above using theater to protect his reporters. When the Nixon reelection committee issued subpoenas for our Watergate notes and those of others at The Post as part of a civil lawsuit, Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham agreed to declare that she — not her reporters — was the legal owner of all the materials, and that any court action would have to be directed at her personally.
“If the judge wants to send anyone to jail, he’s going to have to send Mrs. Graham,” Bradlee told us with palpable glee. “And, my God, the lady says she’ll go! Then the judge can have that on his conscience. Can’t you see the pictures of her limousine pulling up to the Women’s Detention Center and out gets our gal, going to jail to uphold the First Amendment? That’s a picture that would run in every newspaper in the world.”
It was not until we interviewed Bradlee that summer of 1973, in the midst of the nationally televised Senate Watergate hearings, that we fully realized the extent and nature of the pressures that he — and Mrs. Graham — had been under, and how he had insulated us. He’d not even told Howard Simons about serious attempts to get The Post to dial back on its Watergate coverage.
“I was beginning to understand how my own c--k was on the line,” he said.
He was getting phone calls from fellow newspaper editors — colleagues he regarded highly — who warned him that The Post had “gone nuts.” Katharine Graham was being bombarded — from within the administration, especially by Kissinger; by her closest friends, among them the influential columnists Joseph Alsop and James Reston; and by members of her board of directors.
“There came a time when Katharine said we better talk about this because it is very, very serious,” Bradlee told us. “She was getting a lot of s--t from close friends like Alsop and Reston saying The Post is really out on a limb with this and really harassing, almost, the administration, and why isn’t any other newspaper playing it? And she would come back to me and sort of play this stuff back to me. And I would go through this number and really assure her” that the stories were solid.
“She got worried a couple of times,” he continued. “Let’s face it. She’d go up to Wall Street and some of her pals up there would tell her that [the Nixon people] were really out to get The Post and that they were following her and tapping her phones, and they were following me and tapping my phone and that they weren’t screwing around. And she’d report this back.”
Among other things, she expressed concern that Nixon operatives would leak information — whether true or not — about his or her personal life, Bradlee said. (No evidence surfaced in all the Watergate investigations that Graham, Bradlee or anyone else at The Post had been wiretapped or followed.)
A turning point, he said, was a story published in September 1972, three months after the break-in, when John N. Mitchell, Nixon’s former campaign manager and his attorney general, responded to us in a phone conversation that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if a story implicating him was published. Mitchell had added that, in the near future, “we’re going to do a story on all of you,” and had hung up the phone.
“People said to me, ‘You know that you would have had to quit if you’d been wrong,’ and I sure as hell would have,” Bradlee told us.
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” he said, there were “pressures, pressures. . . . It gradually increased every day. . . . Sure I was scared.”
At one juncture, there was an opportunity for The Washington Post Co. to buy a television station in Hartford, Conn. Bradlee had spoken with members of The Post’s board of directors, who were concerned about the impact the Watergate stories would have on a possible purchase. “Would the [station owners] be more likely to sell if we wrote this kind of story or less likely to sell? And I knew about [the debate], and there was no way I was going to tell you about it, or Simons [the managing editor] about that.”
“You don’t want to be wrong ever,” he told us. “When you’re playing this kind of hardball it triples, quadruples [the stakes] in a multidimensional way.”
“Obviously we had lightning in a bottle, right? But whether it was lightning that had the capacity to destroy us or the president or either one, I [hadn’t] felt that yet.” He added, “I mean you were f---ing around with another police story and then one more thing would come up and the look of incredulity on both your faces I will remember until I die.”
As editor, he made the final decisions on whether to publish dozens of stories that might reveal sensitive national security secrets.
During the first month of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1977, Bradlee was summoned to the Oval Office as The Post was preparing to publish a story that King Hussein of Jordan was on the CIA payroll. Carter confirmed the CIA payments but made a personal plea for Bradlee not to publish the story. After Carter acknowledged that publication would not harm national security, Bradlee made the decision to print it, incurring Carter’s wrath. A personal note arrived from the president, rebuking Ben for the “irresponsible” story.
Bradlee was naturally suspicious of assertions — by presidents, especially — that stories should be withheld on national security grounds, as demonstrated time and again by spurious claims, including in the Pentagon Papers case. But not always.
In 1988, a low-level U.S. intelligence analyst came to The Post with information about important top-secret programs. The West had not yet won the Cold War. As Bradlee wrote in his 1995 memoir, “A Good Life,” the analyst provided “details for three different operations, each involving systems by which the Soviets controlled different units in their nuclear forces, each describing how the United States had been able to penetrate these systems in real time.”
Bradlee personally met with the analyst and concluded that the information, if disclosed, “plainly threatened the security of this nation.”
He refused to publish but worried — not on competitive grounds, but in the interests of America’s safety — that the analyst would go to other news organizations until he found an editor who would. Ben was a patriot of the old school, having seen plenty of action in his three years aboard the destroyer USS Philip in the Pacific during World War II. “We wanted him on ice,” Bradlee wrote in his memoir, and he discussed with CIA Director William Webster how the man could be sidelined: given a promotion by the CIA, and warned that he would be prosecuted and jailed if he ever disclosed or discussed the top-secret programs. The analyst apparently never disclosed the information to any other journalists, and the details of the operations, which were highly successful, remain so sensitive that intelligence officials contend that they should not be revealed even today.
Ben Bradlee was the essence of newspapering. In 2008, he again sat down with us for a tape-recorded conversation about Watergate, his life and The Post. Ben reflected on the convulsions in the news media brought on by, among other factors, the economic decline of the newspaper industry, the ascent of the Internet and — of special concern to him — the impatience and speed of the news flow.
There was too much hand-wringing that newspapers would disappear, he said. “I am really appalled about that. I cannot envision a world without newspapers. I cannot envision it. I can envision a world with fewer newspapers. I can envision a world where newspapers are printed differently, distributed differently, but there is going to be a profession of journalism and their job is going to be to report what they believe the truth to be. And that won’t change.”
We were just 30 years old when we wrote “All the President’s Men,” and to say that we were impressionable at that time — to Bradlee and his methodology — would understate the case. But as the years of our association turned to decades, and the friendship and the bond forged by a shared, unique experience became unbreakable, we remained just as wide-eyed and impressionable to his wisdom, to the inimitable truth of his example, and still incredulous at the sheer joy and determination he seemed to bring to his life each day, which, when we first encountered him, had invited disbelief. Over the next 40 years we learned again and again that what we had observed was all true.
“How would you like to be remembered?” Sally, his wife of 36 years, asked him in an interview for The Post in 2012. His answer is his essence: “To leave a legacy of honesty and to live a life as close to the truth as I can.”
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are co-authors of the Watergate books “All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days.”