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Fact checking ‘The Post’: The incredible Pentagon Papers drama Spielberg left out

Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee celebrate the 6-to-3 Supreme Court decision that allowed the paper to publish the Pentagon Papers. (Charles Del Vecchio/The Washington Post)

When Washington Post reporters showed up at Ben Bradlee’s house in Georgetown to sift through the Pentagon Papers, his 10-year-old daughter Marina really was outside selling lemonade.

Bradlee’s library really did become a newsroom, his living room a legal boardroom. His wife, Tony, really did politely serve sandwiches. The phone really didn’t stop ringing.

“It was,” Bradlee later wrote, “bedlam.”

While Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed new film, “The Post,” predictably Hollywoodizes the paper’s pursuit of highly secret Vietnam War  documents — the scene where an eager young intern is sent to spy on the New York Times, for instance, never happened — the director, for the most part, accurately portrays the frantic history.

He also leaves out some really good stuff.

Like the night Chief Justice Warren Burger, holding a pistol, greeted two Post reporters at his front door in his bathrobe.

This was after Ben Bagdikian, the paper’s national editor, flew back from Boston with the papers in the seat next to him. (More on that shortly.) The Post published, the government sued, and now the issue was winding through the courts.

Steven Spielberg's "The Post" and Katharine Graham's memoir, "Personal History," both depict the paper's decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

One night, Bradlee became worried that Justice Department officials would go directly to Burger’s house to file an appeal.

“We didn’t want the government to sneak out unnoticed to Burger’s house,” Bradlee wrote in his memoir, “A Good Life,” “so we sent our own emissaries.”

One of them was legendary (then and still) night reporter Martin Weil — “a former CIA type,” Bradlee wrote, known for his distinguished and whimsical prose. (Last year, during a long stretch of rain, Weil wrote, “The number of consecutive days of rain in Washington grew Saturday to surpass the level where the count could be kept on fingers alone.”)

It was around midnight. Weil, accompanied by Senate reporter Spencer Rich, rang the doorbell. Weil described what happened next in a memo for the ages:

After about a minute or two, the Chief Justice opened the door. He was wearing a bath robe. He was carrying a gun. The gun was in his right hand, muzzle pointed down. It was a long-barreled steel weapon. The Chief Justice did not seem glad to see us. Spencer explained why we were there. There was a considerable amount of misdirected conversation. It seemed for a bit that people were talking past each other. Spencer, who held up his credentials, was explaining why we were there, but the judge seemed to be saying that we shouldn’t have come. Finally, after a little more talk, everybody seemed to understand everybody. The Chief Justice said it would be all right for us to wait for any possible Justice Department emissaries, but we could wait down the street. He held his gun in his hand throughout a two or three minute talk. Sometimes it was not visible, held behind the door post. He never pointed it at us. He closed the door. We went down the street and waited for about three hours. Then we went home.

And there’s Bagdikian. Oh, boy. Where to begin?

Maybe with his back.

At a shady Boston hotel where he first examined two large boxes of the papers handed to him by the leaker Daniel Ellsberg, Bagdikian’s chief concern was not prison. In his memoirs, he wrote:

What concerned me at that moment was something more absurd. I was afraid that the attempt to smuggle the papers undetected into Washington would fail because trying to carry the weight of more than ten thousand pieces of paper might throw out my vulnerable back. … Any experienced back sufferer knows that carrying that weight in two ungainly boxes is an invitation to spinal paralysis.

One of the boxes had a cover and was wrapped tightly with twine. The other box had no cover, no twine, nothing for Bagdikian, hampered by a bad back, to grip and easily carry. “I foresaw walking into Logan Airport in Boston,” he wrote, “dropping the second box and seeing the lobby floor strewn with documents, ‘Top-Secret Sensitive.’ ”

Not ideal.

The best reporters are quick on their feet. Bagdikian had an idea: Ask the front desk clerk for rope.

Remarkably, nobody thought this was suspicious.

“He opened drawers and looked under counters and returned shrugging his shoulders hopelessly,” Bagdikian wrote. “Trying to be helpful, he said that sometimes guests tied their dogs to the chain link fence around the swimming pool.”

Bagdikian went outside, first noting the weather. No rain in sight. From a transporting papers perspective, that was awesome.

“I carefully patrolled the fence in the semidarkness until I came upon a beautiful sight: six feet of stout rope dangling onto the ground from the fence,” Bagdikian wrote. He tied up the box with a Boy Scout knot, then “mentally thanked the unknown owner of the unknown dog, and hoped for the best.”

Even back in the 1970s, airlines were strict about carry-ons. Bagdikian, flying in first class, purchased a seat for his cargo — “an additional expense,” Katharine Graham later wrote, “the Post didn’t mind paying.” But because the second box wouldn’t fit under his seat or in the overhead compartment, he was forced to check it.

Has there ever been a more consequential piece of checked baggage?

‘The Post’ and the forgotten security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in

In the movie, Bagdikian is approached by a flight attendant who sees the seat-belted box and says, “Must be precious cargo.”

“It’s just government secrets,” he replies.

The reality is far more surreal.

Bagdikian was actually approached by, of all people, Stanley Karnow, The Post’s correspondent in Hong Kong. And, of all things, Karnow was about to start a new gig at the paper — working for Bagdikian! (Perhaps Spielberg didn’t use this moment because nobody would believe it.) Karnow, like all reporters, is a paid observer of the human condition. He wants to sit next to his new editor, but he observes a box in the seat.

“Karnow,” wrote former Post reporter Sanford J. Ungar, in a long Esquire piece, “found Bagdikian reluctant to move the package and make room for his colleague. Finally, Karnow’s jaw dropped and he said, ‘Oh you’ve got it!’ ”

Bagdikian just stared at him, finally answering, “Got what, Stanley?”


The Pentagon Papers landed safely in Washington. Bagdikian’s back survived. The Post published. Weil was not shot by the chief justice of the United States of America.

Spielberg does a fine job of characterizing the uneasy, developing relationship between Graham (Meryl Streep), a proper and deferential widow emerging as a fearsome, beloved publisher; and Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who told her he’d “give his left one” to run The Post and who became, thanks to his guts, instinct and bravado, the greatest newspaper editor of his generation.

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The existence of each depended on the other. Their partnership, their love, ran deep. At Christmas, their tradition was to trade fawning letters. Spielberg ends “The Post” with a nod toward their next great adventure — Watergate — but here’s another way he could have faded to black.

Something like this:

Graham/Streep sits down in her study on June 30, 1971 — the day the Supreme Court makes history by ruling, 6 to 3, that The Post, the Times and other newspapers have the right to publish the Pentagon Papers. She pulls out her monogrammed stationery and a pen, and the camera swoops over from above, capturing her writing the following note to Bradlee (which is printed in her memoir):

We always write each other love letters at Christmas—but the paper over the last 2+ weeks is better than Christmas and it’s earlier too. There never was such a show—it was incredible. And it was only possible because of that extra 10% of the 110% that you and those under you put into it.… It was beautiful and fun too. And it was a trip—a pleasure to do business with you as ever.

Then there’s Bradlee/Hanks in the smoke-filled newsroom, replying:

Doing business with you is so much more than a pleasure—it’s a cause, it’s an honor, and such a rewarding challenge. I’m not sure I could handle another one of these tomorrow, but it is so great to know that this whole newspaper will handle the next one with courage and commitment and style.

Roll credits.

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