Ben Bradlee had a good life — and a great funeral.
It was, for one thing, almost certainly the first time the word “dickhead” was invoked in a service at Washington National Cathedral. And not once, but twice.
“Ben was meticulous in his outrageousness,” The Post’s David Ignatius said in his eulogy, recounting the time Bradlee’s secretary, who had just taken dictation of a letter from the legendary editor, approached a copy editor with a question: “Is ‘dickhead’ one word or two?”
A few minutes later it was Ben Bradlee Jr.’s turn. “I planned to tell the ‘dickhead’ story, but David Ignatius scooped me,” he said.
After this and various other mentions of the deceased’s famous penchant for profanity, a reference by Carl Bernstein to a personal part of the female anatomy, and various takings of the Lord’s name in vain by those delivering the tributes, the Very Rev. Gary Hall — dean of the cathedral — had a delicate task in delivering the homily.
“Every once in a while a person appears among us who allows us to see things more clearly,” Hall said, adding, “These people are not usually conventionally pious, but they help us see things from God’s point of view. . . . They point us towards the sheer exuberance of being alive.”
Exuberance defined the great man, who died last week at 93, and his send-off was correspondingly ebullient and grand. Bob Woodward may have exaggerated slightly when he told the crowd that Bradlee’s death “in some very clear ways marks the end of the 20th century.” But few other than heads of state receive such send-offs.
More than a thousand filled the cathedral, including scores of Post journalists current and former. Satellite trucks parked in the cathedral driveway and a dozen TV cameras were on the lawn, searching for glimpses of the luminaries inside, among them Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Justice Stephen Breyer, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Steny Hoyer, Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams and Jim Lehrer.
After the service, seven stretch limos followed the hearse while invited guests decamped to the Bradlee mansion on N Street in Georgetown, where a squadron of valet parking attendants were waiting. A three-piece ensemble played in the parlor, photos of Bradlee greeted guests, and the tent out back over the tennis court enclosed two full bars and a buffet of smoked salmon, deviled eggs and the like. Waiters in black tie offered canapes and cocktails to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Ted Olson, Chris Matthews, Charlie Rose, Cokie Roberts and much of the capital’s political industrial complex.
Bradlee’s widow, Sally Quinn, had the challenge of arranging a religious service for one of the most irreverent figures of his time, and she came up with an eclectic celebration: It had the usual Scripture and psalms, but it began with Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” (“Love, soft as an easy chair . . .”) and ended with Sousa’s “Washington Post March.” Bradlee’s doctor said kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, even though Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was about as Jewish as the cathedral dean. Inside the cover of the program was an Annie Leibovitz photo of Bradlee, shirt unbuttoned, on a beach; underneath the photo was a New Testament passage.
The constant theme through the two-hour memorial was Bradlee’s fearlessness. “He pulled off being Bradlee because he wasn’t afraid,” Bernstein said. “Of presidents. Of polio. Of political correctness. Of publishing the Pentagon Papers. . . . Of going off to war in the Pacific. Of making mistakes.” Bernstein contrasted that with the current environment, when “too many of us run afraid.”
Quinn Bradlee, who has faced health issues throughout his life, spoke about how his father “taught me that hardships actually make a life more interesting.” A stepdaughter, Rosamond Casey, read from Bradlee’s favorite poem, William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” which Bradlee may have heard while suffering from polio at age 14. Its last lines: “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.”
And Ben Jr., the product of the first of Bradlee’s three marriages, spoke frankly (“I didn’t see all that much of Dad”) and offered a clue about Bradlee’s legendary courage. “He was not introspective in the least. He felt guilt about certain aspects of his life, but he didn’t dwell long if at all on personal failure. . . . As David Remnick once wrote in the New Yorker, Dad gave the lie to Socrates’s idea that the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Whatever the quality was, it turned him, as Woodward put it, into a “journalistic warrior.” Said the Watergate icon,“He wanted his newspaper to be like the Navy destroyer he served on in World War II: Make a big bow wave and leave a roiling, churning wake.”
And don’t let the dickheads get you down.