By: Joe Strupp
A week before a mid-March trip to D.C., I called Ben Bradlee’s office at The Washington Post on the off chance he might give me a moment to say hello. I’d spoken with Bradlee at least a dozen times by phone during my seven years at E&P, but never met one of the journalism heroes of my youth. He told me to call when I got into town, but at best I expected a hello and a handshake from this icon and D.C. socialite. Surely he would be rushing around giving speeches, lunching with political bigwigs, going to parties or keeping Bob Woodward out of trouble (again).
Fast forward one week. After two days in Washington, and finally, an hour or two free, I left a message with Bradlee’s assistant, asking if he might have five minutes. It seemed even more unlikely than before. He was back in the news, disputing a Vanity Fair article that claimed he had revealed Woodward’s source in the Valerie Plame/CIA leak case.
Just after noon, my cell phone rang. Bradlee’s assistant said he had a little time, but had to leave soon for lunch. A light bulb went off. “Well, would he let E&P buy him lunch?” I asked quickly, almost presumptuously. She put me on hold a minute. “Sure,” she said. “But do you mind just going across the street?”
Mind? Do I mind having lunch with Ben Bradlee? Ask me if I’d mind having lunch with Joe Namath or Elton John.
Quickly I made my way the six or seven blocks to the Post’s front door. A security guard called up to his office, and soon Bradlee, 84, appeared from the elevator. Still dapper, he emerged in dress slacks, a dark sports jacket and purple tie, with his silver, slicked-back hair neatly in place. Extending a hand and a smile, he directed me outside and pointed to The Madison Hotel. “Whaddaya say we go there?” he boomed in his familiar deep rasp, and then we darted across busy 15th Street. Dodging cars, I felt a sudden fear that he would be hit and I would have to explain how this legendary journalist died in my care.
After making it safely across, we entered the hotel’s posh restaurant, which Bradlee recalled was a favorite choice of former publisher Katharine Graham for Saturday morning breakfasts with reporters “when it was less upscale.” He eschewed the extensive bar list for an iced tea and ordered lunch. Sensing I was still a newshound on a trail, he went right into his upcoming plans for a return trip to Guadalcanal, where he served in the Navy during World War II. “It’s a cruise that goes up the V Slot, 400 or 600 miles, where cruisers and destroyers played bang-bang with the Japanese,” he said between sips of corn soup. “I was in one of those and I think it will be a lot of fun to go back.” The trip will be part nostalgia and part business, as he takes his youngest son, Quinn, and writes a first-person account for The New Yorker.
This led to questions about his military service, and later oversight of war reporting in Vietnam and Iraq. Is the Iraq War harder to cover than Vietnam? Sometimes, he said, and you are more likely to get shot.
At one point, as I scribbled in my notebook and my cajun chicken sat barely touched in front of me, he urged me to eat. “Your food is going to get cold,” he warned with grandfatherly concern. Still, I kept asking and he gladly offered opinions, often with a laugh and questions of his own. Claiming to be a fan of E&P, he asked how we were doing on the Web, though noting his limited Web use and even lack of a cell phone. Still a print junkie, his three must-reads each day remain the Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
Despite a bit of a cold, Bradlee remained engaged and glad to speak both on record and off. Declaring he never gets sick of Watergate questions, he praised today’s journalism students he meets who still seem interested in that historic time. He also warned against the clampdown on anonymous sources, but urged reporters not to use them too easily. “They don’t try enough to get it on the record,” he complained. He said most anonymous sources will go on the record if pushed, and claims almost every unnamed source is mentioned elsewhere in a story by name. “That is a fact,” he declared. “It happens a lot.”
After walking him back across the street, again darting between cars, Bradlee invited me up to his office, convincing security that I didn’t need a special pass as his guest. His digs are situated among the executive suites on the seventh floor. There are photos of Kate Graham and his wife, Sally Quinn, and a large bulletin board facing his desk that resembles a scrapbook of memories. Tacked up among the items: a photo of him with Hollywood shadow Jason Robards and aging Post tearsheets.
But the item that brought the most emotional response was a picture of Bradlee and longtime friend Art Buchwald, who has made a public decision to forego dialysis and live out his last days in peace. “I go see him nearly every day,” Bradlee said. “He is getting ready to die, but he is not dying yet.”
Bradlee noted that, closer to home, he often ventures back down two flights to the Post newsroom. “I like to hang out, I go and talk to people,” he explained. “I go in whenever the hell I can.”