The Ben Bradlee Mystique

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  • Richard Nixon
    Richard Nixon
    37th President of the United States of America (1913−1994)
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post during the Watergate era is photographed at his home in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, June 3, 2012. (Photo by Michel du Cille/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post during the Watergate era is photographed at his home in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, June 3, 2012. (Photo by Michel du Cille/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Usually, when Hollywood makes a movie about a historical figure, the actor who plays the character is better-looking, more charismatic and sexier than the real person. Not in the case of Ben Bradlee. In "All the President’s Men," the iconic movie story of how a few persistent newspapermen brought down President Richard Nixon by exposing the Watergate scandal, the part of Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post, is played by Jason Robards, no slouch in the charm department — but no match for the real thing.

Bradlee, who died Tuesday at 93, exuded a kind of raffish sex appeal. A few years ago, he appeared with his shirt unbuttoned in the pages of Vanity Fair. He was tanned, dashing, a broad-chested hunk — and well past his 80th birthday. "How can an 85-year-old look like that?" asked New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Women, including Lauren Bacall, had crushes on Bradlee. So did men. Generations of reporters at the Washington Post fell over one another trying to win his notice, praise and approval. When he walked through the newsroom, heads turned.

A glamorous, studly newspaper editor is perhaps an oxymoron, so it’s not surprising that Bradlee was always seen as one of a kind, and is now mourned as the hero of an age gone by. In the 1970s, he made the Washington Post, once barely a rival to The New York Times, the most talked about paper in the country. In 1971, he caught up to the Times by defying government legal action that could have ruined his paper and printing the Pentagon Papers. And during Watergate, the Post surpassed every news organization with its aggressive — and at first, lonely — coverage of corruption in the White House.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee began as a preppy but soon got over it. The scion of a Boston Brahmin family, he left Harvard to join the Navy in World War II, serving on a destroyer in the Pacific and learning how to swear (any tape of editorial meetings at the Post in Bradlee’s time would have been more profane than anything uttered by Nixon in the Oval Office). Daily journalism was considered to be slumming it by most of Bradlee’s boyhood social peers, but Bradlee loved hanging around with gamblers and hard-bitten types. He covered crime for the small and insignificant Washington Post after the war, then took off to Paris for a time to serve as an embassy staffer (and, according to probably inaccurate rumor, as a CIA agent). He came back to Washington with Newsweek and immediately made a source of a rising politician named John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy was elected president, Bradlee and his second wife, Tony, would dine at the White House with Jack and Jackie, while other newsmen stood in the cold and jealously muttered that Bradlee was too close to the president.

Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, and Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee look over reports of the 6 to 3 Supreme Court decision which permitted the paper to publish stories based on the secret Pentagon study of the Vietnam War on June 30, 1971. (Photo by Charles del Vecchio/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, and Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee look over reports of the 6 to 3 Supreme Court decision which permitted the paper to publish stories based on the secret Pentagon study of the Vietnam War on June 30, 1971. (Photo by Charles del Vecchio/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Bradlee wanted to run a newspaper and so informed Katharine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post. He told Mrs. Graham, another person with a crush on him, that he would give his "left one" for the job. He got it in 1968 and within 10 years was a legend played by Robards. He had his low moments. By coincidence, I was at a dinner party he attended in 1981 on the night the Washington Post had to give back a Pulitzer Prize won by Janet Cooke, a reporter whose story about a child heroin addict turned out to be untrue. Bradlee said nothing. He just groaned like a wounded animal.

Bradlee retired as editor in 1991 but remained a Washington presence, thanks in part to his wife Sally Quinn, a journalist and vivacious hostess known for tart stories and lively parties. As the brand-new Washington bureau chief for Newsweek in 1986, I remember going to the Quinn-Bradlee New Year’s Eve party. It was clear that the top government officials at the party — senators and Cabinet officers — were the nervous ones, the supplicants, and the journalists were the ones who acted like they belonged, the true power in Washington. For better or worse, those days are long gone.  

Bradlee was not a deep thinker and rarely personally reflective. He spent a lot of time in his office doing the crossword puzzle. His critics, not without reason, will say his golden age was too in love with "gotcha" journalism. But, for all his tough talk, he was funny in a disarming way and surprisingly gentle behind the tough guy façade. "You can be good at your work, a good husband and a good father," he once told me. "I was one for three, maybe two for three." His voice was rueful. Bradlee was fearless and a great heart; though many have tried, no actor can play him.

Evan Thomas, a historian, is currently working on a biography of Richard Nixon. He is also a former editor-at-large at Newsweek.

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