Ben Bradlee recalls a life in print An editor's editor: Long after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee has maintained a national reputation. Now, with honesty based on confidence, he tells about his "Good Life."

October 25, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

One colleague described Ben Bradlee as a man who could put his cigarette out on a coffee saucer -- "fine bone china, even" -- and escape being called a boor for it.

That's how confident he is of his own legitimacy and personal authority. That's how blinding is the blaze of his charisma.

This, of course, is exaggeration. But, then, so is Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, paragon executive editor of the Washington Post, illuminator of the Pentagon Papers, director of the Post's Watergate coverage, St. George to Richard Nixon's dragon.

He is the most famous newspaper editor in the United States. He emits more candlepower than H. L. Mencken probably did when he glared forth from The Evening Sun.

But Ben Bradlee, who speaks at 8 tonight at Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, might not be responsible for his own apotheosis. He doesn't exaggerate himself. His friends do it for him. They use expressions such as "larger than life," or "a natural leader," or "true aristocrat," and so forth when describing him.

Even people he has wounded, newspaper colleagues, join in -- but then decline to allow their names to be used among the list of praise givers.

Henry Mencken, in fact, became famous for his writing and commentary on society, not for being an editor. Writing is something Ben Bradlee has only recently become famous for: His new memoir, "A Good Life," is a commentary on the society of Ben Bradlee. It has added even more glister to his public persona.

His book is full of exaggerated modesty and secret self-celebration. But he is honest in it where many other memorists avoid honesty. He stresses that good luck has been with him throughout his life and has not been incidental to it. He was lucky in the comfortable circumstances of his birth. He was lucky for the friends his family had, and for those developed on his own, who gave him a boost most people starting out could not call upon. No up-by-his-own-bootstraps stuff for Ben Bradlee. He wears his silver spoon proudly.

The fame, Ben Bradlee says, "came quite accidentally."

"I really didn't set out to be famous. Then all this stuff happens." Stuff like Watergate and the resignation of the 37th president of the United States, and the movie about it all.

Talking about it

Mr. Bradlee is comfortable talking about it, though maybe a little weary. He's been doing nothing but since his book came out. On tour, it's been one interview after another. Now he's back in his seventh-floor office at the Post, which he occupies as vice president at large, the job he has held since he left the executive editorship, and the newsroom, in 1991.

He modestly ascribes much of the interest in him to all the "celibrification that has gripped the country."

He seems dismayed that interviewers aren't that interested in the truly serious episodes in his career, or the historic moments. "It's amazing. I can go through interviews and people will only want to talk about Janet Cooke, or that Kennedy was screwing around."

His book is about his early years in Boston, the rah-rah of the prep schools, the bout with polio, his indifferent -- through Harvard, his World War II naval service in the Pacific (which illuminated his life), his beginnings in the news business, his sick and busted marriages, his gushing memories of the foreign correspondent's life and, of course, the highs and lows of his career: the delirium of Watergate, the crash of Janet Cooke. She was the perfect black female reporter who won his trust, then produced another Pulitzer for the Post with her story of Jimmy, the 8-year-old heroin addict who lived only in her imagination.

No matter how it came to him, fame is the most interesting fact about Ben Bradlee. Fame does not normally come to newspaper editors, no matter how talented, as Mr. Bradlee clearly is. Not in this country, at least, not in this century. We've had our Charles A. Danas and our Horace Greeleys, but that was generations ago, when newspapering was a more flamboyant, if seedier, trade.

These days journalists are stuffier, more self-serious, and anonymity is the lot of the men and women who strategize in newspaper offices, perceive great stories through the turmoil of everyday circumstance, and who send reporters out to cover them -- and win their own fame.

So how did Mr. Bradlee break out of that particular limbo?

"I think it was very simple," says Richard Harwood, an old friend and former ombudsman at the Post. "He was fortunate enough to be the principal editor on the Watergate story. And he was the subject of a movie." The movie -- "All the Presidents Men" -- was about getting the story.

Mr. Bradlee himself gives credit where credit is due: "It was really Richard Nixon first," who made him famous, "and Jason Robards second," he says of the actor who played him in the movie.

The movie planted knowledge of Mr. Bradlee's existence, and of his work, more broadly in the public's mind. The film made his name a household word in Hyattsville.

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