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.
Even before Watergate, Ben Bradlee was renowned for his publication of the Pentagon Papers. Which suggests that fame sometimes seeks its subject, rather than the reverse.
It was, after all, the New York Times that began publishing stories written off the Pentagon Papers. It was the New York Times that was enjoined by a federal court to desist, not the Post. The Times broke the story. The Post came afterward. So why didn't the name of the Times' managing editor, Abe Rosenthal, become linked to those documents?
Abe who? the larger world asks.
Most people who know Ben Bradlee agree he is an impulsive, sometimes rash, man. These are the human traits he brought to running the Post. They are traits that can condemn or elevate a man, depending on his luck. And luck, as mentioned above, never stopped smiling at Ben Bradlee.
Of course, he had his setbacks and reverses. There was the polio, contracted at a time when it was a disease as frightening as cancer is today. But he recovered. Then, having married his third wife, Sally Quinn, and carried her away from
the Post's Style section, they had a child, Quinn, who was born with a small hole in his heart. But Quinn responded to treatment and today, "he's a fine little tennis player," says his father, bursting with happiness at the thought of him.
"As an editor he was quick; he had a sure eye for exciting things," says Ben Bagdikian, formerly the Post's national editor. "His famous short attention span had certain disadvantages, but it had a big advantage. He got bored easily so the paper didn't get boring."
Mr. Bradlee has been fortunate in more things than most men have a right to expect. He and his second wife bought a house in Georgetown, only to have a young senator, John F. Kennedy, and his wife move in right down the street. Later, Mr. Bradlee's friendship with JFK gave him vital access as a White House reporter.
The luck endures
Bradlee is even lucky in the personal things: he has aged well, and at 74 is still handsome; even all the wrinkles that have carved themselves onto his face have positioned themselves just right, and give him a certain, stony charm. He lives in a big house -- three, actually: one in Georgetown, one in Long Island, and a third, his favorite, in St. Mary's County.
But, perhaps, his most valuable piece of luck is that while so many other men, much younger than he, are munching the metaphorical grass in their respective retirement pastures, Ben Bradlee is still in harness, and loving it.
Bradlee still has work he likes to do: He makes speeches for the Post, advises his successors in command of the newsroom two floors down, counsels young reporters, raises funds for good causes. Writes books. He's only now thinking about teaching.
"I'm interested in teaching a course on how to read a newspaper," he says. "I don't think a lot of people really know how. I think people read a newspaper in a combative mood. They've been lied to so much by their public officials [lies which come through the media]. I'd like to explore that."
What he's interested in passing on, probably to a group of bright, interested students, is why newspapers do certain things: Why stories occasionally run without bylines; why a story about Africa might be run without a dateline; why one paper covers something and another does not.
In other words, how and why these decisions are made. How editors think.