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'An Especially Privileged Seat at the Parade' : Books: Ben Bradlee oversaw the unraveling of the biggest presidential scandal in history during his tenure at the Washington Post. Now he's reflecting on 'A Good Life.'

October 03, 1995|MAX HOLLAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask the nation's most celebrated newspaper editor the burning journalistic question of the day--whether or not to publish the Unabomber's manifesto--and the response from Ben Bradlee is uncharacteristic avoidance:

"The wisdom of the ages cries out for silence from Bradlee," he says.

Now, Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee is not your shy, retiring type, so the question must be an awkward one for him. It's not because when he faced a similar situation, he decided differently. Rather, it's because he has just written a memoir suggesting that newspapers should not turn over their pages to political extortionists.

The episode Bradlee recounts in "A Good Life" (Simon & Schuster) occurred in 1976. Croatian terrorists had hijacked a TWA 727 en route from Chicago to New York and were threatening to kill all passengers unless five newspapers printed a screed demanding Croatian independence from Yugoslavia. One of those papers was the Washington Post, which Bradlee had been more or less running since 1965.

"The idea of anyone . . . telling me that I had to run something in the paper that I didn't want to run, much less that I had to run it on Page One, was inconceivable to me," Bradlee writes. "Yet I followed their instructions meek as a lamb. Once. I'm not sure I'd do it twice."

Whatever private doubts Bradlee, who stepped down in 1991, nurses about the Unabomber cave-in, you will never find him publicly second-guessing his old publisher, Donald Graham, or his successor as executive editor, Leonard Downie. In the Bradlee firmament of values, where courage, grace and honesty are prized, no quality is held in higher esteem than loyalty.

And it was the Post, after all, that gave Bradlee the opportunity to preside over a powerful newspaper in the nation's capital, a city where information is almost as prized as currency. The Post was also the vehicle that enabled Bradlee, during the 1972 Watergate scandal, to reach a pinnacle of professional recognition (and mass celebrity) that most editors can only dream about. Finally, it was the Post and Graham who stood behind Bradlee during his hour of mortification in 1981, when a Pulitzer Prize-winning front-page story turned out to be an utter hoax.

To the degree that Bradlee has enjoyed "an especially privileged seat at the parade," as he puts it, he owes nearly everything to the Washington Post and its owner for the past 60 years, the Graham family. But they owe him too. It's largely due to Bradlee's stewardship that the Post is considered one of the nation's best newspapers.

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At 74, Bradlee is a trim and handsome man with an outsized personality and a voice as distinctive as Jason Robards, the actor who portrayed him in Hollywood's depiction of Watergate, "All the President's Men."

Bradlee is the first to admit that he was "dealt a great hand--and played it OK." He grew up on Boston's Beacon Hill, albeit not its sunniest side, in a family that could trace its American lineage back some 300 years. There were governesses (Bradlee began speaking French at the age of 6), a proper prep school (St. Mark's) and finally Harvard (where 51 Bradlees had preceded him).

Not that there weren't deep ruts along the mostly privileged way. Bradlee suffered an attack of polio when he was 14, and one of his best friends died in the same epidemic. Because of the Depression, his father went from being an investment bank vice president to supervising the janitors at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as the Bradlee family slid into genteel poverty until some wealthy relatives died.

His formative experience, Bradlee freely offers, was his generation's good war: World War II. He entered a boy and left an irreverent, profane man--a leader, in fact, having had a wonderful time in the war, something he was embarrassed to admit given all the horrors and sadness visited upon others.

Bradlee served on destroyers in the South Pacific, escorting aircraft carriers, bombarding island coastlines and generally harassing Japanese forces. In the process he found something he liked to do: running shipboard combat information centers. These functioned as the destroyer's brain, monitoring and assessing data and redistributing it to officers on a need-to-know basis. During battle, the noise level was deafening as reports came in via radio, sonar, radar, lookouts and telephones all over the destroyer.

Bradlee thrived in this environment, for he liked making decisions and liked knowing that people were counting on him to do so. And he liked sizing up men and picking the best ones for the tasks at hand. He was, in his words, "able to inspire people below him, and to impress those above him."

If all this sounds mildly familiar, it's because newspapering is the closest thing Bradlee found in civilian life to running a CIC.

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