Still News

Presents an interview with newsman Ben Bradlee. Views on psychologists; Perspectives on the late American President Richard Nixon; Appreciation for female boss Katharine Graham.

By PT Staff, published on November 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Ben Bradlee. He's the most famous newsman in America and possibly thecrustiest and saltiest. He brought down Richard Nixon. And he never forgets the point of the story: "The motherf—ers always lie."

PT: In your book, A Good Life, every once in a while you talk about your experience with psychiatrists and psychologists. Basically, you called one an asshole.

BB: One was an asshole. The others were fine. I've never been analyzed, but on several occasions I've gotten into jams over relationships that I couldn't handle. And I sought help from somebody that could.

PT: You pride yourself on being a guy who goes straight ahead and doesn't analyze, doesn't try to figure things out.

BB: The guy that I called an asshole was a child psychiatrist and who did absolutely nothing for my children. We ended up talking to him for our own problems. And he was worse than useless. But the first psychiatrist I ever went to was a fantastic man. I used to consult him about stories. I was covering the dregs of crime for the Washington Post, and there was a story of some guy who split his wife in two on a family picnic as She sat down to pee, and buried a child alive. I couldn't understand why this person would cut somebody in half.

PT: How important do you think it is for people to have a big-time enemy as you had with Richard Nixon in your career?

BB: Nixon put me on the map. How can he be an enemy?

PT: You say you never liked him.

BB: I couldn't get on the same wavelength with him. He never appeared to be natural. I never could be natural with him. But I did not think of him as an enemy.

He made me. You wouldn't be here without Richard Nixon.

PT: That's true. Are you advising people to look for the biggest possible enemy they can find to despise and be obsessed with?

BB: I didn't look for Nixon. It was totally accidental. I found him as a result of his behavior. I don't need an enemy to function. If I find some guy who's got his hand in the till in some sense, I go after him. But not as enemy, as target.

PT: You had a female boss/Post publisher Katharine Graham] back when few women were in positions of authority.

BB: Yeah. I worried about that because I didn't have any experience at it at all. My advice would be to find a boss like her who likes you and who sees tremendous advantages in supporting you. I see it as a fantastic relationship. We've had one argument in the whole time.

PT: Where do you get your information?

BB: Well, I read the Post and the Times thoroughly, cover to cover. And then I read Time and Newsweek from the back. I've been doing that for 30 years. And I don't read periodicals much.

I read the journalism reviews. I have a network of people that will flag me if there's a good piece somewhere. If you've got a good piece, I'll hear about it. And I hang out, boy do I hang out. I get a lot of information from my wife, who has got a fantastic network of pals that she talks to during the course of the day.

PT: Are you on-line?

BB: No. I can run that computer as a word processor, period, and I'm pretty proud of that.

PT: Do you watch much TV?

BB: I watch news and I watch 60 Minutes and I watch Brokaw.

PT: In a study at Harvard that you referred to in your book, they described you as immature, emotional, with a romantic outlook. Is that still true 50 years later?

BB: Bradlees are late bloomers. We come to whatever wisdom we're going to get fairly late in our lives. I absolutely screwed around at Harvard. I didn't do anything there. I had a Greek professor I liked and an English professor. But I didn't learn much.

Immature is an interesting word. I think I have a young outlook. I have a young lack of fear of what people might think of me.

PT: Why is that?

BB: I don't know. I know a lot of people who have an almost childlike sense that it's okay to be zany or absurd or not to worry.

PT: You've had some advantages in life. You're good-looking; there was, as you say in your book, the promise of dough;. your dad was an All-American football player. Have these advantages been overstated?

BB: I had lots of advantages, lots of advantages. My family lost all its dough in the Depression and they didn't get any back for thirty-some years.

PT: Your father lost his job.

BB: My dad cleaned out a railroad car in the Boston & Maine Railroad with a mop. This for a vice president of a bank who was an All-American football player. It made me admire him enormously.

PT: Is there something about the Depression that we who didn't go through it don't get? As with World War II?

BB: I think there is. It seems to have marked my generation. So did the war. My kids look at me and they say, "Uh-oh, here comes the big II," if I ever mention a story about World War II

To have had an active role in it was a marking experience. Especially in the Navy, where they gave 20-year-old kids 370-foot toys with 300 men and let them drive it.

PT: That must have been really fun.

BB: Unfucking-believable. They go 36 knots. That's almost 40 miles an hour. And you're 21 and a Greek major.

The war was a fantastic experience. And it's probably good that we all were scared at one time or another. It was very important to me to know that I could handle that. But once you knew that you could, there was no point in testing it every 20 minutes.

PT: What about your having had polio?

BB: A big deal to me. I got it in March [of 1936, at age 14] and I didn't get up until July. I didn't will myself well, but it did not occur to me I was going to be crippled, even as I sat with those fucking braces on. PT: What did you learn about yourself? BB: I learned that optimism as a way of thinking about life worked for me. The fact that I didn't fear it and think about it must have had something to do with it. I wasn't left with anything except I'm slow as molasses now. I can't run fast. I can't bend.

PT: If you were born after polio ceased to be a danger, then you just can't imagine it.

BB: It was like the plague in the summer. You couldn't go anywhere, you couldn't eat fruit. You couldn't go to the movies or swim in a pool. Polio and the Depression and the war were marking experiences. If I hadn't had them l'd have been a different person.

PT: What do you make of the reverence you've received? You've been the subject of articles in the New Yorker and elsewhere. I can't imagine more positive press than you've had in certain kinds of elite publications

BB: Well, there is an explanation.

PT: That you're a good guy ?

BB: I hesitate to hit you over the head with it.

PT But it's all true? BB:

I try that on myself and there's a dark voice that says, You won't be able to sell that. Along this journey, I have accumulated some like-minded people who have risen to do like-minded things and who are now writing about me. I also think that in the years since I've left the city, I have inched inexorably towards legend. People say, "What the hell's the point of beating this guy over the head? He's pretty good. Leave him alone." I haven't seen the 60 Minutes piece, but I hear it's okay. There's Mike Wallace, whom I've known for 40 years, and what is he going to do, beat the shit out of me at this late stage? He's got Art Buchwald on. Buchwald is an old friend of mine.

I hear that Buchwald cries to Wallace when he starts talking about the love that men have for each other. So I called him up and said, "What the hell did you tell Wallace?" He said, "You wait until you see it."

Art's quite remarkable. His columns are the first smile of the day. You read the first three or four 'graphs and you smile and say "Goddamnit, that's funny and that's true." He's genuinely funny and a very warm man.

PT: Has being a celebrity been a positive experience for you?

BB: Richard Nixon made me a public figure. I'm sure I made me a public figure. Katharine Graham made me a public figure. Sally Quinn made me a public figure. What am I going to do? Go up into the woods and ignore it? Where it gets me a little bit is when you walk into a room and the damn paparazzi start taking pictures. Or when you are walking outside Penn Station with Annie Leibovitz taking pictures of you at 7:30 in the morning.

PT: What do you hope to get out of the book. Why did you write it?

BB: You want to sum up, you want to convince yourself that life had a certain border and that it made sense. It's kind of a legacy: This is what I think I did, what I accomplished, and why I accomplished it. There's something that drives you into being judged that interests me. I don't quite get it. It's like an actor. Why would you drive yourself to be judged?

Plus somebody threw a lot of dough at me for doing it. You want to have something to do. I don't want to go play golf. I don't want to go drink tea with people

PT: What do you think about the new magazine, George, edited by JFK Jr.?

BB: I don't know. I haven't seen it yet. I'm not sure that what the world needs is a comment by Madonna on anything. But I admire the way that he has said "Okay, they want me to try this and I'm going to give it a shot." It seems to me he's behaved himself with dignity and class--all the while he tried to find a personal life. I've only met him a couple of times. I used to carry him around on my shoulders, long ago.

PT: A publishing type told me that he's extremely nice to the help, which impresses me.

BB: You have to say about Jackie Kennedy, whatever else you want to say, that she did a hell of a job raising those kids.

PT: One of the things that you described in your book and you have no answer for, is that Jackie was mad at you for writing the book Conversations With Kennedy. She said, "It tells more about you than my husband."

BB: That was not a compliment--but that I was betraying a friendship. I don't know. I don't think I betrayed the friendship at all. Jack would have loved that book.

PT: I was struck by the two encounters you describe having with Jackie [in which she ignored you]. You had many conversations with these guys, and knew them fairly well. They had been your neighbors. What I can't fathom is how disciplined or angry somebody would have to be not to say hello.

BB: I just don't get it. And I've stood on my head trying to figure out an explanation. I wrote her a letter before she died but I think I wrote it too late.

She may have assumed we were complicit in Kennedy's relationship with Mary Meyer [Bradlee's former sister-in-law],which we were not. If she thought we were somehow part of that, you can imagine she'd be sore as hell.

Whatever I feel about Jackie, I would never have ended the friendship.

PT: What are your thoughts as a guy who's had a full life but knew a president who was cut down at the height of his glory?

BB: He was on the brink of fulfilling all his promise.

PT: What is the meaning of it all now?

BB: There was a recklessness in Kennedy's life that I didn't see, a sexual recklessness I don't understand. I'm appalled at the sharing of a woman with a gangster, a gangster's moll. She had terrible friends. It boggles my mind, truly. Whether it lessened his presidency in any way, I don't know.

PT: Why do you think he did that?

BB: I think it must have heightened the excitement of it.

PT: Do you think he needed excitement one way or another in order to feel he was alive--is that fair?

BB: It turns out to be closer to the truth than I knew. Maybe the furtiveness of the sex or the scandal of the sex made sex more interesting to him. I don't quite dig that but I can imagine it.

PT: Do you feel more, or less sentimental about Kennedy as you get older?

BB: I feel a greater sense of potential and a feeling that he was much more human. His second term would have been a dinger.

PT: So he would have been president for another four years. Then who?

BB: Then Bobby.

PT: So there would have been a liberal Democratic consensus for, say, 16 or 18 years.

BB: Yeah.

PT: What ever happened to Janet Cook [the Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for an article, about an eight-year-old drug addict, that proved to be made up]?

BB: It always comes down to Janet Cook. She wouldn't talk to me. I don't have much to say to her. I think I know why she did it.

PT: She wanted to get famous?

BB: Rich and famous. And her worst fears were realized: She became poor and famous. Last I heard, she was in Toledo.

PT: What would you ask her if you could?

BB: It's easy to see how it could happen. And at the end of the day, if somebody wants to lie to you straight-faced and is very smart about it, they can do it. Boy, my colleagues, did they tuck it to me.

PT: Well, when you get played in a movie by Jason Robards and you become your own larger-than-life character, they're after you.

BB: But there was the allegedly famous Bradlee instinct, the shit detector. How did I miss that?

PT: Do you worry about it?

BB: No, it's the only one I missed.

PT: Are there certain stories that you wish you had done?

BB: There are a lot of stories that I wish I'd done that I didn't know about when they were there. That's the problem.

PT: What do you think about Dole? What makes him think he can be president?

BB: Because he can be whatever anybody wants him to be. If he makes president, he'd be an okay president because he's so sensitive to what people think of him that they'll force him into a middle-road position and he won't be his worst.

PT: You think he'll be elected?

BB: I don't know. It seems to me that the positions that Powell is taking about gun control and racial opportunities are going to make him awfully hard for the Republican Party, as it now exists, to swallow. That's going to force Dole into putting somebody acceptable to them on the ticket -- and that will reelect Clinton.

PT: What's the dumbest thing that you ever did?.

BB: It was to take Janet Cook's story.

PT: And the moral of the story for people who aren't in the reporting business?

BB: Be sure you don't want something so badly that you lose your judgment. PT: Your favorite newspapers?

BB: Well, I think the Post and the Times are in a class by themselves.

PT: Favorite editors?

BB: I think newspapers are scared of strong editors.

PT: The dangerous editor, that is the lesson of Watergate: Whenever you get down to it, lots of people don't tell the truth.

BB: They don't. The motherfuckers lie. PT: They lie straight-faced.

BB: But nobody gets upset about it. PT: Who is there to get upset?

BB: The papers, the editors ought to get upset about it. Reporters ought to get upset about it.

PHOTOS (COLOR): Ben Bradlee