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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,369

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This is the grave of Ben Bradlee.

Born in 1921 in Boston, Bradlee was elite elite. Like, his middle name is Crowninshield elite, and if you know anything about the Brahmins of Boston, that means a lot. He grew up super rich, with a father who was a big time investment banker. However, his father was massively overexposed in the late 20s and got creamed during the Wall Street crash. He was even forced to get a real job. I don’t want to make too fun of that–his father became a salesman selling deodorant, among other things. He lost everything. But the rest of the family came up big for the kids and so none of this affected Bradlee’s future. He still got the best schools and all that Brahmin stuff. He came down with polio in high school but made a complete recovery. Then it was Harvard, where he graduated in 1942.

Bradlee entered the military upon graduation. He was in the ROTC at Harvard and was commissioned in the Navy the day he graduated. He was a communication officer working in the Pacific and was active in many of the big battles of that theater, including Leyte Gulf, Saipan, and other big battles.

After the war ended, Bradlee decided to go into journalism. He first got a job through a friend on a New Hampshire newspaper. It didn’t do very well and the Manchester Union-Leader bought it out and closed it. Bradlee then did what any elite kid does–he used his family connections to get a job at the Washington Post. It’s called meritocracy in America! It didn’t take long for him to rise. By 1951, he was the paper’s attaché in Paris.

Then in 1954, Bradlee took a job with Newsweek, which once was relevant in American life. He was a top political reporter for them and became good buddies with John F. Kennedy. This is how the Beltway sausage gets made. I have no particular animus toward Bradlee or toward Kennedy, but this is how you get the fawning reporting, the Maggie Haberman school of access journalism where protecting your sources for your book means more than saving the republic, how you get the kind of world where Ted Koppel defends Henry Kissinger all these years later. As JFK rose, so did Bradlee and good friendly coverage of JFK was basically guaranteed. Bradlee stayed in Paris until 1958, then came back to Washington, where he was the magazine’s chief political report. Eventually, the Post bought it and that’s how Bradlee came back to it. Also, he later claimed that he knew nothing of JFK’s affairs, which is risible.

In 1965, Bradlee became managing editor at the Post and then he became executive editor in 1968. This brings us to Watergate. Everyone knows the story of Woodward and Bernstein. Trust me, we’ve heard it over and over again. And look, everyone loves Jason Robards, who played Bradlee in All the President’s Men. I have no particular disagreement over how Bradlee managed the Watergate coverage. I mean, all respect to him on this. It’s just that this is how Beltway legends are made, the kind of stories that people tell each other over and over again and they become untouchable, part of an elite that is like a political super-elite. At least Bernstein has had some pride, but Woodward’s door stop of a pointless book for every administration is pretty ridiculous. Bradlee became one of the Beltway legends that made him above any meaningful criticism. Meanwhile, if the Post was a crusading newspaper to an extent in the early 70s, not only around Watergate but also the Pentagon Papers, that sure changed by the 1980s.

In the mania of the War on Drugs, Bradlee did what he could to destroy his reputation. The tales of reporters simply fabricating stories that then win huge prizes is well known. Stephen Glass says hello from whatever no doubt well paid hole he is in today. Well, Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer in 1981 for the story of an 8 year old heroin addict. Bradlee wanted this very bad. Did he ensure the story was fact-checked? Absolutely not. And it was completely, 100% made up. Meanwhile, this just made the city of Washington’s reputation even worse. Bradlee was forced into a public apology to Marion Barry, which must have torn him up given how Barry’s populist politics (for whatever else you want to say about the man) did not impress Bradlee.

Bradlee retired in 1991 into a life of elite stuff. You know, lots of talks, lots of governing boards, lots of showing and getting paid for being Ben Bradlee. Nice work if you can get it. He also got cast in the 1993 film Born Yesterday. He wrote a memoir, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, in 1995, which I assume was bought by many Beltway people and read by literally no one. Obama gave him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 because….Beltway? I guess? There’s been worse choices over the years.

Also, G.D. Spradlin played Bradlee in Dick, which is fun. Far less fun was Tom Hanks’ portrayal of him in Spielberg’s utterly pointless 2017 yawnfest The Post. Alfred Molina played him in The Front Runner, in 2018. I’m going to go ahead and say that Ben Bradlee really doesn’t need to be portrayed in this many movies.

I suppose Sally Quinn, his third wife and also from the WaPo, will be married with him, but she’s not dead yet. She was a mere 20 years younger than him upon their marriage, so makes sense.

At the end, Bradlee had Alzheimer’s, which ain’t no good. He died in 2014, so one wonders if he even knew where he was when Obama gave him the Medal of Freedom. Probably not. He was 93 years old.

Ben Bradlee is buried in this subtle tomb in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other leading newspaper people, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Baum, far more famous for writing The Wizard of Oz, is in Glendale, California. Barney Kilgore from The Wall Street Journal, is in Princeton, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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