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Former 'Post' Executive Editor Ben Bradlee On Publishing The Pentagon Papers

Dec 15, 2017
Originally published on December 19, 2017 9:55 am
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new Steven Spielberg movie "The Post" is about how The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Ben Bradlee in 1995. He died in 2014 at the age of 93. Bradlee was the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, described Bradlee as the most charismatic and consequential newspaper editor of his time.

In a 1995 New Yorker profile, Remnick wrote, Bradlee arrived at a mediocre paper and with publisher Katharine Graham's money and support, made it great. The biggest story covered under Bradlee's watch was Watergate, which forced the resignation of President Nixon. The first big risk Bradlee took was publishing the Pentagon Papers, the top secret documents that revealed the history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The New York Times had already published several installments. But the Justice Department got an injunction against the paper, preventing it from publishing further excerpts. Then the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the Post. I asked Bradlee why it was important for the Post to publish the Pentagon Papers.


BEN BRADLEE: Failure to publish after The New York Times had published would have relegated The Post to a status of a kind of a pro-government establishment organization which didn't want to take on the government, didn't want to fight for its constitutional rights. And it seems to me, it would have forever relegated us to a sort of second-class citizenship. It wasn't my decision. But, I mean, I wanted to publish from day one, moment one. It was Katharine Graham's decision. And she was - it was a great decision. And it made all future decisions of an editorial nature at The Washington Post kind of automatic and easy.

GROSS: Well, what were the risks?

BRADLEE: Well, there were some interesting risks because if we had been - this was a civil suit. If we had been enjoined - mind you, no newspaper in the history of the country, which was then 190-some years old, had ever been stopped from publishing something it wanted to publish beforehand, prior restraint. So that was a wonderful principle to fight for.

The other thing is that if we had been convicted of that, if the judge had stopped us from publishing something, the Nixon administration was - it was quite obvious - was going to go after us on criminal violations - violating the code against publishing confidential and national security matters. If had we been convicted of that - you cannot own television stations if you are a convicted felon, and that would have been a felony. And we had about a $100 billion of television stations that we would have lost.

The Post had just gone public in the New York Stock Exchange. Shares in The Post were offered for sale for the first time to the public. And that was seriously threatened. So it was no casual decision that was involved.

GROSS: What did your lawyers have to say?

BRADLEE: Well, the lawyers were great, really. They didn't - they all argued, initially, against publishing and - but understood our points. The chief - the legal voice that we listened to most was - came from a man called Fritz Beebe who was really - had been a Wall Street lawyer and had joined The Washington Post Company as president. And when he finally made his recommendation, he made it so cautiously and hedged it so much that he thought, on balance, maybe we better not print. It was easy for Katharine to say let's go.

GROSS: There's a great story you tell about a phone call that I think really took a lot of chutzpah (laughter) to get...

BRADLEE: Who me?

GROSS: ...(Laughter) To get a friend of yours, who is a judge, on the phone so you could get his advice. But, of course, he was arguing a case in court at the time. Tell us what you did.

BRADLEE: Well, he wasn't a judge. He was a lawyer.

GROSS: I mean a lawyer. I meant a lawyer.

BRADLEE: It was Edward Bennett Williams who was the famous defense attorney and a friend of mine for already 20 years. And he was - he would have defended us had he been in Washington, but he was trying a case in Chicago. I called up the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim Hoge, and said, I need to get a message to Edward Williams - Edward Bennett Williams in such and such a courthouse immediately. And the message was, please, call me, urgent. And in a matter of minutes, Williams called me back.

And I talked for about 12 minutes and said, this is what we've got. This is what we want to do. These are the documents. This is what The New York Times has done. This is what the court with First Circuit New York had enjoined them from. And we want to publish. And I want you to tell me whether you think we should and why.

And he sort of was silent for a split second - a split minute and finally said, you got to publish it. You've just got to do it because it wasn't in a sense of Plessy v. Ferguson that we had the right to blah, blah, blah. But he just sensed in his guts that to become an important player in the American scene, we had to do it. And I think that was enormously influential to - with Katharine Graham to help her make up her mind because she admired William so much, as we all did.

GROSS: So how much of the decision to publish was so that The Post could become a more respected player and how much of it was all the lofty principles about freedom of the press?

BRADLEE: That's a good question, too, because, you know, in the last - it was 7,000 pages, although we only had 4,000 of them. We got them at 10:30 in the morning, and we published at 10:30 that night the - our first story. No one ever read the Pentagon Papers. They really didn't, you know? We could only read - each of us read sections of it. Then we - for about eight hours we read and then had a news conference and decided what we could publish.

The - what mystified us all was that the Pentagon Papers ended with matters - with the decision-making process in Vietnam before President Nixon took office, and, therefore, he was talking about the Johnson administration and the Kennedy administration and the Eisenhower administration. That's what the Pentagon makers - Pentagon Papers were about.

So I think, you know, it was - it dealt with the origins of the most important event in the middle of the 20th century, and, therefore, it had an intrinsic importance to it. But we also - it was a principle that is really fundamental to a free press. We've got to be able to publish what we want then get punished if we did wrong then get pursued by - privately by people that we may have libeled or publicly for violating the law.

GROSS: Now give me a sense of what your style was like when you were making your case to Katharine Graham and to the lawyers. Did you make speeches about freedom of the press? Did you insult your opponents in the newsroom? What was your style?

BRADLEE: No, I had no opponents in the newsroom. I had the lawyers to worry about.

GROSS: The lawyers - yeah, OK.

BRADLEE: We were - we had - it was - all of this was taking place in my house in Georgetown. We had two fairly large rooms. And one of them was sort of a temporary city room where a bunch of reporters and a couple of news aides and a copy editor or two were actually reading the documents, making up their mind what story to run, what story could they get into shape to run that night. And in the other room, we had the lawyers and the representatives of the owners and a couple of editors from the editorial page. And I shuttled between the two trying to make up my mind and learn the content and then trying to steer the conversation to the verdict I wanted.

There was no point in trying to say we've got to do it and threaten to quit because then if you - even if you won that, you would win it leaving great scars and wounds in personal relationships. So we had to do it sort of gently and listen to everybody and listen to their arguments and try to understand them and then try to counter them.

GROSS: You said the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers made all other difficult decisions easy at The Washington Post. How?

BRADLEE: Well, because we turned out to have been right. And the Supreme Court agreed with us that we had the right to publish. And I think - I mean, I'm speaking for Katharine Graham, but I think she felt that we had given her good advice. We'd asked her to do what turned out to be the right thing. And so to publish or not to publish never became an issue. She trusted our judgment in these things. I mean, sometimes she may have held her breath, but she thought that these people are really serious about journalism, serious about our principle and not reckless.

GROSS: Do you thrive on making these complicated decisions or are these like Maalox moments for you, where you'd be reaching for the medicine chest - reaching for the medicine?

BRADLEE: Well, there's wonderful - a quality of journalism - if you make a mistake, it's out there for everybody to see, and it stays there. And, you know, it goes right bang into the history books. And it's - there are no known device that you can erase a daily newspaper. I love it. Yeah, I do love that sense that you're dealing with important issues and that you're going to be fair. And you're going - honest, but you're not going to back down.

GROSS: No headaches, ulcers, upset stomachs?

BRADLEE: I've never had an ulcer. The guy - my doctor once told me, you'll never have an ulcer, Bradlee.

GROSS: Well, good for you (laugher).

BRADLEE: And I never have.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1995 interview with the late Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post. In the new film, "The Post," he's portrayed by Tom Hanks. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1995 interview with Ben Bradlee who was The Washington Post executive editor from 1968 to 1991.


GROSS: Well, let's move on to Watergate. What was the first sign that your reporters were onto something pretty spectacular?

BRADLEE: Well, let's start with five Spanish-speaking persons in the Democratic National Committee wearing dark glasses, rubber gloves and carrying walkie talkies and crisp new $100 bills in their pocket at 2 o'clock in the morning. That's what got our attention. And you'd have to be lobotomized not to see that that was interesting.

In a matter of a day, we knew that one of them had a CIA and a White House connection. And in a matter of two weeks, we knew that that money came from a political gift to the committee to re-elect President Nixon, at which point, you know you couldn't have turned back if you tried. There was too much left too unexplained. And the more you dug into it, the more there was to explain and the weaker the explanations became.

GROSS: What was your technique for checking the information that Woodward and Bernstein gave you?

BRADLEE: Well, we drove them crazy with our, you know, demands for explanations of where did you get this. And it was then that we instituted this - the so-called two-source rule where we had to have at least two independent sources for information that they got. They tried a few short cuts in the beginning on that when we suddenly found that of their two sources of information, one of them had received the information from the first source so that it really still was only one source of information.

But, I mean, if you read their books, they will tell you about how difficult Howard Simons, the managing editor, and Len Downie, who was now the executive editor - was then the metropolitan editor - were in forcing them to explain everything.

GROSS: What was it like for The Post to cover the White House during Watergate? Did your sources there shut you out?

BRADLEE: Yeah, they sure did. And the White House correspondent was Carl Kilpatrick, who was a gentle - really, a brilliant journalist, a gentle man, though, and - from Alabama. And he - we made his life tremendously difficult. And to be called - you know, to sit in the White House briefing room while Ziegler or whoever else it was called your paper liars and - was very difficult. And some of the people calling you a liar were quite - there were politicians who held quite high office.

GROSS: You didn't know who Deep Throat was. You know who it is now. But you didn't know...

BRADLEE: I didn't know until a year or two afterwards when - after Woodward and Bernstein published their second book. And people started whining about, you know, how come this man's identity was kept so secret? And I took Woodward out on a park bench in McPherson Square and said the time has come for me to know. I had known, generally, where he worked and what kind of responsibilities he had and how high up he was in the pecking order. But I did not know his name until a couple of years later.

GROSS: Why'd you choose the park bench to pop the question?

BRADLEE: Well, in the sitting (ph) room somebody would have been overhearing me. And we weren't all that sure that our phones weren't tapped.

GROSS: Did he resist you?

BRADLEE: Not at all. I mean, he said, yes, I understand. And he gave me the name.

GROSS: If you were doing Watergate, the Watergate story today, would you insist on knowing who Deep Throat was before publishing?

BRADLEE: Well, probably, yes. I'm not sure - I had such trust in Woodward and because he had been - he's an extraordinary reporter and he had - they'd produced the goods, you know? They just produced the goods. And they weren't wrong. And in newspapers, there develops, say, a bond of trust that's very strong when a reporter's information turns out to be true always.

GROSS: So why are you second guessing that today? Today you're saying you probably would have...

BRADLEE: Well, I got in trouble after that with not knowing, if that's where you're headed. One person's Janet Cooke when she wrote a story that turned out to be a total fraud. I didn't know her source then. And the editors hadn't. And I think I saw that coming. And now I said, well, let's just be sure that somebody in authority knows.

GROSS: Is it hard to keep the Deep Throat secret? Does it ever get to you?

BRADLEE: Not for me. I mean, I haven't told a soul - I mean, a soul. I haven't told my wife. I have never told any of the Grahams because they have never asked me. And it's been remarkably easy to do. You have to be sure that you're ready for the question but it always comes.

GROSS: Right. Ben Bradlee is my guest, former executive editor of The Washington Post, now author of a new memoir called "A Good Life." You write that Watergate marked the final passage of journalism into the seats of the establishment and that you began to feel subconsciously that what the world did not need right away was another investigation that might again threaten the foundations of democracy. And what the newspaper did not need right away was another fight to the finish with another president. So do you feel like you held back on certain stories?

BRADLEE: Well, you know, I think that was floating around in the caverns of my mind. I don't - it wasn't something that governed my actions or that I was conscious governed my actions. You know, that made the country tremble. And it was a constant for two and a half years. Even your friends would occasionally say, are you sure this is going to be good for the country? Well, I was sure that it was going to be good for the country because I believe that the truth sets us all free, even if it's painful.

GROSS: Tell us something about what it was like the day Nixon resigned for you.

BRADLEE: Well, I had so much to do. This is a wonderful part of journalism that there is never any time to say, boy, I feel good, boy, I feel bad, oh, my God, I want to go out and celebrate or, oh, I want to go and grieve. You have an awful lot to do. In our case, we were pretty sure that he was going to resign but we didn't know he was going to resign. We had a 20-page extra section ready to go. And we had the most important, complicated, difficult story to write about how come he resigned when he resigned.

And it was vitally important that that be written fairly and with intelligence. You know, we didn't want to make a silly damn mistake the last day on a story that we had spent, you know, close to 30 months on of our lives.

GROSS: You didn't have print large enough for the size headline you wanted for "Nixon Resigns."

BRADLEE: That's right. We had to print it in the largest type we had and then enlarge that so that it would fill out what was then an eight-column format.

GROSS: Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, recorded in 1995. He died in 2014. He's portrayed by Tom Hanks in the new film "The Post." This is FRESH AIR.