"Now f--- off, kid."
That's when I knew Ben Bradlee liked me.
It was the fall of 2004, I was a college senior, and Bradlee was a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics. We had just talked for thirty minutes -- an eternity given Ben's attention span -- and he kicked me out with an electric grin.
The IOP fellowship brings a varied assortment of politicians, campaign operatives, and journalists to Cambridge for a semester. Their job is to teach a weekly class and inspire doting undergraduates.
I chaired the committee that selected these fellows -- and it took three years before Bradlee said yes. "What the hell can I teach?" he used to say. Bradlee was a war hero, pal of President Kennedy, bulldog for the First Amendment, and the fearless editor of Watergate. He turned a pedestrian Washington Post into a great paper.
I knew Ben at a time when those accomplishments were in the rear-view mirror, during the last ten years of his life. I don't pretend that we were close friends, but he was a real friend. Even more, he was a teacher.
Tomorrow is Ben's funeral in Washington. At a time when we reflect back, here are a few Bradlee qualities that I will try to remember (and replicate) going forward.
Around Thanksgiving 2004, Ben invited his three student assistants to Washington. The night we arrived, Ben hosted a dinner for us at his famous house in Georgetown--the one where Robert Todd Lincoln used to live, and where he entertained presidents, business titans, and movie stars. Ben's wife was Washington's hostess-with-the-mostest, Sally Quinn. We were beyond intimidated (and so clueless that one of us referred to Sally as "Mrs. Bradlee").
Ben immediately put us at ease with humor. He joked about being in his eighties and not needing Viagra. He rolled up his sleeves to mock the tattoos he got in the Navy. And he stuck to his story that he was ignorant of Jack Kennedy's affairs because they usually got together with their wives and "in that setting, extracurricular screwing didn't really come up."
Over the years, I've gotten to know Sally too. She is independent, deeply savvy, and always head-over-heels for Ben. One summer day on Long Island, I asked her whether she really believed, as Ben said, that he never had a bad day. "Well," she said, "he's had a few bad days but rarely bad weeks." Sally went on to describe the optimism that is at the core of who Ben was: because he believed that things usually worked out, he approached life with a zest and enthusiasm that helped make things work out. Without saying so, I think he believed that happiness is a choice, and that life is a lot more fun if you choose to focus on the bright side.
"He's ballsy!" Ben barked. We were at a very nice restaurant and people's heads turned. It was late 2006, and Ben was describing James A. Baker III, the Republican who co-chaired a commission criticizing President Bush's approach to Iraq, and who just walked into the restaurant. "Ballsy," or some variant thereof, was about the highest compliment Ben could give to a man or a woman. (I never heard him say the famous line about people "clanking when they walk.")
Ben admired fearlessness. This was, of course, deeply connected to his sense of invulnerability. But he had the courage to challenge the government over the Pentagon Papers and take on the president over Watergate--and damn it, you can do whatever you're afraid of too.
Ben admired success and taking a risk and "going for it." At every stage of my career, when I asked him for advice, he pushed me (not always successfully) to do the harder thing with the bigger reward. Two great Bradlee stories come to mind here: just a few years into his time at Newsweek, he found the courage to call the publisher of the Washington Post and told him to buy Newsweek. The deal got done. Ben got promoted to DC bureau chief and earned a large amount of Washington Post stock as a finder's fee.
The other story is, as the saying goes, almost too good to check. Bradlee was meeting with Katherine Graham, who had recently inherited the Post from her husband after he committed suicide. Ben told her that, if the managing editor position were available, he would "give my left one for it." I guess this is also a story about ballsiness.
Nothing offended Ben more than lying, or liars. He was actually planning to write a book on the subject. This was the topic of his class at Harvard, and he could discuss it ad nauseum. Both his highest high (Watergate) and his lowest low (Janet Cooke) were fundamentally about dishonesty. He saw it as a journalist's job to expose the truth, to question the first version of events, to be a skeptic. But unlike many others who had seen the dark side of the world, Ben never lost faith in the system. He just believed that government was like his farm in Maryland; it required someone with a chainsaw to clear out the rot.