Bob Woodward, the legendary Watergate reporter, first suggested to me that I speak with his former boss. "Call Ben," he said. And he gave me Ben Bradlee's email address. And soon enough, Bradlee's assistant was in touch and we danced for a few weeks before we hooked up on the phone.
I was nervous. This was the man, made famous by All the President's Men, who could cuss you out, charm your pants off, speak to you in French, and sniff out a story with the best of them. This was Bradlee -- the man who turned the Washington Post from a nice regional newspaper into an authoritative national voice.
Bradlee, who died last Tuesday at the age of 93, was 91 years old when I talked to him. I was nearing the end of a six-year effort to track down the life story of another legend, Seymour Hersh, who many think is the greatest investigative reporter in American history, unless you think Woodward deserves that moniker.
Hersh bumped into Bradlee a number of times in Hersh's 40 years of reporting stories ranging from the massacre at My Lai, Vietnam, in 1968 (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize) to hidden stockpiling by America of chemical and biological weapons to the torture of civilians at a prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
Their first encounter was 1969 when Hersh, a free-lance writer who had left the Associated Press to document America's biological weapons stockpile, was writing a book on the Pentagon. But in the midst of research he received a tip that an American soldier held in Fort Benning, Georgia, was charged with killing civilians in Vietnam.
Hersh flew to Benning, a mammoth army base, to track down the accused soldier, Lt. William Calley, and coaxed Calley into confessing to what eventually turned out to be nearly 500 civilians -- the dastardly My Lai massacre.
Hersh had the story, but no one wanted to print it. Life magazine, Look magazine -- they all refused to publish an exposé about American soldiers killing old men, women, and children. Just too horrible; too damning; no one wrote such stories. Hersh turned to the Washington Post. He was called in to meet with Bradlee and a group of editors. Bradlee led the grilling, and Hersh ably answered the questions - but he wanted to write the story. The Post simply wanted to buy the information and do its own story.
Hersh refused. It is my story, he said. But, still, he grew to admire Bradlee. No one else would run the story. "It just smelled right," he later said. Nonetheless, Hersh went his own way and syndicated his story to a string of newspapers in late 1969, a story that made headlines across the world's newspapers. Hersh's fame was cemented.
It wasn't Hersh's first brush with the Washington Post. When he worked for the Associated Press from 1964 to 1967, in Chicago and then Washington, he was impatient with the AP's reluctance to crusade and go after big stories. He and a group of young Turks in the D.C. bureau wanted more from the AP -- and from journalism. He sought a job at the Post where he thought Bradlee's leadership would give him opportunities to turn into the investigative reporter he became. But the Post turned him down. Bradlee had no recollection that Hersh ever applied.
"Now," he said in my 2012 interview, "a lot of people mention looking for jobs. The Post was getting a reputation as a good place to work." But Hersh did not get a tumble.
"I always told people I wish the hell I had hired him," Bradlee said.
That feeling increased as the Watergate scandal unfolded beginning in 1972 when Bradlee's two Metro reporters, Carl Bernstein and Woodward, began to sniff out the corruption and coverup that would eventually go into the office of Richard Nixon. They were way ahead in pursuing the story. The New York Times was gnashing its teeth, always a step behind.
So, Abe Rosenthal, the Times' boss working out of New York, told the Washington bureau chief, Clifton Daniel, to insist that Hersh -- hired to be a Times investigative reporter in 1972 -- be put on Watergate. Hersh resisted; he did not like a story that was not his alone, nor did he even know the names of the people in the White House.
Daniel gave him a new sweater and new shirts, and told him to put everything aside and pursue Watergate. Hersh complied, and, in short, he had his first big scoops on Watergate. Hersh traced the money trail paying for the coverup; even Woodward admitted later that Hersh took the story to a new level.
Woodward said the competition and the fact that another newspaper was pursuing the story helped. Bradlee told me, "I wish there more competitors," but he also know that Hersh was beginning to outpace the Post on Watergate. Said Bradlee, "I was sure as hell aware of him."
But memories of competition and getting beat by the Times were not on Bradlee's mind the day we spoke. "I do recall somebody really hustling a story. He was a really serious kind of guy." Of course, Bradlee had his own "serious" guys in Woodward and Bernstein who won the Pulitzer for the Post in 1974. And he lumped them all together in his recollection.
"They worked like hell. They really worked hard," Bradlee said, adding, "You had to get up early in morning to beat the boys." Of course, the "boys" are now 77, 71, and 70 years old. Nonetheless, he offered, "They may be the best of their breed."
Bradlee was unsure what made Hersh tick. "You got to have some kind of thing in your blood that makes u want to do this." But he recalled how "very competitive" Hersh was on the tennis court where they played doubles. "I think I recall some wounds."
Bradlee sounded a bit nostalgic for the days when the Post and the Times dueled and the institution of journalism lived off scoops and leaks. "They changed the kind reporting we do. They institutionalized what we do today. They made it the norm."
"And, you know," he said as we ended the conversation, "we had a helluva good time." So did everyone, Ben, except of course for Nixon and his cohorts.