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05.18.10

Ben Bradlee, Making Headlines

Lloyd Grove talks to the legendary Washington Post editor about the future of newspapers, Newsweek’s odds of being successfully sold, the new book he wrote with his son—and his neatness fetish.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee—the Washington Post’s dragon-slaying executive editor during and after Watergate—believes that reports of the demise of newspapers are greatly exaggerated.

“I do,” Ben Bradlee tells me, in the midst of a chat about A Life’s Work: Fathers and Sons, the brief but heartwarming book he has just coauthored with his youngest son Quinn (“with observations,” says the dust jacket, “by Sally Quinn,” the third Mrs. Bradlee and Quinn’s attention-getting mom). “Under the right circumstances, which I think the Post has, newspapers are going to be as vital to a community as ever.”

“I think it’s quite hard to predict that it will be bought,” Bradlee muses today about Newsweek.

In that unmistakable Bradlee voice—the dulcet tones of Boston Brahmin being dragged through gravel—the famed editor explains: “Those circumstances probably include a source of outside income, other than the paper, to take them over the hard years—and the Post has got that. Kaplan [the education and test-preparation subsidiary that accounts for more than half the Post Co.’s revenue] is making money hand over fist, as I understand it, and that’s just great. It allows the Grahams [the company’s ruling family] to never have to make a decision about the Post that’s based entirely on money.”

Bradlee—who, at age 88, is the Post Co.’s vice president at large—is less sanguine about the fate of Newsweek, which chief executive Donald Graham recently decided to disown and put on the block after 49 years in the corporate family. It was Bradlee, the magazine’s Washington bureau chief in 1961, who helped persuade Don’s father, Phil Graham, to acquire it from the Astor Foundation.

book-cover---a-lifes-work
A Life’s Work: Fathers and Sons. By Ben Bradlee and Quinn Bradlee. 158 pages. Simon & Schuster. $19.99. ()

“I think it’s quite hard to predict that it will be bought,” Bradlee muses today. “I mean, it loses money, its prospects for making money are not immediately attractive to some investor—and I don’t know what will happen.”

Bradlee seems very much at ease and approachable in his dotage—the contented beneficiary of A Good Life, as he titled his 1995 memoir. One might even think of him as Gentle Ben—a nickname no sane person would ever have given him when I was working for him at the Post. From 1980 (when I joined the paper as a junior reporter on the Weekend section) until 1991 (when he retired after 23 years as our maximum leader), he was a dashing, charismatic and—to be perfectly honest—scary presence in my life, much more intimidating, when he wanted to be, than Jason Robards playing him in All The President’s Men.

One afternoon, during a period when my disastrously cluttered desk happened to be located within sight of his glass-encased office, he left a typed note on my chair, signed “BCB,” advising me that if I didn’t clean it up by the end of the day, a maintenance crew would be summoned to empty the contents into a dumpster. Pulse racing, I immediately complied, but it took me 22 years to get up the nerve to ask him, “What was up with that?”

Bradlee lets out a hearty laugh. “I don’t know,” he says. “But at one point I got on a neatness jag, and I brought in my chainsaw one morning and I said to somebody, I think Walter Pincus [the Post’s brilliant national security reporter and a notorious messy-desk scofflaw], ‘I’m going to take a chainsaw to this fucking desk!’ ”

Chainsaws—and tidying up—play a central role in A Life’s Work.

“In the Depression, my family was given a house on the north shore of Boston, 20 acres and a couple of houses actually,” Bradlee says. “They had beautiful woods that had just gone to seed, and there had been a beech blight, so it was filled with dead beech trees, a very hard wood to take down in the pre-chainsaw era. This was something that occupied me and my dad for years. I got involved in the outdoors in a way that I never lost, so when we bought this place across the river from St. Mary’s City, Maryland, it was a lot of work to do—to not pretty it up but sort of tidy it up. And so I went about it in my way, and often with Quinn. And there’s not a lot of conversation in these things. It’s more companionship which breeds a kind of a community of interest. We’ve enjoyed it and thought it might be fun to put it down on paper.”

Quinn Bradlee—aka Josiah Quinn Crowninshield Bradlee—was born 28 years ago with a variety of medical problems, most seriously a hole in his heart that required emergency surgery when he was three months old and nearly proved fatal. He was later diagnosed with velo-cardio-facial syndrome, a rare genetic disorder linked to physical symptoms as well as learning disabilities, a challenge he faced head-on in a memoir, A Different Life: Growing Up Learning Disabled and Other Adventures, a documentary film, and on FriendsofQuinn.com, a website that dispenses advice and information to fellow sufferers.

“He was close to not making it,” Quinn’s father tells me, “and it was five years before everybody breathed a sigh of relief and said this kid is a charter member of the human race. He has learning disabilities, but he doesn’t strike people that way. His learning disabilities are not visibly offensive. He doesn’t read much, but he’s written two books. He’s comfortable talking, and he’s a delight. A really delightful, joyous child and a grownup. He’s a great success story. Fathers always think their children are. But he’s overcome difficulties, he’s triumphed really. He’s not pompous, he has a good sense of humor, and he laughs at himself. He’s got a terrific girlfriend, and they’re getting married in October. I'm as proud as I can be.”

The young man's impending wedding to Georgetown yoga instructor Pary Williamson—which on learning that Pary was pregnant, Sally Quinn had briefly scheduled in April, on the same day that Ben's granddaughter Greta Bradlee was planning to get married in California—generated a firestorm of controversy when Sally used her Style section column last February to air dirty laundry about her "dysfunctional family."

Politico reported that both Greta’s father, Ben Bradlee Jr., and his ex-wife, ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz, complained about the column in emails to Post publisher Katharine Weymouth. After scathing criticism of Sally both inside and outside the paper, executive editor Marcus Brauchli ended up killing her Style column for good (though she remains a columnist on the Web).

“Oh, Jesus Christ! That pissed me off, if you want the truth,” Bradlee confides. “What is that all about? That was somebody mad at Sally, I think. It was so far beyond its importance, it’s ridiculous—because Quinn [i.e. Sally] and I still attract a little extra publicity. Who knows why? I mean, it's been years since any one of us had a major role in society around here. The dueling weddings! For 20 minutes, there was a dueling wedding date. It lasted 20 minutes and then everybody said, well, that’s silly, and agreed. So now one wedding is in October and the other one was in April.”

I ask Bradlee—who was famously close to the late Katharine Graham, who hired him away from Newsweek to run The Post, and then shared a foxhole with him during Richard Nixon’s presidency—how he thinks Mrs. Graham’s 44-year-old granddaughter, Katharine, is acquitting herself as the paper’s publisher.

“From everything I see, she’s fine—more than fine,” Bradlee says. “She’s a pistol. I like her a lot. She has high energy and she’s good fun and she’s extremely attractive and very good company…Don gave her the helm very early, and I admire him for that. I always thought he gave it early because he didn’t get it as early as that. But why should he when his mother was doing it?”

As for the publisher’s strong-willed mother, Newsweek senior editor Lally Weymouth, Bradlee seems more ambivalent. He is skeptical of rumors that Lally has been trying to drum up investors among her wealthy friends. “I have not heard that,” he says, “and I think I would’ve heard, had it been true.”

Over the years, Mrs. Graham’s eldest child has made no secret of her wish to be more deeply involved in running The Washington Post Co., but her younger brother Don is the undisputed lord and master. With Lally’s future role at Newsweek potentially in doubt, depending on the buyer, if any, “I don't know what she’s going to do,” Bradlee says. “I mean, it may be a problem for the editor of the Washington Post, but it isn’t for me. I mean, Lally is Lally—a mixture of talent and all that stuff…Katharine [Graham] made her choice. If Lally’s got problems with that, she should solve them.”

In the meantime, as Bradlee is looking at age 89 in August, he continues to live a fabulous life, traveling the globe and, with Sally Quinn, cutting a handsome figure on the Washington scene. “I’m in good health, terribly well-cared for at home—so why examine it under a microscope? I mean, God knows how much longer I’ve got.”

Indeed, Quinn writes wistfully in their book about facing up to the prospect of life without his dad. “Yeah, that’s right,” Bradlee says. “But, on the other hand, he’s had 28 years with me—and that’s been enough for several people!”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.