Ben Bradlee

Meryl Streep just picked up another Academy Award nomination this week, her 89th. Something like that.

This time it’s for her role as Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham in The Post. Tom Hanks, who plays the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee, was snubbed, as they say.

The story revolves around the newspaper’s publication of the Pentagon papers, classified documents detailing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, embarrassing to the government, to say the least.

I interviewed the real Ben Bradlee for television once.  My experience falls under the category of never aspire to meet your heroes. Sometimes that adage applies.

It was 1977, a few years after the Post’s “other” big story, the paper’s coverage of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. 

We met just before Mr. Bradlee spoke at the University of North Dakota, on the eve of a series of lengthy television interviews the former president would do with British television “presenter” David Frost. It was reported that Nixon was being paid $600,000 to sit down with Frost. (That was a lot of money then.) The whole thing was a much-anticipated and highly-hyped event. No one knew if David Frost would get the better of “Tricky Dick” or vice versa.

I asked Mr. Bradlee what he thought was going to come of the interviews. “He’s not going to get anything out of Nixon. David Frost is an entertainer.” A few days later, I would see nearly the same words of Bradlee’s in print somewhere.

True, David Frost was an entertainer, but he was also a journalist and a skilled interviewer. The Nixon-Frost interviews would become Nixon’s conversation of record on Watergate. “I gave them a sword” would be the closest the disgraced president would ever come to admitting guilt in Watergate.

Part of Bradlee’s reluctance to even acknowledge that Mr. Frost would be successful is that it was a different time. Unlike today when Washington Post writers and reporters regularly appear on cable news outlets like CNN, then print and broadcast journalists barely acknowledged the others’ existence, much less cooperated on bringing information to the public.

Later, to his credit, shortly after the Nixon-Frost interviews aired, Mr Bradlee changed his tune completely, admitting that, indeed, David Frost had done a fine job interviewing the former president.

But, sorry to say, that night Mr. Bradlee was as dismissive of me and my line of questions as he was at first of David Frost.

4 Responses

  1. Katherine Cram

    I appreciate your making “The Post” story closer to home, by sharing your experience and insights with truth and reality.

  2. David Virland

    I had a rather similar experience with Daniel Ellsberg giving him a ride from the airport to Grand Forks. He told me not to talk to him and snoozed all the way to his hotel. He got to the UND campus on his own to give a lecture. I no longer remember a word he said but seems to me acollected a large check for whatever it was he said.

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