“the First Rough Draft Of History”

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As executive editor of the Washington Post , Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee guides and shapes one of the two or three best newspapers in America. He has been called “a born leader, a quick study … and intuitive. His paper reflects his own interest and hunches. ” He is a brash and outspoken man, and all the world knows when he wins—as with the paper’s daring reporting on Watergate—and when he loses—as in the embarrassing Janet Cooke affair in which Cooke, a Post reporter, had to give up a Pulitzer Prize awarded for a story that turned out to be phony.

Bradlee’s private life is no secret either: it is common knowledge that he is married to one of his star reporters, Sally Quinn, and that at age sixty he became a father again. (He turned sixty-one in August.) Yet few people know what Bradlee really thinks of the press and the Post , of the power and the role of the paper—and the power and the role of the editor.

In April, Bradlee agreed to be interviewed for AMERICAN HERITAGE by his colleague Michael Gartner, editor and president of the highly esteemed Des Moines Register . They spent an afternoon talking in a suite in the Jefferson Hotel in Washington at a time when Central America was cooling down, the Falklands were heating up, and Josiah Quinn Crowninshield Bradlee was arriving. Here, with some expletives deleted, is what they said.

Everyone has read a lot about you. All the world knows who you are. People have chronicled everything from the way you walk—“jaunty”—to your voice—“raspy”—to every detail of your intimate life. You’ve been portrayed in a movie. You’ve been called everything from charming to crude. Someone said you “could easily be mistaken for a bookie.” You sound like a composite character. So let’s skip all that stuff. What I want to know is this: What do you do? What does the executive editor of the Washington Post do?

Well, like the editor of any newspaper, the executive editor of the Post leads a group of more or less talented people and persuades, cajoles, cudgels them to come as close to the truth as they humanly can in a period of twelve or fifteen hours.

How do you do it?

You lead, you inspire. The first thing you do is hire. You surround yourself with the most talented, intelligent, and delightful people you can find, and you let them do their jobs.

And just leave it to them?

Leave it to them. An editor has to stand between the staff of reporters and editors and various other forces, including the public, the government, and the owners.

How do you deal with those pressures? How do you deal with pressures from the owners?

I have worked for only one daily newspaper in my life, and that means I only know one set of owners. They are not typical. In fact, they are unique. So how do you deal with the Grahams? You count your blessings every day, and I mean this without blowing smoke at them. You count your blessings that you are working for someone who’s got a commitment like theirs to quality and to excellence. They own the paper, of course. They have a right to know what the hell’s going on, and they want to know before you go off the thirtyfive-foot board whether there’s water in the pool.

I don’t like liars. I don’t ike people who look me in the eye and tell me a lie and therefore, through me, tell a lie to the world.

Do they ever say, “Don’t dive”?

In all my eighteen years here, they’ve never said that. Although they like to argue it out, talk about it, to know what my motive is.

How do you deal with Presidents and politicians when you’re the executive editor of the Post?

There’s a marvelous saying from the Sayings of the Fathers . It goes, “Love work, hate domination and don’t get too close to the ruling class.” I always thought that was marvelous advice for editors, though it’s advice I’ve not always followed. By a series of accidents, I did get close to one President. For the editor of the Washington Post, and I suspect for other editors, the most important thing about a big shot is, Will he answer the phone if you really need him? I’m not talking about the President, because that would be an exception. But a secretary of state or a secretary of defense or a White House adviser. And that’s about as close as you need to get.

What do you do in return?

Nothing.

Answer your phone if he really needs you?

Sure. But I answer a call from anybody.

You were once quoted as saying, “I want to have some impact on this town and this country.”

I think we’re all in this business to do that. When you reduce it to its idealistic essence, you want to make a difference.

What impact have you had?