Skip to main content

Former 'Post' Executive Editor Ben Bradlee On Publishing The Pentagon Papers

Bradlee served as executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. In 1995, he told Fresh Air about his decision to publish the top secret documents related to U.S. policy making in Vietnam.


Other segments from the episode on December 15, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 15, 2017: Interview with Katherine Graham; Interview with Ben Bradlee; Review of film 'Star Wars: the last Jedi.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "The Post," directed by Steven Spielberg, is about how the Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee defied a federal judge by publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department history of the war in Vietnam. Graham and Bradlee risked going to jail and the ruin of the paper. Today, we're going to hear interviews from our archive with the late Graham and Bradlee. In the new film, they're played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Here's a clip in which Bradlee pulls Graham aside to tell her they're close to getting a copy of the Pentagon Papers. Graham is nervous about the idea of publishing them.


TOM HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) So can I ask you a hypothetical question?

MERYL STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) Oh, dear. I don't like hypothetical questions.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Well, I don't think you're going to find the real one either.

STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) Do you have the papers?

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Not yet.

STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) Oh, gosh. Oh, gosh - because you know the position that would put me in. You know, we have language in the prospectus.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) I know. I know that the vendors can't change their mind. And I know what is at stake. You know, the only couple I knew that both Kennedy and LBJ wanted to socialize with was you and your husband. And you owned the damn paper. I guess that's the way things worked. Politicians and the press, they trusted each other. So they could go to the same dinner party and drink cocktails and tell jokes while there was a war raging in Vietnam.

STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) I don't know what we're talking about. I'm not protecting Lyndon.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) No, you got his former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the man who commissioned this study. He's one of about a dozen party guests out on your patio.

STREEP: (As Katharine Graham) I'm not protecting him. I'm not protecting any of them. I'm protecting the paper.

GROSS: So that's Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. We're going to start with my interview with Katharine Graham, recorded in 1997 after the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir. She died in 2001 at the age of 84. Graham took over The Washington Post in 1963 at a time when newspaper women were pretty much confined to the women's pages. She led the Post through its transformation from a mediocre paper into a major force in the political life of Washington and the nation. She gave the go-ahead on the publication of the Pentagon Papers and had reporters keep on the Watergate story in spite of White House pressure to get off it.

Before she retired in 1993, she was sometimes called the Iron Lady. But her memoir revealed the insecurities beneath the surface. The Post was a family-owned paper. Graham unexpectedly inherited the position of publisher when her husband Philip Graham committed suicide in 1963. He had taken over the paper from Katharine Graham's father when he retired. Her father made his fortune on Wall Street. He purchased the Post in 1933 when she was in high school. Here's an excerpt of our interview.


GROSS: You made Ben Bradlee the managing editor of The Washington Post, a move probably no one would dispute was a smart move. He became a very close working partner of yours. And you had a long and, I think, very gratifying working relationship with him. How did you decide to make him managing editor?

KATHARINE GRAHAM: Little by little, I realized from things that happened, like people applying to be editor. Or my friend Scotty Reston of The New York Times said, don't you want a hand on a better paper to your children than you inherited? And on the job, I realized that there was discontent in the city room and that things were not going as well as they should have been. And all this dawned on me gradually. And so I began thinking about it.

And by accident, Ben Bradlee had been - he was then-bureau chief of Newsweek in Washington. And he had been offered two or three jobs to go to New York and get on the ladder and be one of the principal editors at Newsweek. And he turned them down. I think, first of all, because between him and his wife they had six children. And he liked Washington, and he didn't move. And I thought, well, I better go talk to Ben because I didn't really know him very well. But I had heard great things about how he was running the bureau and how he was attracting talent and how the bureau was good.

And so I asked him to lunch. And I took him to a club because I'd never asked a man to lunch. And I didn't want to pay the bill. It's really funny. And so we went to a club I belong to. And I said, what is it that you do want to do? I noticed you've turned these jobs down in New York. And, of course, Ben being Ben said, well, now that you asked me, I'd give my left one to the managing editor of the Post. I know that's a little bit vulgar, but Ben talks like that. And I was really brought up short because I didn't expect that.

And the managing editor of The Post was an old-timer, had been very loyal and was a personal friend. And so I said that's not possible in the near future - maybe someday. And then Ben began pushing. And I'd run into him, and he'd say, now when are we going to talk? And I'd say, Ben, let's cool it, and it's too quick. And Ben kept pushing. And finally - first of all, I sort of resented it and wondered why, since he didn't have the job, he had the nerve to be so pushy. And thinking it over, I thought, well, maybe that kind of energy and that kind of drive is what we need.

And so I checked up on him, with people like Walter Lippmann and the people at Newsweek, and asked everybody what they thought. And they all thought that was a great idea. And so eventually I persuaded the editors to bring him over as an assistant editor. They at first said, oh, fine, he can come on as a reporter like everybody else. And I said, no, no, I think this is needed in management. And finally, he came over. And that began the process of his succeeding the editor.

GROSS: One of the defining moments in your career in journalism, and in the life of the Washington Post, is when you and Ben Bradlee decided to publish the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the war in Vietnam. And Ben Bradlee was saying publish it and publish it quickly. But your lawyers were saying wait. Don't publish it so quickly. In fact, maybe you shouldn't publish it at all. So either take your time, or don't do it. But don't rush into it. How did you make up your mind, being in between your lawyers and Bradlee and knowing that this was going to be a really important decision?

GRAHAM: It was - I had to do it very quickly in about a minute because I - the editors and the head of the company Fritz Beebe were at Ben's house. And they were writing and trying to keep it secret. And the lawyers were there, and they were saying that it was very dangerous. And indeed, we shouldn't publish because the Times had been enjoined already from publishing by the government, who had taken them to court. And we were in the process of going public. We had announced our plans and not sold the stock. So we were particularly liable to any kind of criminal prosecution from the government.

So finally they called me up because it got so late, and the argument got so tense, and said you're going to have to decide this. And I said, well, why do we have to do it right away? The Times took three months. And they - the editors all got on the phone. And the businesspeople were on the other phone saying wait a day. The editors were saying we mustn't wait a day. Everybody knows we have these papers. And we have to maintain the momentum that was stopped when the Times was enjoined. And it's very important. People have their eyes on us. And we have to publish.

And so I listened to them. And finally after talking to both sides, I asked my colleague Fritz Beebe what he would do. And he was a lawyer. And he said, I guess I would not. And that made it hard but not impossible. He said it in such a way that I thought he's leaving it up to me. And I can do this. And so I said let's go. Let's publish. And I hung up because I was so freaked out by having had to make that decision so fast.

GROSS: Did you have to decide at that moment what your guiding principles were - whether your guiding principles had more to do with journalism or with just protecting the profits of the company?

GRAHAM: You know, I made speeches at the time. And I made them for rather another reason, which is that my image on Wall Street was that - when we went public, which was later in 1971, I was this kind of nutty woman who was taking these risks with the company. And I started talking about excellence and profitability go hand in hand. And I really did it to show Wall Street that I cared about profitability because they thought I didn't. But in fact, I think it's true. And I really believed it - that if you invested in the editorial product and build up the production and business side, I really believed it - that if you invested in the editorial product and built up the production and business side, that it would work. And to a large extent, it did and has.

GROSS: You built up a lot of animosity from the White House toward The Washington Post through publishing the Pentagon Papers and then breaking the Watergate story. And you say in the book, bearing the full brunt of presidential wrath is always disturbing. Now, you have told us about how insecure you were, the kind of low self-esteem you had as a professional when you took over The Post. And here you are, now being criticized by the White House. Did you feel personally able to deal with that kind of criticism?

GRAHAM: It was pretty scary. And you had to deal with it. Some people have referred to that as courageous. And I didn't view it as courageous. I viewed it as we had no choice. I think courage is when you have a choice, and you choose to be courageous. I thought we had no choice once we got in the Watergate reporting. In the Pentagon Papers - that's true - we did have a choice for about a minute.

In Watergate, you were - it was like wading into a river. By the time you realize how serious it was, which was several months into the story, we were into it up to our waists. And then there was no way you could go back. You had to go forward. And so I simply had to live with it. I was very anxious. I lay about a foot above the bed, worrying at night. But I also didn't think we had any choice except to proceed and to back the editors and reporters in whom I believed.

GROSS: Were you worried that, one day, you'd find out that you were being misled, that you were set up, you were the victim of some kind of scam?

GRAHAM: Indeed I was. I used to go down and talk to Ben and Howard Simons, the managing editor, all the time and ask, are we being fair? Are we being accurate? And are we being set up or misled so that our heads can be chopped off? And they had good answers to these, and they were really reassuring. I don't think they were as assured themselves inwardly as they seemed to be to me.

But they said that some of our sources were Republican and that because we had the story to ourselves that Woodward and Bernstein had time to check and that they often withdrew a story by themselves unless they were - and they had two sources for everything. And thirdly, that Woodward had a source, particular source, to whom he went when he was really bothered and puzzled and that this source had never misled him. And, of course, the source was later christened by the managing editor, Howard Simons, Deep Throat. I know - I still don't know who Deep Throat was. I didn't know then, and I don't know now.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1997 interview with Katharine Graham, the former president and publisher of The Washington Post. She died in 2001. The identity of Deep Throat, FBI Special Agent Mark Felt, was revealed four years later. In this excerpt of our interview, we talked about how Graham unexpectedly inherited the position of publisher in 1963 after her husband, Philip Graham, committed suicide.


GROSS: You write that early on after taking over The Post, you were encumbered by a deep feeling of uncertainty and inferiority and the need to be - to please and to be liked. You say, I was unable to make a decision that might displease those around me. How did that affect your decision making early on and your interactions with the staff?

GRAHAM: Oh, it got in my way a lot, but it's a very - lot of - it tends to be female baggage, and it still is to some extent. But it was much worse then. The way it affected my performance is that I couldn't say, I've listened to everybody, and now I think we ought to do this. I had to get everybody to agree to whatever it was. And if everybody didn't agree, I'd go around, begging them to see my point of view. And it was just a very poor way to be a leader.

GROSS: Suddenly, you were - your social circle expanded, but that circle was really pretty similar to the one you'd had before with your husband. But now, instead of being the wife, you were the publisher in that circle. How did that change your behavior in that circle? And was there an uncomfortable transition (laughter)?

GRAHAM: I think it was very gradual because I was used to the people I was relating to. I just gradually grew used to it. And I realized that I was going to be conspicuous because I had the job I had. At one point, I was at my friend Joe Alsop's for dinner, and I had been used to the women and the men parting company after Washington dinners, while the men talked about issues and the women went and powdered their nose and discussed their households.

And at one point, I suddenly realized that I'd been working all day, that I'd been involved in an editorial lunch with somebody who was in the news and that I'd been working and that now I was being asked to go in the other room with the wives. And I said to Joe, who was a good friend, I hope you won't mind if I slip out of here because the paper comes, and I really can use the time better than going into that room with the wives.

And he said, oh, darling, you can't do that. And I said, sure I can. I mean, it's just I don't want to use my time like that, Joe. And so he was so upset that he made me stay. And he broke up the segregation. And then it broke up all over Washington. So that was an instance where, I guess, suddenly I realized that I was in the working world and that I didn't have to do those things.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1997 interview with Katharine Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post. In the new movie "The Post," she's portrayed by Meryl Streep. We'll hear more about The Washington Post after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1997 interview with Katharine Graham, who was the publisher of The Washington Post when it published its Watergate investigations and the Pentagon Papers.


GROSS: When you took over The Post, there were few women in journalism and far fewer women in the kind of upper position that you held. You said that early on, you didn't realize that part of what you were experiencing was emblematic of the larger issues in the women's movement. What made you realize that your life really connected to the issues of the women's movement?

GRAHAM: Two things. One is simply experience in the workplace and being talked to by women and issues coming up such as really little issues but they were symbolic. I was - there's a big newspaper dinner and no women had ever been invited called the Gridiron in Washington. And I was invited as a guest. And the women rose up in the paper and wrote me and said, please don't go until there's a woman member. And at first, I was startled and said, you know, I was rather thrilled to go. And after all, it was a gesture toward opening up.

And they said, no, you know, until as a member, don't please go. And we feel very strongly about this. And so I didn't. And, of course, it made me aware of those issues. But the other thing that was as important if not more so was the rise of the women's movement. In particular, I became a friend of Gloria Steinem. And she argued with me about women's positions and how I should understand them. And at first, I said, oh, Gloria, you know that's not for me. And she said, yes, it is. If you understand what this is about, it will make your life better and it will make other people's lives better around you. And she was right. So those two things, experience and Gloria.

GROSS: OK, so when you realized that Steinem was right and you more personally and intellectually connected to the women's movement, how did that change you personally and change the way you managed The Post?

GRAHAM: I think it made you certainly more aware of women's problems in the workplace and of the need to get more women in the workplace. It made me more aware of bias in the news, such as somebody being described as a 58-year-old, gray-haired grandmother. And I realized that I had to do something and try to make things better in the company. I know - I didn't always succeed because I didn't quite know how to go about it in some cases. I didn't know how to lean on people who were doing a wonderful job but who were blatant male chauvinists and make them understand the issues.

But little by little, we made progress. And some of it was due to being sued.

GROSS: The Post was sued.

GRAHAM: Newsweek was sued, the stations were sued and The Post.

GROSS: Did you ever confront a man about his chauvinism on the job?

GRAHAM: Yes, I wrote a note once that I found in the files in which somebody at - a personnel director had circulated a memo. And he had referred to the men as Brown (ph), Smith (ph) and Jones (ph). And it was - the women were Mary (ph), Sue (ph) and Margaret (ph). And I said, wait a minute here, why are we referred to by our first name and the other guys are last names? Another instance in which the issue arose was that I recommended a woman to be back of the book editor at Newsweek and the editors just said, that's impossible. We can't do that.

And I must say, I mean, we work long hours, we work weekends, we're here at night. And I stupidly accepted this. And then finally, we were sued by the women at Newsweek. And the editor and Frederick Beebe called me up - and I was on vacation - said, the women are suing us and this is very serious. And I said, whose side am I supposed to be on? And Fritz Beebe, my colleague, whom I really loved and respected, said, this isn't funny. And I said, I know it isn't funny, and I'm serious. And on the other hand, as a manager, it bothered me and I got offended by these suits. But they were right.

GROSS: Katharine Graham recorded in 1997. We'll hear an interview with Ben Bradlee after a break. They're both portrayed in the new film "The Post." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new Steven Spielberg movie "The Post" is about how The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Ben Bradlee in 1995. He died in 2014 at the age of 93. Bradlee was the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, described Bradlee as the most charismatic and consequential newspaper editor of his time.

In a 1995 New Yorker profile, Remnick wrote, Bradlee arrived at a mediocre paper and with publisher Katharine Graham's money and support, made it great. The biggest story covered under Bradlee's watch was Watergate, which forced the resignation of President Nixon. The first big risk Bradlee took was publishing the Pentagon Papers, the top secret documents that revealed the history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The New York Times had already published several installments. But the Justice Department got an injunction against the paper, preventing it from publishing further excerpts. Then the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the Post. I asked Bradlee why it was important for the Post to publish the Pentagon Papers.


BEN BRADLEE: Failure to publish after The New York Times had published would have relegated The Post to a status of a kind of a pro-government establishment organization which didn't want to take on the government, didn't want to fight for its constitutional rights. And it seems to me, it would have forever relegated us to a sort of second-class citizenship. It wasn't my decision. But, I mean, I wanted to publish from day one, moment one. It was Katharine Graham's decision. And she was - it was a great decision. And it made all future decisions of an editorial nature at The Washington Post kind of automatic and easy.

GROSS: Well, what were the risks?

BRADLEE: Well, there were some interesting risks because if we had been - this was a civil suit. If we had been enjoined - mind you, no newspaper in the history of the country, which was then 190-some years old, had ever been stopped from publishing something it wanted to publish beforehand, prior restraint. So that was a wonderful principle to fight for.

The other thing is that if we had been convicted of that, if the judge had stopped us from publishing something, the Nixon administration was - it was quite obvious - was going to go after us on criminal violations - violating the code against publishing confidential and national security matters. If had we been convicted of that - you cannot own television stations if you are a convicted felon, and that would have been a felony. And we had about a $100 billion of television stations that we would have lost.

The Post had just gone public in the New York Stock Exchange. Shares in The Post were offered for sale for the first time to the public. And that was seriously threatened. So it was no casual decision that was involved.

GROSS: What did your lawyers have to say?

BRADLEE: Well, the lawyers were great, really. They didn't - they all argued, initially, against publishing and - but understood our points. The chief - the legal voice that we listened to most was - came from a man called Fritz Beebe who was really - had been a Wall Street lawyer and had joined The Washington Post Company as president. And when he finally made his recommendation, he made it so cautiously and hedged it so much that he thought, on balance, maybe we better not print. It was easy for Katharine to say let's go.

GROSS: There's a great story you tell about a phone call that I think really took a lot of chutzpah (laughter) to get...

BRADLEE: Who me?

GROSS: ...(Laughter) To get a friend of yours, who is a judge, on the phone so you could get his advice. But, of course, he was arguing a case in court at the time. Tell us what you did.

BRADLEE: Well, he wasn't a judge. He was a lawyer.

GROSS: I mean a lawyer. I meant a lawyer.

BRADLEE: It was Edward Bennett Williams who was the famous defense attorney and a friend of mine for already 20 years. And he was - he would have defended us had he been in Washington, but he was trying a case in Chicago. I called up the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim Hoge, and said, I need to get a message to Edward Williams - Edward Bennett Williams in such and such a courthouse immediately. And the message was, please, call me, urgent. And in a matter of minutes, Williams called me back.

And I talked for about 12 minutes and said, this is what we've got. This is what we want to do. These are the documents. This is what The New York Times has done. This is what the court with First Circuit New York had enjoined them from. And we want to publish. And I want you to tell me whether you think we should and why.

And he sort of was silent for a split second - a split minute and finally said, you got to publish it. You've just got to do it because it wasn't in a sense of Plessy v. Ferguson that we had the right to blah, blah, blah. But he just sensed in his guts that to become an important player in the American scene, we had to do it. And I think that was enormously influential to - with Katharine Graham to help her make up her mind because she admired William so much, as we all did.

GROSS: So how much of the decision to publish was so that The Post could become a more respected player and how much of it was all the lofty principles about freedom of the press?

BRADLEE: That's a good question, too, because, you know, in the last - it was 7,000 pages, although we only had 4,000 of them. We got them at 10:30 in the morning, and we published at 10:30 that night the - our first story. No one ever read the Pentagon Papers. They really didn't, you know? We could only read - each of us read sections of it. Then we - for about eight hours we read and then had a news conference and decided what we could publish.

The - what mystified us all was that the Pentagon Papers ended with matters - with the decision-making process in Vietnam before President Nixon took office, and, therefore, he was talking about the Johnson administration and the Kennedy administration and the Eisenhower administration. That's what the Pentagon makers - Pentagon Papers were about.

So I think, you know, it was - it dealt with the origins of the most important event in the middle of the 20th century, and, therefore, it had an intrinsic importance to it. But we also - it was a principle that is really fundamental to a free press. We've got to be able to publish what we want then get punished if we did wrong then get pursued by - privately by people that we may have libeled or publicly for violating the law.

GROSS: Now give me a sense of what your style was like when you were making your case to Katharine Graham and to the lawyers. Did you make speeches about freedom of the press? Did you insult your opponents in the newsroom? What was your style?

BRADLEE: No, I had no opponents in the newsroom. I had the lawyers to worry about.

GROSS: The lawyers - yeah, OK.

BRADLEE: We were - we had - it was - all of this was taking place in my house in Georgetown. We had two fairly large rooms. And one of them was sort of a temporary city room where a bunch of reporters and a couple of news aides and a copy editor or two were actually reading the documents, making up their mind what story to run, what story could they get into shape to run that night. And in the other room, we had the lawyers and the representatives of the owners and a couple of editors from the editorial page. And I shuttled between the two trying to make up my mind and learn the content and then trying to steer the conversation to the verdict I wanted.

There was no point in trying to say we've got to do it and threaten to quit because then if you - even if you won that, you would win it leaving great scars and wounds in personal relationships. So we had to do it sort of gently and listen to everybody and listen to their arguments and try to understand them and then try to counter them.

GROSS: You said the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers made all other difficult decisions easy at The Washington Post. How?

BRADLEE: Well, because we turned out to have been right. And the Supreme Court agreed with us that we had the right to publish. And I think - I mean, I'm speaking for Katharine Graham, but I think she felt that we had given her good advice. We'd asked her to do what turned out to be the right thing. And so to publish or not to publish never became an issue. She trusted our judgment in these things. I mean, sometimes she may have held her breath, but she thought that these people are really serious about journalism, serious about our principle and not reckless.

GROSS: Do you thrive on making these complicated decisions or are these like Maalox moments for you, where you'd be reaching for the medicine chest - reaching for the medicine?

BRADLEE: Well, there's wonderful - a quality of journalism - if you make a mistake, it's out there for everybody to see, and it stays there. And, you know, it goes right bang into the history books. And it's - there are no known device that you can erase a daily newspaper. I love it. Yeah, I do love that sense that you're dealing with important issues and that you're going to be fair. And you're going - honest, but you're not going to back down.

GROSS: No headaches, ulcers, upset stomachs?

BRADLEE: I've never had an ulcer. The guy - my doctor once told me, you'll never have an ulcer, Bradlee.

GROSS: Well, good for you (laugher).

BRADLEE: And I never have.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1995 interview with the late Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post. In the new film, "The Post," he's portrayed by Tom Hanks. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1995 interview with Ben Bradlee who was The Washington Post executive editor from 1968 to 1991.


GROSS: Well, let's move on to Watergate. What was the first sign that your reporters were onto something pretty spectacular?

BRADLEE: Well, let's start with five Spanish-speaking persons in the Democratic National Committee wearing dark glasses, rubber gloves and carrying walkie talkies and crisp new $100 bills in their pocket at 2 o'clock in the morning. That's what got our attention. And you'd have to be lobotomized not to see that that was interesting.

In a matter of a day, we knew that one of them had a CIA and a White House connection. And in a matter of two weeks, we knew that that money came from a political gift to the committee to re-elect President Nixon, at which point, you know you couldn't have turned back if you tried. There was too much left too unexplained. And the more you dug into it, the more there was to explain and the weaker the explanations became.

GROSS: What was your technique for checking the information that Woodward and Bernstein gave you?

BRADLEE: Well, we drove them crazy with our, you know, demands for explanations of where did you get this. And it was then that we instituted this - the so-called two-source rule where we had to have at least two independent sources for information that they got. They tried a few short cuts in the beginning on that when we suddenly found that of their two sources of information, one of them had received the information from the first source so that it really still was only one source of information.

But, I mean, if you read their books, they will tell you about how difficult Howard Simons, the managing editor, and Len Downie, who was now the executive editor - was then the metropolitan editor - were in forcing them to explain everything.

GROSS: What was it like for The Post to cover the White House during Watergate? Did your sources there shut you out?

BRADLEE: Yeah, they sure did. And the White House correspondent was Carl Kilpatrick, who was a gentle - really, a brilliant journalist, a gentle man, though, and - from Alabama. And he - we made his life tremendously difficult. And to be called - you know, to sit in the White House briefing room while Ziegler or whoever else it was called your paper liars and - was very difficult. And some of the people calling you a liar were quite - there were politicians who held quite high office.

GROSS: You didn't know who Deep Throat was. You know who it is now. But you didn't know...

BRADLEE: I didn't know until a year or two afterwards when - after Woodward and Bernstein published their second book. And people started whining about, you know, how come this man's identity was kept so secret? And I took Woodward out on a park bench in McPherson Square and said the time has come for me to know. I had known, generally, where he worked and what kind of responsibilities he had and how high up he was in the pecking order. But I did not know his name until a couple of years later.

GROSS: Why'd you choose the park bench to pop the question?

BRADLEE: Well, in the sitting (ph) room somebody would have been overhearing me. And we weren't all that sure that our phones weren't tapped.

GROSS: Did he resist you?

BRADLEE: Not at all. I mean, he said, yes, I understand. And he gave me the name.

GROSS: If you were doing Watergate, the Watergate story today, would you insist on knowing who Deep Throat was before publishing?

BRADLEE: Well, probably, yes. I'm not sure - I had such trust in Woodward and because he had been - he's an extraordinary reporter and he had - they'd produced the goods, you know? They just produced the goods. And they weren't wrong. And in newspapers, there develops, say, a bond of trust that's very strong when a reporter's information turns out to be true always.

GROSS: So why are you second guessing that today? Today you're saying you probably would have...

BRADLEE: Well, I got in trouble after that with not knowing, if that's where you're headed. One person's Janet Cooke when she wrote a story that turned out to be a total fraud. I didn't know her source then. And the editors hadn't. And I think I saw that coming. And now I said, well, let's just be sure that somebody in authority knows.

GROSS: Is it hard to keep the Deep Throat secret? Does it ever get to you?

BRADLEE: Not for me. I mean, I haven't told a soul - I mean, a soul. I haven't told my wife. I have never told any of the Grahams because they have never asked me. And it's been remarkably easy to do. You have to be sure that you're ready for the question but it always comes.

GROSS: Right. Ben Bradlee is my guest, former executive editor of The Washington Post, now author of a new memoir called "A Good Life." You write that Watergate marked the final passage of journalism into the seats of the establishment and that you began to feel subconsciously that what the world did not need right away was another investigation that might again threaten the foundations of democracy. And what the newspaper did not need right away was another fight to the finish with another president. So do you feel like you held back on certain stories?

BRADLEE: Well, you know, I think that was floating around in the caverns of my mind. I don't - it wasn't something that governed my actions or that I was conscious governed my actions. You know, that made the country tremble. And it was a constant for two and a half years. Even your friends would occasionally say, are you sure this is going to be good for the country? Well, I was sure that it was going to be good for the country because I believe that the truth sets us all free, even if it's painful.

GROSS: Tell us something about what it was like the day Nixon resigned for you.

BRADLEE: Well, I had so much to do. This is a wonderful part of journalism that there is never any time to say, boy, I feel good, boy, I feel bad, oh, my God, I want to go out and celebrate or, oh, I want to go and grieve. You have an awful lot to do. In our case, we were pretty sure that he was going to resign but we didn't know he was going to resign. We had a 20-page extra section ready to go. And we had the most important, complicated, difficult story to write about how come he resigned when he resigned.

And it was vitally important that that be written fairly and with intelligence. You know, we didn't want to make a silly damn mistake the last day on a story that we had spent, you know, close to 30 months on of our lives.

GROSS: You didn't have print large enough for the size headline you wanted for "Nixon Resigns."

BRADLEE: That's right. We had to print it in the largest type we had and then enlarge that so that it would fill out what was then an eight-column format.

GROSS: Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, recorded in 1995. He died in 2014. He's portrayed by Tom Hanks in the new film "The Post." This is FRESH AIR.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'Noir Alley' host celebrates cinema's double crosses and doomed characters

Eddie Muller's book, Dark City, chronicles film noir from the '40s and '50s. He says the genre draws on a "very dark vision of existence." Originally broadcast Oct. 21, 2022.


Pianist David Virelles shows off the depth and breadth of what he can do on 'Nuna'

Though he's been a New Yorker for over a decade, Virelles remains preoccupied with the rich, rhythmically charged music of his native Cuba. His new album shows where he's been — and where he's going.


Did the Trump camp help far-right militia groups plan the Jan. 6 attack?

New York Times journalist Alan Feuer says some members of Trump's inner circle have close ties to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, whose leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue