Ben Bradlee, vice president and executive editor of The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, discussed his recollections of Richard Nixon’s downfall and shared his thoughts on American presidents during two public sessions on campus Monday, Feb. 27. Details...
Bradlee visited campus as Elon’s third Isabella Cannon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership. He held a question-and-answer session with students Monday afternoon in Whitley Auditorium and gave an evening lecture in McCrary Theatre. He said the Watergate story gripped Washington like no story ever had before, with Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein churning out new revelations on an almost daily basis.
“The story just impassioned the city,” Bradlee said. “Woodward and Bernstein were these two children who were suddenly dictating major history in our times. The excitement of the last week (before Nixon’s resignation) was just amazing. I don’t think I went to sleep more than 10 minutes that last week.” Though some accused the Post of being out to get Nixon, “it wasn’t the Post who brought him down, he brought himself down,” Bradlee said.
Bradlee said he never knew the identity of the famous “Deep Throat” source used by Woodward and Bernstein until Watergate was over, and admits he took a gamble by not knowing more about him.
“If he was wrong, we were wrong,” Bradlee said. “I can’t explain why I didn’t insist on meeting him, but it turned out every single bit of information he gave us was right. I have told my successor (at the Post) to get to know these unidentified sources. I think we ran a risk by using it.”
Newspapers must be careful about using unidentified sources, Bradlee believes. “If you don’t identify sources, the idea that the source is a composite or you’re making it up is that much easier to sell to the public.”
Bradlee was a close friend of John F. Kennedy after they became neighbors in the Georgetown section of Washington in 1958 and wrote two books on Kennedy after his assassination in 1963. “You can’t say he was a great president because he wasn’t around long enough, but he was an attractive president,” Bradlee said.
Bradlee remembered Lyndon Johnson as someone who “didn’t trust the press worth a damn, and he didn’t like people who went to Harvard or Yale,” drawing laughter from the audience since Bradlee is a 1942 Harvard graduate. “But he was extremely entertaining and he was also a hell of a good president.”
Bradlee’s impression of President George W. Bush at a recent White House dinner is that of “a totally comfortable, nice, charming person. He was funny. But he’s not very popular right this minute. I don’t think the Bush administration is as interesting or exciting as others.”
Asked about the state of the media today, Bradlee said he reads 3 or 4 newspapers a day, too few for him to make sweeping judgments. “As a general rule, the really good papers have gotten better, and fewer.” The dwindling circulation figures at many newspapers have been brought about not by television, but the Internet, Bradlee said. “We can’t get you youngsters to read the newspaper. That was how we learned to read, fighting the old man for the sports section.”
A major challenge for journalists has always been sorting through spin to get to the real story, Bradlee said. “Listen, everybody spins things. When you go into an interview, you’ve got to know they have a message to get out. The president doesn’t hold a news conference because he feels chatty. He’s got something on his mind.”
Before leaving campus Tuesday, Bradlee conducted a 30-minute video interview with broadcast communications students in the School of Communications on the importance of the First Amendment and Sunshine Laws to working journalists. Fifth grade students from Elon Elementary School took part in the interview. The School of Communications is developing a DVD for elementary school students in local schools on the importance of Sunshine Laws. Distribution of the DVD will coincide with Sunshine Week, March 13-17.