PopPolitics: ‘The Newspaperman’ Tells Ben Bradlee’s Story at a Key Moment for Journalism

The Newspaperman Ben Bradlee
Courtesy of HBO

On a wall at the Washington Post headquarters is a quote from Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor for whom a conference room is named. It reads, “The truth, no matter how bad, is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run.”

Sally Quinn, Bradlee’s widow, mentions this in talking about the timeliness of a new documentary about him, “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee,” which debuts on HBO on Monday. It is affectionate and candid, particularly in describing Bradlee’s close friendship with John F. Kennedy while Bradlee was also covering the administration as Washington bureau chief for Newsweek. It also captures, in great detail, the crisis at the Post in the 1980s, when Bradlee grappled with the Janet Cooke scandal. She was a reporter whose Pulitzer Prize-winning account of an eight-year-old heroin addict was later revealed to be fabricated.

The documentary also focuses on what can best be described as moments of inspiration, particularly Bradlee’s leadership during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, when he went up against the pressures of the Nixon administration. They proved to be watershed events in American journalism and the First Amendment.

“What I hope people will take away from this movie is that it is the lie that is the enemy of the people, and not the journalists who are exposing the lie,” Quinn says.

The documentary features interviews with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Henry Kissinger, Robert Redford, and a number of others, but it is all the more authentic because it is narrated by Bradlee himself. The recording was taken from an audio reading that Bradlee once did of his memoir, “A Good Life.”

Quinn and the director of the documentary, John Maggio, recently talked about the project in an interview with Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM, the day after a premiere screening in Washington.

So how did you come up with the idea? How did approach Sally and the rest of the Bradlee family about doing this project?

MAGGIO: It was really Quinn Bradlee [Bradlee’s son] who went to Richard Plepler, the head of HBO, and said we really should do a film on my father. Richard Plepler said that it was the quickest yes he has ever given to a film. It was a real no brainer for him. But the idea really came from Quinn. And Richard went to a longtime collaborator of mine Peter Kunhardt and Peter came to me to direct the film.

Did you have any misgivings, because it is an incredibly personal documentary?

QUINN: No. I had no misgivings. It is very personal, and I was talking to John earlier and saying that one of the things that people kept coming up and saying to me last night [was] that … it is so candid. It is so authentic. And I was telling John I was surprised by that because what would they expect from Ben? Of course it was candid. Ben had nothing to hide. I had nothing to hide. He had written his book. His book was very candid and very honest so what would be my misgivings about it? I had none.

John, were you surprised at how forthcoming Ben’s children, or even Sally, were? 

MAGGIO: There is a truism about Ben. Of all the people I talked to about Ben, who worked for Ben, he trusted. As an artist, as a writer, as a journalist, if you don’t have that trust from the people you are working with, then you really can’t work. I had Sally’s trust almost immediately. We spent hours on camera and off camera talking about Ben. The same is true with the rest of the family. What it is to me is a testament to Ben. Everyone wanted to testify about Ben. The doors flew open. Kissinger. John Dean. Redford. Of course Woodward and Bernstein. You name it. Everybody wanted to tell not just the well-worn chestnuts we have heard but they gave me a lot of time, many hours of sitting down and interviewing, and gave me really honest takes on Ben. And I think that was a testament to who Ben was. He was;t a bullshit artist and he hated bullshit. And so nobody bullshitted me.

QUINN: I think he would have loved the film. I think he absolutely would have loved it.

Were there stories about Ben that surprised you?

QUINN: Ben and I were together for 43 years, and I had worked with him at the Washington Post for four years before we got together. I had worked there during the Pentagon Papers, and Ben and I actually got together during Watergate, which was very dicey, because he was being followed and thought his phones were being tapped, so that was tricky. So we were together during the Watergate period. And he had told me about all of the Kennedy years, and his relationship with Kennedy, and so there was really nothing I didn’t know when I watched the film.

The film talks a lot about his relationship to John F. Kennedy. It seems like such a different era. The whole idea a news reporter can become good friends with the president of the United States.

MAGGIO: Ben was sort of in the middle of the ‘Camelot’ that Jackie had been creating. And of course, everybody was critical of Ben about that. That is part of the honesty that people respond to, is that all of his friends and colleagues and people who worked with him questioned whether he should have gotten that close. And of course [journalist] Richard Cohen has a great line, ‘Well what was he going to do when the president calls you up and invites you to dinner at the White House? Not go?’

I think too that it was a different era. And that is one of the great things about Ben too is that he bridges so many eras of journalism — that era that we didn’t report on that stuff, through the Vietnam era, through the 80s. Ben was there through all of it.

The Kennedy stuff was just a real surprise .That footage that you see of Kennedy, we have all seen in the past. It is not new. It is not until you turn the lens and say, well who is next to Kennedy? And you see that it is Ben Bradlee. He is golfing with JFK, and they are having dinner together. It is really a remarkable moment in the film.

The movie delves into the question of just how much that Ben Bradlee knew of Kennedy’s affairs.

QUINN: I am telling you he did not know, and it seems hard to imagine today. But I think it is because the four of them  [the Kennedys and the Bradlees] were so close. … Things were different in those days. The word was out among a lot of journalists, but they never would have in those days reported about it. But I think people just didn’t talk to Ben about it because they were such close friends.

I swear to you — he swore to me — that he never knew that Jack was screwing around. He said that one night there was a party at the White House and there were all these beautiful women, and Ben and Jack were sort of standing on the sidelines watching all of these fabulous glamorous people dancing and swirling around. Jack said, ‘Benji, if only you and I weren’t married, what good fun we could have,’ or something to that effect. If we could just run free. And Ben thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ He didn’t realize that Jack was actually running free. And he did say that there was one time when … he was traveling with Kennedy, and they went to Las Vegas, and they were going to have dinner together. And one of Jack’s people, I think it was Dave Powers, called Ben and said, ‘You know Jack actually can’t do dinner tonight. He’s got to work. So we are just going to have to call off dinner.’ And Ben didn’t think anything of it, until after Jack died, and after all these stories came out, and then he thought, ‘Hmm. I bet it was not a work event that night.’ But he really didn’t know.

When you think of Ben Bradlee, you think of Watergate. Do you think that the Watergate era kind of obscured the role that Ben played in the Pentagon Papers?

MAGGIO: Well, if that is the case, it is about to change, given the Steven Spielberg movie [“The Post”] coming up, it really is the winter of Ben Bradlee and rightly so.

Obviously we go right to Watergate, but I got to be honest with you, for me a lot of the Pentagon Papers was a New York Times story first, and then for me, once I got to know Ben, and Ben and [Washington Post publisher] Kay Graham’s relationship….  It was about trust, the trust that Kay put in Ben to do the right thing. And as you see in the film, even her son says that at the time she was very insecure about her role in running the newspaper. And Ben gave her a lot of confidence. That is the beautiful nugget of that story ultimately. I know it is about Ben supporting the First Amendment and going against the government, but for me, I take away from that story that relationship, and that was what set the scene for Watergate to happen. That kind of trust, to be able to trust Ben to do the right thing, to challenge government, really laid the groundwork for Watergate.

QUINN: I think the Pentagon Papers film [“The Post] is really a prequel to ‘All the President’s Men” in a way. It will be out in December and Tom Hanks plays Ben and Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham. It is a nail biter. It is one of the most exciting movies that I have ever seen. It is extraordinary. What you see in the film is how it becomes clear that I don’t think Watergate could have happened if Ben and Kay had not gone through the Pentagon Papers together because in the end he was the one who really wanted to publish, and she had to decide, and all the people around her were saying ‘Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go,’ and Ben was saying ‘We have to We have to.’ And they did it, and he was right.

You do get insight [in the film] as to where Ben got his courage.

QUINN: You know, I think he was born with it. He just had no fear of anything or anybody, ever. It was extraordinary. And he wasn’t a risk taker, really. It was more that he was an optimist, and he always thought positively, and he had an enormous amount of confidence.

I used to grill him all the time about his relationship with his mother, because I kept thinking, ‘What did she do to give him this kind of confidence? Because I wanted to give Quinn, my son, the same kind of confidence. And I didn’t have to, because he has it too. An enormous amount, even though he’s had medical problems all his life and he’s learning disabled. He just has this same optimistic confidence and this belief that everything will come out alright. I just think that Quinn was born with it, and Ben was born with it.

In fact, is mother was sort of a cold Bostonian matron. It always amazed me when I talked to Ben about when he went off to war, and he was on a destroyer. I asked him, did his mother just fall apart [when he went off to war], as I would have if Quinn were going to war. And he said, ‘No. she didn’t cry. She just kissed me on both cheeks and said, Good luck, darling.’ And I could never get over that. I would have been on the floor. And so they did not have that close of a relationship, He was much closer to his father. And his father, he was a Harvard, all-American football player, and he was fearless too.

MAGGIO: Unlike anybody else that people knew, he lived in the moment. And that is something that I really admire in Ben, and have since tried to do in my own life, is to just live in the moment.

QUINN: I was with Ben for 43 years and I never saw him depressed, once. And I never saw him look back. I never saw him regret. I never saw him feel guilty about anything. It was like, if I make a mistake, like Janet Cooke, we are going to get to the bottom of it, we are going to clean it up and we are going to move on. And as Quinn said in the film, Ben’s motto to Quinn … was ‘Nose down. Ass up, Push forward.’

What do you hope people take away from this?

MAGGIO: For me I want to introduce Ben Bradlee to a whole new generation of people. But more importantly was his championing of the First Amendment and a free press. He really is the paragon of that message, and the perfect messenger for it. I have found in the making of historical films, it is not necessarily history that repeats itself. It is human nature that repeats itself. When you look at what Ben did during Watergate, and Nixon, the lying going on during Watergate, turning the press into the enemy, it is as if this administration has taken a page from the playbook of Nixon. I just want people to remember that we have seen this before. The only difference is that Nixon didn’t have Twitter. He had to go through Ben Bradlee.

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