It’s hard to believe that Ben Bradlee has left us. I always pictured Bradlee, the longtime executive editor of the Washington Post, as something like the figures on Mt. Rushmore: unmovable and eternal. What a shock to learn that this brilliant and feisty man succumbed last Tuesday, at the age of 93, to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee started life as a Boston blueblood, with a direct connection to wealth and power. He was by all accounts a charismatic leader, one whose mannerisms and sartorial style (slicked-back hair, striped shirts) were imitated by generations of rising journalists. But he was also a man of courage. A champion of modern investigative journalism, he re-made the lackluster Post as a gutsy newspaper that skewered the Nixon administration by publishing the Pentagon Papers and then blowing wide open a little caper called Watergate. As a direct result of stories first published in the Washington Post, Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.
Of course the enterprising newsmen who investigated the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s D.C. headquarters were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. At the time, they were lowly reporters following a hunch that the Watergate burglars were backed by someone high in the Nixon White House. Over the course of two years the pair became America’s most famous newspapermen, as well as models for a generation of young journalism students eager to uncover political wrongdoing wherever they found it. Woodward and Bernstein’s newfound celebrity was reinforced by a book they published in 1974, All the President’s Men. And this book quickly led to an immensely popular film of the same name, in which the chief roles were played by two of the industry’s brightest young leading men, Robert Redford (Woodward) and Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein).
A breathless political thriller, All the President’s Men was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was beaten out of the top prize by Rocky, but won four Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay ( by Hollywood legend William Goldman) and Best Supporting Actor. This latter award went to the great Jason Robards, for bringing Ben Bradlee so vividly to the screen.
Bradlee was also impersonated in other films. He was played by G.D. Spradlin in Dick, a wacky little 1999 comedy in which two high school girls who wander away from a school trip to Washington meet President Nixon, and come to advise him on handling the Watergate scandal. (For the record, the two girls were Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, while the role of Bob Woodward was given to none other than Will Ferrell.)
I can think of at least two more Hollywood films that connect, in one way or another, with the Watergate era. The first involves Carl Bernstein, who was married to writer-director Nora Ephron from 1976 to 1980. Ephron later fictionalized their marriage, including Bernstein’s disastrous extramarital fling, in the darkly comic Heartburn, a bestselling novel that later became a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. And let’s not forget the shadowy informant who gave Woodward and Bernstein the key to the Watergate mystery. In the reporters’ book, this Nixon administration higher-up who spilled secrets in a Washington parking garage was nicknamed Deep Throat. Needless to say, Deep Throat was the title of a hugely popular soft-core porn flick (1972) in which Linda Lovelace demonstrated a very unusual talent.
I’m not sure how Ben Bradlee felt about that connection. But, wherever he is, I wish him well.