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Closing Thoughts from Ben Bradlee

October 3, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, some closing thoughts from Ben Bradlee, vice-president-at-large, former executive editor of the Washington Post. Mr. Ben Bradlee, welcome. The hearing we just heard — Senator Byrd, the incident, and bio terrorism, the incident today with the Greyhound bus down in Tennessee, the jitters, people have the jitters, do they not?

BEN BRADLEE: Of course they do. And if you’ve got to worry about a bus trip through Manchester, Tennessee, you know, nobody has worried about that for years.

JIM LEHRER: You wrote a piece, the op ed page of the Washington Post last week comparing what’s happening now to what happened right after Pearl Harbor. And you said there are a lot of differences. Tell us about the differences.

BEN BRADLEE: Well, you know the first big difference is there’s no television then. So when I first heard about Pearl Harbor, I guess I was just 20, it was around an at Atwater Kent Radio in my family’s living room in Boston, had a big wide box like this and sort of a metal speaker on it like this, and static was, you know, they invented static for that. And all you heard was, but you knew they were Japanese because they had seen the red spots on the wings and you knew that it was going to be war whether they declared it that night or the next.

JIM LEHRER: And it was going to be war against a nation.

BEN BRADLEE: Yes. We had been attacked, and we the sons of the nation were going to defend it. And I knew it because I was in the naval reserve, a ROTC program, and.

JIM LEHRER: R . O. T. C..

BEN BRADLEE: Right. A lot of your listeners know ROTC —

JIM LEHRER: Just for those few who don’t.

BEN BRADLEE: And at Harvard I knew I was going on a destroyer, the destroyer was being built in Kearney, New Jersey, and I would board it the day I graduated from college. And I would, that was going to be in August, and destroyers went right to the South Pacific.

JIM LEHRER: You said in your piece that you weren’t afraid, you and kids of that time were not afraid to go to war. You were too ignorant to be afraid. What did you mean?

BEN BRADLEE: Well, not ignorant so much. Well, we were dumb.

JIM LEHRER: You didn’t know enough to have fear.

BEN BRADLEE: No. And we were souped up to go. I mean, I can talk to my children about that today and they, you know, they roll their eyes back and they can’t understand that people wanted to go to war. My age group and everything about my crowd wanted to go to war, and they wanted to get through college quick to get there, and they wanted danger, they didn’t want to go in big floating hotels or… We really wanted it.

JIM LEHRER: You made the point that Vietnam kind of changed attitudes about war and that’s the attitude that is here today.

BEN BRADLEE: Yeah. Well, I think there was no… That was a good war, you know, that terrible phrase, good war. But it was. The cause was right, we had, you know, we were going to be ultimately successful. I think the Vietnam War, people had to sell it to the Americans, the government leaders had to sell it to the American people. They might have shaded the truth a few times in trying to build that support. And plainly they did.

JIM LEHRER: So how does this fit into this then, how does that fit into the combination to yours and my memory because we’re old enough, World War II and then Vietnam and now this?

BEN BRADLEE: Well, I think the country won’t settle for forgetting this. So I think the country is unanimously for some kind of, not unanimously, very high percentage for some kind of response. Whether if we get bogged down in some war in Afghanistan how long that enthusiasm will last, I doubt it would last very long.

JIM LEHRER: No matter what triggers.

BEN BRADLEE: Or how just the cause. That were many more people were killed in World Trade Center than were killed in Pearl Harbor. I mean it’s an enormous number of people. The British ambassador was telling me that there were 250 people killed in the Falklands War. There were six killed in Grenada. This is an enormous number.

JIM LEHRER: Very few in the Gulf War. Did you see Tony Blair’s speech?

BEN BRADLEE: I was stunned by that. And he brought me up out of my chair.

JIM LEHRER: I was watching it last night on this program sitting right where I am now, we ran about five minutes of it.

BEN BRADLEE: I know you did.

JIM LEHRER: And I was moved.

BEN BRADLEE: I was moved and a little water in the eyes, I did. And I wondered, you know, would we support Britain with that enthusiasm and would the American leader be that enthusiastic, that straight lay it on the line.

JIM LEHRER: He didn’t leave anything to the imagination.

BEN BRADLEE: No, not at all.

JIM LEHRER: That kind of rhetoric, forget the individual who is making it, that kind of rhetoric is rare in our world.

BEN BRADLEE: Not since World War II again. Churchill said those things and we said the same things about Churchill. But we didn’t, know…

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about how we’re, I don’t mean the government’s handing, but how we the people are handing this? It’s been a little over three weeks now.

BEN BRADLEE: I don’t know if I know enough about that. I don’t think I’m handing it all that well. I’m still discombobulated about it, I’m uncomfortable, I don’t, my coping powers, which were as you well know legendary, they don’t seem to be kicking in quite that fast.

JIM LEHRER: I understand exactly what you mean. Thank you, Ben.

BEN BRADLEE: Thank you, Jim.