JIM LEHRER: Another major journalism event for Bradlee
was his friendship with John F. Kennedy. Bradlee was
born in Boston 84 years ago to well to do parents,
who lost it all during the depression. He went to
private school, then Harvard.
Upon graduation, he joined the Navy and served aboard
destroyers in World War Two. His early career took
him to Paris and when he returned home to Washington
in 1958 to work for Newsweek Magazine, it was then
that he had a chance meeting with his neighbor, Senator
John F. Kennedy.
JIM LEHRER: John F. Kennedy?
BEN BRADLEE: Yep.
JIM LEHRER: What, what was your relationship with him? You
liked him, right?
BEN BRADLEE: Yes, I did like him a lot. Kennedy bought
a house that was five houses down from me on the same
JIM LEHRER: Here in Washington?
BEN BRADLEE: Here in Washington, on N Street and
I was out, you know, pushing a baby carriage and damned
if we didn't pass each other and he was pushing a
baby carriage. And I had met him once before and we
said hello and he said, you know, come back and have
an ice tea or something like that in the afternoon.
We did and we became friends.
He was running for president then already in 1958,
although there was no big deal about it. And I'm not
sure I even knew it. And I got assigned by Newsweek
to cover him as a political candidate. And so, I got
to know him. I really got to know him pretty well.
You never know a political or politician.
JIM LEHRER: Was it good company? Was it fun to be--
BEN BRADLEE: Oh, it was fun. He had a sense of youth
and vitality that is so contagious and was so different.
I'd never met-- I didn't know all that many politicians,
but I didn't know many young ones. And he was in his
early 40s at that time. You remember, he was--you
asked him his age. He'd say I'm 43 and a half and
nobody puts the half in after you're five years old.
JIM LEHRER: Right, right. Did you ever--professionally,
did you ever run stories by him or--
BEN BRADLEE: No, here's what--quite soon after it
became obvious that we were going to see each other
and going to see each other a good deal and that I
was interested in him as a journalist more than as
a friend, that we decided that--or he decided, I don't
know who decided-- that we had to have some ground
rules; that if he wanted--and the ground rule we settled
on was that, if he wanted something off the record,
he had to tell me about it and he couldn't do it afterwards.
JIM LEHRER: Otherwise, he had to assume that everything
he said to you was on the record because he was talking
to a reporter?
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah, yeah. I mean, since I wasn't taking
notes and it wasn't being recorded, my skills at remembering
were probably limited even then.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think you did anything wrong
in getting so close to John F. Kennedy?
BEN BRADLEE: No. I mean, well, because it got me
a lot of good stories and I understood that administration.
I knew what was going on.
JIM LEHRER: Did there ever come a time, Ben-- this
is a difficult question. But did there ever come a
time that you knew something or had an angle on a
story involving Kennedy where you pulled a punch--
BEN BRADLEE: No.
JIM LEHRER: --because he was your friend?
BEN BRADLEE: I didn't pull a punch. Sometimes he
said, in conversation, you can't use this before he
told me. And I either told him--I remember once saying,
"Well, don't tell me then if I can't use it, because
I'm real close to getting it."
JIM LEHRER: It's not just you or John F. Kennedy
or whatever. It's the whole idea of reporters socializing
with the people--you know, socializing at night with
the people they then go cover the next morning. And
the question in some of the public's mind is, hey,
wait a minute. Give me a break. How can you do that?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, it's a dilemma that newspaper
people face, because when you have an important source,
whether he's the president of a company or the president
or if he just was the witness at a, at a fire, you
got to get close to him because--or he won't talk
to you. You've got to make him want to talk to you.
And so, on a breaking news story, that's not as important
as it is as if you're covering the mayor's office
or something like that. You got to get to know the
mayor. If you get to know the mayor, you got to get
to know him well. And if you get to know him well,
you begin to develop a relationship with him. Sometimes
it's hate. You can't stand the son of a gun and he
can't stand you. That's trouble. Sometimes, I mean,
there have been cases where those relationships have
blossomed into love affairs. Sometimes it's just you
JIM LEHRER: You said many times that John F. Kennedy
was your friend. You spent a lot of time with him,
but you were unaware of his womanizing.
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah, well--
JIM LEHRER: And people are skeptical about that, as you know.
BEN BRADLEE: Oh, tell me about it. They're always--
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, they won't believe it.
BEN BRADLEE: They're more than skeptical. They don't
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
BEN BRADLEE: Well, here's, here's what I'm telling
you the truth is. The times that I saw him were overwhelmingly
with his wife and with my wife. So, you can just imagine,
a little, cozy foursome around the table. You're not
going to talk about maybe girlfriends.
JIM LEHRER: Did you hear the gossip at the time?
BEN BRADLEE: I heard--you know, my father, I can
remember my dad saying, isn't he a fearful girler,
my dad asked me.
JIM LEHRER: Fearful girler?
BEN BRADLEE: Girler, that's an old-fashioned word.
JIM LEHRER: Direct question: If you had known about
it at the time, would you have done a story?
BEN BRADLEE: I suppose if I knew that he had made
one mistake, I doubt if I would have and nobody knew
about it, didn't create any fuss, I probably wouldn't.
But if--you know, he had such an image as the head
of this charming, totally American, beautiful family.
Children were, you know--
JIM LEHRER: It would not have met the journalistic
test as a president running around on his wife, the
charmed family, it wouldn't have met the, hey, that's
BEN BRADLEE: I guess, especially because they, they
were making such a thing about how--what a perfect
family they were.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
BEN BRADLEE: I think I probably would have.
JIM LEHRER: But in the present climate, some reporter
knew that, that would be on the front page of every
newspaper in America.
BEN BRADLEE: Try it and it certainly would, yeah.
I think things have changed.
JIM LEHRER: Is that for the better or for the worse?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, I'm a maximum information man
myself, but I sure as hell would have liked to have
known about it.
JIM LEHRER: Like to have known about Kennedy, you
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah and made the decision and then,
at least, your, you're straight with yourself. You're
not, you're not making mistakes by mistake. You're
doing something on purpose.
JIM LEHRER: Well, contrast that with what happened
to Bill Clinton.
BEN BRADLEE: Well, I mean, that was pretty public.
There was no hiding of that. I mean, when you're talking
about dresses and spots and all that stuff and--especially
when, when--I mean, John Kennedy didn't, to my knowledge,
look the world in the face and say, I did not have
sexual relations with that woman.
JIM LEHRER: And that, that makes a difference?
BEN BRADLEE: A lie makes a difference.
JIM LEHRER: A lie makes a difference?
BEN BRADLEE: I mean, lies are good for reporters.
If a reporter knows somebody is lying, it really helps
them understand the that.
JIM LEHRER: It's the old more people go to jail for
perjury than they do for what they lied about.
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah.
JIM LEHRER: The same thing, you mean?
BEN BRADLEE: The journalists, too. And this--I mean,
if a person is [guilty of] perjury and lying, you
know he's got something to cover up.