Ben Bradlee’s gutsy Watergate deeds inspired many journalists, including me

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The man who got me into journalism died last week.

I never met Ben Bradlee. And he wouldn’t have known me from Adam.

But as the editor who had the guts to turn the Watergate story from a “third rate burglary” into the most consequential scandal in American history, Bradlee launched a tidal wave of Boomer English majors into journalism.

Me included.

Back in the summer of 1976, I was out of work, living with Mom, fecklessly seeking a clue. You get the picture.

Through a chance encounter, I scored an interview for a newspaper job.  I hadn’t necessarily been thinking of reporting as a line of work, but any sign of interest from an employer seemed like manna by then.

A few days later, I was back at Mom’s house in Ohio, lathering up in the shower, getting ready to go out with pals for the evening. My mom called up for me to come down to the kitchen to take a phone call.

Standing in a towel, dripping water on the linoleum, I got offered my first reporting job. 135 bucks a week. Even then, that was terrible money.

I asked for a day to think it over. I’d read somewhere that was what you were supposed to do. Make ’em sweat.

Then my friends swung by; we headed out to a movie. Its name? All the Presidents Men.

This Oscar-winning film about the Watergate scandal featured Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman oozing rumpled elan as reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. And it offered Jason Robards’ indelible portrait of Ben Bradlee as the Washington Post’s blunt, profane, loyal and brave editor.

Naturally, the next day, I called the Easton Express and took that job.  After seeing that movie, I was ready to do my part to save the Republic, slave wages be damned.

Like many young reporters, I viewed Woodward and Bernstein as role models to emulate. For years after, I favored tan corduroy suits, just like Robert Redford’s Woodward.

But over the years I’ve realized the figure in the film who continues to thrill me the most isn’t either young reporter. It’s their boss, Bradlee, ready to risk it all by “trusting the boys,” willing to do the hard thing at the vital moment.

And make no mistake, sticking with those hard-working but callow reporters, with the future of an as-yet-still-fragile Washington Post very much on the line, not mention the wrath of a U.S. president bearing down on him, was a hard thing.

Click to watch Robards as Bradlee, nailing one of the greatest final speeches of any movie, ever.

Here’s the script for that speech, with Bradlee in his robe talking to Woodward and Bernstein in the middle of the night on his front lawn:

“You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a s***. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys f*** up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.”

I’ve never worked a story remotely as a big as Watergate. But I’ve worked plenty that mattered, the ones that made acid pool in the stomach.

And it occurs to me that I’ve given versions of that speech, consciously or unconsciously, to dozens of reporters.  Its mixture of butt-kicking, support and pure panache is hard to top.

I doubt I’m the only editor who, when journalistic choices get tense, has thought back to Bradlee at Watergate and found strength to stick with the story, no matter what angry politicians, howling advertisers, nervous lawyers or Google Analytics had to say.

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