2004 Lecture

Ben Bradlee
Ben Bradlee
Former Executive Editor of The Washington Post

As executive editor of the Post from 1968 to 1991, Ben Bradlee became a national figure during the Presidency of Richard Nixon, when he challenged the federal government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers and oversaw the publication of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's stories documenting the Watergate scandal.

Lecture's Transcript

What an honor it is for me to stand here in honor of Herb Block-that quiet, brilliant, warm and funny man.

That unassuming, gentle man-with a heart of gold and the kick of a mule when he put his head to his hand.

And how easy it is for me to remember the first time I saw him just after Christmas in 1948-almost 56 years ago. I was the greenest of Post reporters, and he was already the great Herblock. The Post, 50-55 years ago, consisted of the Meyer-Graham family, Shirley Povich, Herb Elliston and Herb Block.

One of the unforgettable experiences at the Post in those days was to watch Herb emerge form his office around four or five in the afternoon, clutching a handful of pencil sketches in his hand. Rough sketches of different treatments, different ideas. Asking the people I regarded as the "chosen." One of my unforgettable experiences at the Post was surely the first time Herb showed me those rough sketches, asking me what I thought. I was so flattered, I couldn't speak.

The other day I was having lunch with two old political buddies: Jerry Rafshoon, who was one of President Jimmy Carter's right- hand men, and John Reilly who held a similar position in Fritz Mondale's camp.

I found myself telling them I had heard a fabulous story two nights earlier. Really a fabulous story. Trouble was, as I started to tell it, I couldn't remember it-for the life of me. And worse still, I couldn't remember who told me.

Rafshoon, who is a younger man than I, with a better memory, said, surprisingly, that he knew who had told me-his wife-because he had told her. But, he said sheepishly-he couldn't remember the story either.

We had to call his wife from the lunch table to refresh our recollections.

Here's the story. Seems that the big shots at Augusta National Golf Club, had decided they would invite Vernon Jordan to become a member. Not the first black man to be invited to join, but damn near. Jordan could barely control his excitement.

But not so fast, there was one condition attached. Jordan would have to sign a piece of paper promising the board of governors that he would never invite his good friend, President Clinton, to play a round of golf at the fabled course.

Jordan stroked his chin, pondering his dilemma for a few minutes, and then said, "Gimme that piece of paper." Pause.

But, worse luck: the story is not true!

Journalists joke that some stories are too good to check-and this story is one of them. We knew our source, and we knew her source.

But we still had to check it.

Vernon denied it-how shall I put this delicately enough for this audience-categorically.

My favorite definition of journalism came from the great Stanley Walker, perhaps the best of the legendary New York City editors from the good old days 60 years ago:

"A newsman knows everything," he wrote. "He is aware, not only of what goes on in the world today, but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. He is not only handsome, but he has the physical strength that enables him to perform great feats of energy. He can go for nights without sleep. He dresses well, and he talks with charm. Men admire him; women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him. He hates lies and meanness and sham, but he keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper, and when he dies a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several weeks."

Walker of course was right, way back then. And when we get together by ourselves, maybe he still is.

But I have become more and more convinced that the best journalists today are the best lie detectors. Not just the relentless skeptics who automatically disbelieve, but the reporters who instinctively are alert to the possibility that their sources don't know what they are talking about.

Or leave out vital details that would tend to discredit their stories.

Or deliberately lie.

It seems to me that lying has reached epidemic proportions in our culture in recently and that we've all become immunized to it. Lying has become just another tool for making deals, for selling beer, or war, soap or candidates. To make the subject manageable for tonight, let's narrow the list to political lying, and concentrate on lying by the executive branch of government, mostly by presidents. If we cannot trust our presidents, who can we trust? If our leaders lie - routinely - who should we follow, or even worse, why should we follow?

My concern about lying has made it difficult for me to believe the official version of anything.

I guess my concern started with Vietnam, this difficulty in believing the official version of anything. That's when the Establishment began to feel it had to lie to justify a policy that, as it turned out, was never going to work. It mushroomed during the counterculture days, when the sacred protective shrouds were ripped from every institution in our society. Government itself, the church, schools and colleges, family and sexual relations, business, especially big business, the Boskeys, the Milkens, the Barbarians at the Gates. And of course, the press, which was on hand to record the ripping of the shrouds with glee. Some thought: too much glee.

One by one these institutions got a hard second look, from the new generation, the first hard look from citizens of the Information Age. And what they saw was awesome change: Vietnam, the counterculture-Haight-Ashbury and drugs and all that-the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and Nixon's exile to disgrace, the S&L scandals, Irangate, the Gulf War, they were all great stories..historical turning points that had to be covered with energy and intelligence.

And they all involved lying by the elected and self-appointed leaders of our society.

The official account of what was happening in Vietnam seriously damaged the habit, the truth to the politicians caught in its jaws, and to the press caught up in a web of lies. Just one incident hidden away in the Pentagon Papers which, of course, no one ever read.

For those of you under the age of 30 or 35, the Pentagon Papers were a multi-volume study, commissioned by President Nixon and published in 1971. It was a detailed analysis of how the United States became involved in the war 10,000 miles away in Vietnam. A war that cost more than 50,000 American lives (plus hundreds of thousands of Asian lives) and an expeditionary force of more than half a million Americans. It was also a war we lost.

When President Johnson sent his Secretary of Defense, Bob McNamara, to Vietnam in 1964, soon after he succeeded Kennedy, he wanted McNamara to give him a new, fresh look at how the war was going.

It was the end of December or early January, 1964. McNamara, the whiz kid, toured the battlefields and listened to the general's briefings for three days. When he left Vietnam, he held a press conference at Tan Son Nhut Airport proclaiming that he was much encouraged, that the South Vietnamese Army had shaped up, that all the signs pointed toward progress. It was not the "light at the end of the tunnel" speech, but it was close. When he landed at Andrews Air Force Base, he told reporters pretty much the same thing. He was, he said, going to tell the president how much things had improved. And he took a helicopter to the White House lawn and disappeared in the White House. And nobody knew what the told the president.

But, wonder of wonders, it turned out seven years later when the Pentagon Papers were published by The New York Times and The Washington Post, that he told President Johnson exactly the opposite. The war was going to hell in a hand basket, he said, and General Westmoreland was going to ask for a couple of hundred thousand more troops.

Just think for a minute how history might have changed if Americans had known then that their leaders felt the war was going to hell in a hand basket! The country might never have lost faith in its leaders. Because the country, deep down in their hearts, has come to know their leaders were lying. And that's the beginning, I think, of the great sea-change in this country. They knew it, despite whatever their commander-in-chief said, they knew it.

America did start to lose faith in its leaders. All that information is contained in the Pentagon Papers, incidentally, if anyone ever wonders why newspapers raised such hell about being denied the right to print information from those documents. Richard Nixon took two newspapers to the Supreme Court to try to stop them from publishing that story for the first time in the history of the republic.

Then, 18 years later--get that, 18 years later--the prosecutor, the Solicitor General of the United States, wrote a story for The Washington Post--saying that at no time had national security been threatened as a result of publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Let me just take a little riff on this one because it is so outrageous. It's a civil case where you're not indicted, but if you lose a civil case, you know damn well you're going to be indicted. And, if you're indicted and you happen to be found guilty by a jury, you know damn well that your newspaper is going to lose all its television stations. Because a felon can't own a television station.

The high moment for me was when the judge turned to an assistant secretary of defense who was testifying, and he said, "Let's cut to the chase; let's get right to the point. What information contained in the Pentagon Papers would most seriously damage the national security of the United States if The Washington Post publishes it?" The guy went absolutely white--ashen--because he had not read the Pentagon Papers. He immediately asked for a continuation for a few minutes. And we could see them huddling over there, the prosecution team.

And at the defense table, which had nine of us on it, all mostly reporters-plus Katharine (Graham), our chairman and chief owner--we had brought a couple of documents with us. And we waited and waited and waited. And when he said he was ready to return to the stand. The stenotypist read the question back and he said, "Operation Marigold." You know, we were all terrified because if it starts with "operation," it had to be national security. So George Wilson, our Pentagon correspondent, started flicking through some transcripts of hearings--not classified hearings--and in the agate print he found a reference to "Operation Marigold." (In case you've forgotten what it was, it was an effort by Lyndon Johnson to enlist the Poles, Canadians and Indians to see if Ho Chi Minh would offer them a deal that he wouldn't offer to him.) And, believe it or not, the following week's Life magazine had a lead article by Harold Wilson, the prime minister of Great Britain, called Operation Marigold. I mean, it was and is just ridiculous.

I don't mean to suggest that presidents before LBJ didn't lie. They did, but try as I can, their lies seem less momentous-and less habitual.

Kennedy didn't lie about women. No woman ever accused him of any form of sexual harassment, or even involvement. But surely Kennedy lied about having Addison's Disease. He had it, and he said he didn't have it. The explanation for that lie must lie in the description of the disease itself: "a disease caused by failure of the adrenal glands.characterized by weakness, low blood pressure and brownish discoloration of the skin." Not exactly the words of choice for someone trying to be the youngest man ever to run for the presidency.

Ike lied about the U-2 spy plane, and one has to wonder why he bothered to lie. He would have been embarrassed, perhaps, but even his critics would have understood the wisdom of the ages cried out for silence.

And FDR lied pretty regularly, in the months before WWII, about keeping the country out of the great war in Europe. History proves that he was right. If ever there was a reasonable lie, that was it.

After LBJ, of course, there was Richard Milhous Nixon.

I won't bore you with a bunch of self-serving anecdotes about Nixon's lies. (Redford and Robards in All The President's Men seem to still have enough legs for this generation.) Watergate speaks for itself. Forty people went to jail, including the attorney general of the United States, and a bunch of high White House officials. All of them lied when they pleaded not guilty-and then all were convicted.

Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures lying with a straight face. No editor would dare to have printed this version of Nixon's first comments on Watergate, for instance:

"The Watergate break-in involved matters of nations security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night, and for that reason he would be unable to comment on the bizarre burglary.

"That is a lie."

We wouldn't dare do that. But that is what it was, and, for better or for worse, we aided and abetted in publishing something that wasn't the truth, something that was a lie. I hate to hedge this by calling them non-truths. They were lies. And even the boldest editorial pages, where such a comment might be appropriate, are reluctant to strike that hard that fast.

Mood music on the unbelievability of Watergate

So we have to wait, searching aggressively for ways to prove the lie, and in the process we alienate those who don't believe, or don't want to believe the lie.

Gerry Ford was not around long enough to lie significantly.

And Jimmy Carter, who told us he would never lie to us, pretty much kept his word. At least until the release of U.S. prisoners by Iran got in his way.

Ronald Reagan, perhaps because he was a professional actor, was an accomplished liar.

My favorite Reagan lie was his claim that during World War II he had served as a signal corps photographer who had filmed the horrors of the Nazi death camps. President Reagan first told this lie to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during a White House meeting in November 1983. The roots for his concern for Israel could be traced to the time he photographed Nazi death camps as a signal corps photographer, Reagan told the Israel Prime Minister. Afterward, he said, he had saved a copy of the death camp films for himself because he believed that the day would come when people would no longer believe that six million Jews had been exterminated. Years later, when a member of Reagan's family asked him if the Holocaust had actually occurred, he showed them the film, according to an article in the Israeli newspaper Ma'Ariv.

President Reagan repeated this lie in February, 1984, to Nazi-hunter Simon Weisenthal and Rabbi Marvin Hier, according to both Weisenthal and Hier, both known for their fluency in English and their attention to detail. When we tried to check this story with the White House, we were told by Jim Baker that the President told him he never left the country in World War II and had never told anyone that he did.

Two other personal favorite Reagan lies were quite simple. Mount St. Helen's erupting caused more pollution in the atmosphere than all the cars in the world had ever caused, he once said. Perhaps confusing carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. And he often told how the end of segregation occurred in the Armed Forces of the United States. Segregation ended, he used to say, when a black sailor in the U.S. Navy picked up a machine gun during the bombing of Pearl Harbor and started blasting Japanese bombers out of the sky. Forgetting that President Truman ended segregation in the armed services in July, 1948.

Except for Iran-Contra, where President Bush consistently stated he was "out of the loop"-which most experts, I trust, agree was not true, was not an easy liar. A few exaggerations, perhaps, that amounted to lies. Like "The fact that (Clarence Thomas) is black and a minority has nothing to do with this sense that he is the best qualified (Supreme Court candidate) at this time." No one in American believed that statement to be true. Then or now.

And so we come to THE BIG ONE, the big lie. President Clinton, looking the American public in its TV eye, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman-Monica Lewinsky.

I honestly believe that lie changed the essential quality of the relationship between the Press and the Presidency, and keeps Clinton from taking place alongside our great presidents.

President Clinton was finally forced to "acknowledge having knowingly violated Judge Wright's discoveryorders in my deposition in that case (the Paula Jones matter). I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but I now recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal (whatever that means) and that certain of my responses to questions about Lewinsky were false."

But Clinton did not lie, said his lawyer David Kendall. "He did not lie. We have not admitted he lied, and did not do so today.he gave evasive and misleading testimony.it's not intentional falsification." (I hate to go there-Kendall had represented me when I was sued for libel by the president of Mobil Oil. Don't worry. We won!)

But according to my some-time attorney, the president of the United States admits his responses under oath to questions were false. He admits his testimony was evasive and misleading. But he did not lie. What the hell did he do then? What was all the fuss about?

I think I'd like to wait for history to give this President Bush his best shot at the truth. "Weapons of mass destruction" may give him unsurmountable trouble, for sure. And his economic predictions have gone from rosy to false in the blink of an eye.

While presidents were being sucked into the swamp of lying, the big shots of American business fell comfortably in step with them.

Will any of us ever forget the pictures of the tobacco companies' highest executives, on their feet, right hands raised, swearing they had no documentation of the devastating damage that tobacco was harmful to the country's health.

That's what they swore to under oath in the various Congressional inquiries. One by one, they lied. They just lied.

And, remind me, who amongst them has been prosecuted for lying?

Ok, Martha Stewart, and the guy who led her down the garden path: Imclone president Sam Waksal. That's great; the crisis is over. A few Enron types have been induced to plead guilty and rat out a few more. But not to worry. Martha Stewart will soon be wearing stripes.

But no way is that enough to rid Washington and the country of this dangerous blot on our collective escutcheon.

Where lies the truth? That's the question that pulled us into this business, as it propelled Diogenes through the streets of Athens looking for an honest man.

I take comfort, as always, in Walter Lippmann's great prediction that in a democracy, the truth will emerge. It takes forever sometimes; at least it seems that way, but it does emerge, thanks to people like Herb Block, and any relaxation by the press will be extremely costly to this democracy.