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Hunt: The night Richard Nixon called Ben Bradlee's house

Ben Bradlee, seen in 1995, executive editor of

Ben Bradlee, seen in 1995, executive editor of The Washington Post during the Watergate era, died of natural causes Oct. 20, 2014, at his home in Washington. He was 93. Newsday's obituary for Ben Bradlee
Photo Credit: AP / Bill O'Leary

A friend once remarked that Ben Bradlee was "a man's man," to which my wife replied, "he's also quite a woman's man." Woman or man, it was hard to find anyone as engaging and fun to be around as Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, who died Tuesday night at age 93.

He was arguably the most significant newspaper editor of he 20th century, taking the Washington Post from a very good local paper to one of America's three great national newspapers. It was under Bradlee that the the Post broke, and owned, the Watergate story that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon; published the Pentagon papers over the fierce opposition of the government which took the case, unsuccessfully, all he way to the Supreme Court; and hired and developed some of the greatest journalists in the U.S.

His charm was unsurpassed, his instincts almost unfailing and he had, as someone once said, the guts of a cat burglar. For 40 years, as presidents came and went, Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, were monuments of Washington.

One of my few regrets in a long career in journalism is never having worked for Ben. Others can retell his extraordinary fetes as the Post executive editor.

I have personal story that only could be Ben Bradlee. There was a marvelous Newsweek reporter, John Lindsay; in the 1960s, Ben had been his bureau chief. John was as pure Boston Irish as Ben was Brahmin. Lindsay also was an insightful political reporter.

In the mid-1980s John was dying of cancer. Ben had a party to celebrate John while he still was active. You might think that could be maudlin. It wasn't one bit. It was gloriously fun, full of journalistic war stories, barbed witticisms and lots of high spirits. It probably was the only Georgetown party ever attended by West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd.

Lindsay had covered Richard Nixon, and while he was no fan of the ex-president, they had formed an inexplicable bond of sorts. I called the former president's office to see if there was any way Nixon might call John that evening. When the aide asked where - those were the days before mobile phones - I gulped and said at the home of Ben Bradlee, the editor who played such a critical role in bringing down Nixon.

In the middle of the party, John was summoned to take a call. There was the unmistakable voice on the other end. "They said I would never go to China and I did," Nixon declared. "They said I would never call Ben Bradlee's house, and I just have."

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.


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