I wish I had a great amazing story to tell about Ben Bradlee, who passed away at 93 this week, but all I had was a chance encounter with the iconic editor in 1999 during my days at Insight Magazine, a political investigative rag published by The Washington Times.
At the time, I was working on a cover story about parental kidnappings and missing children when I became friends with Catherine Meyer, the wife of the former British ambassador. She had just finished a book, They Are My Children Too: A Mother’s Struggle for Her Sons, about her own experience losing her kids in an international parental abduction case. She was holding a dinner at the Embassy to raise awareness of an issue that has been ignored far too long by the State Department and the mainstream press.
A few days earlier, I spent an afternoon with her at the Embassy where I got a private tour. At first, I didn’t think I was going to go to the dinner, because it meant another 12 or 14-hour day of work, but for some reason I decided it might be worth it. And I promised Lady Catherine I would show up.
I was placed at a dinner table and the waiter quickly gave me a glass of wine. As I sat down, Ben Bradlee walked into the room, alone. I was wondering doesn’t he have a posse? Just Ben – moonlighting – no date. Just Ben. He’s too famous not to have a grand entrance. He’s just like one of us — a regular journalist.
He might have had a few drinks – probably Scotch — as he plunged himself down into the seat right next to mine and seemed more interested in getting a few drinks than engage in small talk.
Let me write that again. Ben Bradlee was sitting next to me. It was a small table. He had his choices of seats. He was sitting next to me. OK, it was the closest seat from the door he entered.
All I could think of was Ben F…ing Bradlee is sitting next to me! I am having dinner with Ben Bradlee – the guy who pushed Woodward and Bernstein to get the Watergate story and had the balls to publish the Pentagon Papers. He was eating dinner at my table. with Me.
My mind started to drift and Bradlee’s voice just seemed like background noise. I snapped out of it wondering if he knows my name. Oh, shit, I am the only one writing stories about the subject. He has to know my name. He is going to rip apart my stories, my work, and I am going to walk out of here with zero career.
He did no such thing.
He made small talk to me like how do you get a drink and the Embassy is beautiful as was Lady Catherine. I just nodded and looked more stupid by the moment.
Meyer eventually starting thanking people for supporting her cause. I don’t know if she mentioned my name because I still couldn’t get past the point that Ben Bradlee was sitting next to me! I wasn’t really listening. I was waiting to make my career speech to Ben – the one that lands me working with Bob investigating Washington corruption.
I had my speech all worked out.
“Hey, Ben, – you don’t mind if I call you Ben. I mean we got a lot in common. I married a co-worker, (Ben married Sally) I did marry a copy editor at the first paper I worked at. And I did break a few stories that the Post chased later. You should just hire me and give me a shot – and no, in case you are wondering, I am not a Moonie even though I spent time at The Times, but I am just a scrappy journalist who wants to write and change the world.”
(Ben could be blunt – he even asked The Washington Post writers who worked at The Times if they were Moonies. Not the most PC thing to say, but that was Ben.)
But that imaginary conversation never took place. I wimped out.
Instead, I was still stuck in my mind on – “I am sitting next to Ben Bradlee!”
And then Ben must have sensed that I seemed a bit awkward. He reached out his hand and said, “Hi, I am Ben Bradlee,” as if I didn’t know who he was.
I was about to tell him that he looks nothing like Jason Robards, but I didn’t know if he had a sense of humor. In retrospect he had to because he survived the Nixon era.
I meekly responded, “Hi, I’m Tim Maier,” and then I stumbled over how I was covering parental abductions as he took another sip of his drink.
I think he was more interested in the booze than the topic of the night – or bored with me.
I then reached for my wine glass and managed to do what I always do – spill it on the table, which dripped down to my pants – yes, that spot. I pretended that I didn’t get wet sort of like when you look away when you pass some gas. And I was too nervous to see if Bradlee got any of the wine on his lap.
Ben didn’t say anything, but he seemed to look away, probably wondering – “Who the fuck is this guy?
But I figured at least Ben knew I wasn’t a Moonie because they don’t drink.
I never saw him again, but a short time after that visit, The Washington Post wrote a story about parental abductions and started following other cases I covered, including the anthrax case, where they actually interviewed me for a front-page story.
When I left Insight and became an editor at The Examiner newspaper chain, Bradlee would again surface indirectly into my life during the early days of the paper. The Washington paper launched with two major cover stories – one on the Nationals and another on the Purple Heart veterans who tossed their medals and went AWOL to Canada, which got Bradlee’s attention.
The press interviewed all the media about the ‘new kid’ on the block, which at that time the newspaper was nothing like the right-wing publication it has become.
The retired Bradlee talked to the press about the “new kid” on the block in a favorable tone. Maybe, it was because the veteran story took people by surprise. Readers did not know what side of the fence we were on at the paper and I think Bradlee liked it that way.
When a reporter asked Bradlee about The Examiner, he said it was the first paper he read in the morning. I think The Post’s editors might have been pissed about that. I would be.
But it was one of the prouder moments in my career.
Ben Bradlee: August 26, 1921 — October 21, 2014.
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Ben Bradlee on Woodward and Bernstein uncovering Watergate — they just happened to be the reporters working that weekend.
Timothy W. Maier is the founder of Baltimore Post-Examiner LLC, which runs the Baltimore and Los Angeles Post-Examiner websites. He started out writing music, fiction and poetry and then turned to news writing, where he spent the past three decades at news organizations in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C. He was the managing editor at the Baltimore Examiner newspaper. He now spends time with his family, dog, guitar and riding his motorcycle across the country.