As we waited in line a little before 10 a.m., Oct. 29, the sky-blotting western facade of the Washington National Cathedral seemed eager to hold inside the out-sized personality of the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee, whose life was about to be celebrated by and in music, prayer, song, poetry, oration and personages. It seemed all of the great newsman’s surviving friends were here, and there was about to be a service that smartly and seamlessly balanced all the parts of Bradlee’s life.
The Post’s executive editor from 1968 to 1991, Bradlee died Oct. 21 of natural causes at the age of 93, having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Yes, the VIPs of Washington, D.C. — from Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Steny Hoyer et alii — were there. Perhaps more importantly, here was the ultimate Washington Post-Newsweek reunion and then some, which shall never be repeated.
Outside the cathedral, as he moved pass the waiting line waiting to enter, former Washington Post publisher Don Graham joked, “They said we’re big shots,” and were allowed to skip ahead to the front. Later, inside at the lectern, the son of Katharine Graham, the Post publisher who hired Bradlee, said of the editor: “He was our hero … and he will be always.”
Before the Introit, Aaron Copland’s “Simple Gifts” was heard, later followed by “Evergreen,” written by Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams, which was a love song for Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn.
Readings included Ecclesiastes 3 — “For everything there is a season . . . ” — Psalm 23 — “The Lord is my shepherd . . .” — St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians on love — Second Timothy — “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith . . .”
Watergate reporter for the Post, Carl Bernstein spoke of the fearless Ben and the well known John Mitchell story during the Watergate investigations when the former attorney general warned about Katharine Graham injuring her breast. Bernstein criticized the current media and political climate and office holders. He recalled Bradlee’s 93rd and last birthday party, where they savored some memories and such Georgetown legends as Harry “Doc” Dalinksy who ran a pharmacy and Sunday morning breakfast club for pals Bradlee, Art Buchwald, David Brinkley and others.
The other half of the famed Watergate reporting team, Bob Woodward said, “I loved this man,” and he was happy to be part of “Club Bradlee.” “Ben prowled the newsroom,” he said, looking to talk to reporters about unreported or missed stories, and knew “no boundaries.”
Woodward told a classic Washington sketch. Not too long ago, Ben and he were at National Airport waiting in line, about to go through TSA screening. Bradlee only had a AARP card to present at which the TSA agent balked. Back in the line boomed a voice as loud and disconcerting as Bradlee’s could be: “This is Ben Bradlee. Let him through.” The booming voice belonged to Vernon Jordan. The two made the flight.
For Woodward, the passing of Ben Bradlee marks the end of the 20th century — and makes the world smaller.
Known for his novels on espionage, David Ignatius, Post writer and editor, said Bradlee combined the attitude of the two main characters in the movie, “Casablanca,” Rick Blaine and Captain Renault. To touch upon Bradlee’s use of salty language, Ignatius recalled an account of a secretary, who was typing a letter for her boss, and asked, “Mr. Bradlee, is ‘dickhead’ one or two words?”
Among those mentioning Bradlee’s signature Turnbull & Asser shirts, Tom Brokaw of NBC News let everyone know that it was wife Sally Quinn, who upped the executive editor’s style.
Ben Bradlee, Jr., said his father gave lie to the Greek philosophical phrase, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Everyone seemed to smile or snicker at that remark.
As for the youngest son, Quinn Bradlee, he gave the most heart-tugging tribute to his father: The “huge man . . . was the simplest man I knew.” He said the song, “Happy,” described his dad’s demeanor. “I can’t see him anymore,” the young Bradlee said. “I can’t hear him. But I get the message: ‘Hey, buddy, it’s your turn. Get it right, kid.’ ”
The Cathedral Dean, Gary Hall, ascended to the main pulpit and summed up Bradlee by saying, “He was a blizzard of one,” referring to a poem by Mark Strand.
Solemn music and song was heard throughout the two-hour service. Fittingly at the end, as the casket was wheeled out of the cathedral, “The Washington Post March,” written by John Philip Sousa, was played. It seemed a joyful, appropriate relief.
Also fitting the day was the lunch get-together or repast at the home of Ben and Sally on N Street. The mood lightened, as old friends met after scurrying down to Georgetown. A photo of Bradlee from his book, “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” welcomed all at the foyer.
Out in the back yard, guests thanked widow Sally Quinn for her hospitality — and she remained composed and in full command of this affair. Indeed, the flawless sequence of the day was owed to her knowledge and genius at party planning, plain and not so simple.
Nearby stood new owner of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, a man not quite as social as Ben or Sally. He was greeted by the many media types, who walked under the tent that covered the tennis court and protected them from the afternoon’s light rain.
Of course, yet another great story — big or small — about Bradlee was heard amid the hundreds of guests. Everyone seems to have one.
Meanwhile, only a few blocks north of the N Street house rest the remains of Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee in Oak Hill Cemetery on R Street. He may have left us, but he is in Georgetown — and in many a heart — forever.