One of the great pleasures of being an employee at Washington National Cathedral is the opportunity to be a fly on the wall, at some incredible moments in history. Such was the case today, when I was allowed to attend the funeral of Benjamin C. Bradlee, former Executive Editor of the Washington Post. Just covering a position in the front hall, as the public filed past fairly intense security measures, seeing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein arriving together, as I said in my Facebook status, was enough to drive my History-O-Meter right off the scale.
I was a ten year old boy, when Watergate happened. It was a hard thing to follow, for a ten year old, and, honestly, what I actually remember most was the green, felt tablecloth in the Senate Committee meeting room, which was so like the one my parents and grandparents used, when they played cards. Of course, in the following years, I’d learn the Watergate story from the movie, All The President’s Men, and then read the book itself. Of particular fascination, was the fact that it was also, for me, a hometown story, and many of the key figures were still around. Just being a Washingtonian, I met Katherine Graham a few times, back in the 80s, might see Woodward or Bernstein around the city from time to time, and even became good friends with Paul Leeper, the “Old Clothes Unit” Metropolitan Police sergeant, who responded to the break-in call at the Watergate, but, for the longest time, I never met Ben Bradlee, the gruff, forceful character, who had so vigorously striven for the story… the TRUE story.
Years later, I read Mr. Bradlee’s memoirs, and my admiration for the man grew exponentially. From his service on naval destroyers during World War II, to the his insistence on giving honest press to the situation of public facility integration, the issue of segregated public pools mostly. to the Watergate story that would forever sear his name into the annals of American political history, it seemed the underlying thread to this man’s existence was a deep commitment to seeing the United States of America constantly moving forward in the realization of its promises.
A few years ago, I saw Ben Bradlee walking up Wisconsin Avenue, in front of Washington National Cathedral. Realizing it might be the only opportunity I might ever have to address myself to this man, I stepped up and extended my hand. “Mr. Bradlee,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you I’ve read your memoir, and I think you’re a hero. Thank you.”
Then I got my Ben Bradlee moment. He chuckled at my seriousness, and in that raspy, but intensely forceful voice, he said something I’d bet anyone who has ever met him could imagine. It began with a sharp, “Ha!” Then he went on… “You’ll get over it,” and his eyes twinkled. What does one even say to that? He moved on up the sidewalk, and I returned to my work.
As the world said good-bye to Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee today, a reply came to my mind. “No, Mr. Bradlee, I don’t think I will.”