Offices & Resources

Ben Bradlee '39: A Historically Significant Life of Consequence

Chapel Talk
John Warren
January 6, 2020

"The motivation for any journalist is to find the truth. Period...Given we are a democracy that depends on a well-informed populous—(journalists must) work for them. Ask the questions they need to have answered...The job of journalists is to fight for the public."

Ann Curry (1)

"As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness, it is not his job to worry about consequences. The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run."
Ben Bradlee, Letter dated May 30, 1973

"Just get it right, kid."

Ben Bradlee, advice to a young reporter (2) (3)

I have experienced a distinct sense of déjà vu over the last couple of months as I have watched, listened to, and read about events relating to the impeachment of Donald Trump. My experience of these events brings back a flood of memories about events in 1973 and 1974, my VI Form year at St. Mark's. It was at that time that another impeachment inquiry, sparked by what is known as Watergate, was gripping the country.
Above: Watergate apartment complex and Richard Nixon. (4)
"Watergate" refers to a complex series of events that began with the June 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters located in Washington D.C.'s Watergate office complex, and ended with President Richard Nixon's resignation in the summer of 1974, the only time a United States president has taken this step.

The events leading to President Nixon's resignation are all that much more memorable to me because of the integral role a St. Mark's graduate, Benjamin C. Bradlee, St. Mark's Class of 1939, played in bringing to light Nixon's actions that constituted grounds for impeachment and removal from office.
Above: Ben Bradlee '39. (5)
No one can dispute that Bradlee led a life of consequence and took actions which helped shape the direction of American history. His role in Watergate required great courage and an admirable adherence to principle. Bradlee's actions during Watergate, and at other moments in his career, earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Above: Ben Bradlee '39 receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
I believe Bradlee is the only St. Mark's graduate up to now to be so honored. Unsurprisingly, Bradlee was honored by our School as a St. Mark's Distinguished Alumnus; you can see his picture on the wall of the STEM Center.
I have many strong memories of Nixon and Bradlee, both from 1973 and 1974 and from the early years of my headship. My first memory takes place in the fall of 1973, checking students in for the night one Saturday in what was then Dorm C and is now Gaccon. I was a Dorm C prefect, possessing the only room in the dorm; everyone else, II and III Formers, lived in cubicles, small spaces with a curtain instead of a door and no ceiling. My room was located where the Hotel Hall bathroom is now.
One of the students came up to me somewhat breathlessly and said, "you're not going to believe this...Nixon just fired two really important guys out of the blue." I remember audibly gasping because the action was so implausible to me. You need context to understand the significance of this event, known as the Saturday Night Massacre, which I will provide in a minute. The short version of Nixon's motivation to fire, which became clear months later, is that only by firing these two officials could he prevent the Senate from receiving audio tapes of conversations in his office that he knew would prove he had obstructed justice and lied to the American people about his role in Watergate, impeachable offenses.

My second memory takes place a few weeks later, watching Nixon answer questions in a press conference, also on a Saturday night. I was sitting with a group of fellow VI Formers in the study of Mr. Gaccon's apartment, now Ms. Kosow's apartment.
Above: Mr. Gaccon's apartment, now Ms. Kosow's apartment.
Watching events like this one, as well as the nightly news and sports, in a Main Building faculty apartment, was a very enjoyable pastime for students before the days of the internet and instant access to news.
As the press conference went along, we could see Nixon become more and more uncomfortable because he was being pushed hard by reporters about his involvement in Watergate: what did he know and when, and what had he done and not done? All of a sudden, with shifty eyes and a pinched expression on his face, Nixon blurted out, "I am not a crook!" (6)
While the swirl of Watergate charges and counter-charges were hard for any of us to keep straight at the time, that outburst was really creepy; indeed, its indignity shocked us.
The Trump impeachment inquiry has had similar dramatic moments and will undoubtedly have more, as did the Clinton impeachment inquiry in the late 1990s. However, none have been as shocking, in my view, as moments I remember during the Nixon impeachment inquiry.

As we begin 2020, you are witnessing something historic, as I was in 1973 and 1974. I encourage you, as a thoughtful citizen of the world, to pay close attention to what is happening because it is relevant to your life. I also encourage you to take the time to figure out what you think about these events because forming opinions about significant events is important for responsible global citizenship. Whatever conclusions you come to about the current impeachment drama, the fact is, reasonable people will disagree with you, and that reality is also part of being a thoughtful global citizen. So, whatever conclusions you come to, hold them with confidence and also with a mind open to change.

I certainly tried hard to stay informed about events during Watergate and to develop opinions grounded in the facts as I knew them. As is typical with history, the events are a lot clearer now than they were at the time, and opinions are easier to form.

Here is some context about Watergate so you can understand the events that shocked me and so many others and so you can understand why Ben Bradlee is widely revered as a person of courage and principle. As I mentioned, the Watergate affair began in June 1972 with the break-in of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters located in the Watergate office complex.
Five burglars were caught in the act by a security guard. Since a presidential election was coming up in a few months, the question immediately arose as to who had hired the burglars. The answer to that question eventually became clear, changing the course of history, thanks in large part to decisions made by Ben Bradlee.
Above: The five Watergate burglars. (7)
Two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, zealously sought the answer to this and other questions relating to the break-in. Information they discovered made for frequent front page stories during the summer and fall of 1972, increasingly angering Nixon and members of his administration. The most significant moment in their reporting came when someone connected with the Nixon Administration came to them claiming to have information that directly linked the break-in to the White House. At this and other moments, Woodward and Bernstein checked in with Ben Bradlee, their boss. Only with his encouragement could they keep digging for information, and they needed his assurance that he would protect the confidentiality of a key source.
Above: Washington Post Owner Katharine Graham, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, Managing Editor Howard Simons, and Ben Bradlee. (8)
Supporting those reporters and guaranteeing confidentiality required great courage because Bradlee, along with his boss, Post owner Katharine Graham, knew the White House would exert great pressure to keep the story out of the paper and, if in the paper, force the Post to reveal the source. A hostile White House, Bradlee and Graham knew, has great power to hamper the ability of a newspaper to do its work and can damage or ruin careers.
Above: Katharine Graham with Ben Bradlee on June 21, 1971. (9)
Woodward and Bernstein's confidential informant told them that the burglars had been hired and paid for by an official in the president's reelection campaign. That allegation was eventually confirmed and began a slow revelation of information over the next two years that made inevitable Nixon resigning before he was impeached and removed from office. Two facts, in particular, which Nixon tried to prevent us from learning sealed his fate.

First, Nixon obstructed justice. When he learned, shortly after the break-in, that the burglars had been hired and paid by a leader of his reelection committee, he tried his best to ensure that this information would never become publicly known. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, had quickly begun investigating who ordered and paid for the break-in. The FBI was trying to discover the origin of the money the burglars received, and Nixon knew the money trail would lead back to the White House. Nixon conspired with aides to get the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, over whom he had some sort of leverage, to tell the director of the FBI to stop the investigation. You can't make this stuff up!

Second, Nixon lied repeatedly, claiming to the American people that he was determined, as soon as he learned about the break-in, to ensure that the truth about the Watergate burglars would become publicly known and that everyone involved with the break-in would be brought to justice. In fact, he did the opposite. Nixon's discomfort in knowing that he was lying to all of us is probably what prompted the press conference outburst which shocked us so much when we saw it in Mr. Gaccon's apartment.
To add to the story's weirdness, incontrovertible evidence existed of the lying and the obstruction of justice because Nixon secretly recorded conversations in his office. At the start of a conversation, he would push a button on the underside of his desk to start a tape recorder. One of these conversations revealed his efforts to stop the FBI investigation. When a White House official told a Senate committee about the existence of the tapes, the committee asked Nixon for them and Nixon, of course, did not want to turn them over. The two officials Nixon fired during the Saturday Night Massacre—the event that shocked me when I heard about it at Check In one Saturday night—were going to hand over the tapes. A third official obeyed Nixon's order to withhold the tapes, and Nixon only turned the tapes over when the Supreme Court required him to. Once the tapes were made public, Nixon's fate was sealed.
Think of Ben Bradlee's courageous encouragement of Woodward and Bernstein's investigative reporting as like pushing the first in a long row of dominoes. Without Woodward and Bernstein publishing the allegation that a Nixon reelection campaign official had ordered and paid for the burglary at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters, the news of the burglary would probably have become a minor curiosity in a matter of weeks. Indeed, Woodward and Bernstein's revelation of the White House connection to the burglary is what prompted Nixon to cover up that connection and lie about this effort. The attempted cover-up and the lying are what most people consider to be Nixon's most objectionable actions.

So, Ben Bradlee's courageous actions in the face of extreme White House pressure are indisputably admirable and changed the direction of history. I admire Ben Bradlee's character all the more because of what I experienced when I spent time with him.

Ben Bradlee visited St. Mark's periodically while I was a student here because he was a friend of the headmaster, Ned Hall. I remember sitting in what is now the Faculty Room (then the Headmaster's Study) during my VI Form year listening to Bradlee talk about what was going on with the impeachment inquiry, never bragging about his role. Bradlee also described courageous decisions he had made a few years earlier to publish a report critical of the government's approach to the Vietnam War, the so-called Pentagon Papers, which then President Lyndon Johnson tried hard to suppress. Bradlee came across as such a regular person, just like you and me, that it was easy to lose track of the fact that he had made decisions incredibly significant to the nation and the world.

I got the same self-effacing impression of Ben Bradlee on two occasions as head of school. Early in my tenure, I had a delightful breakfast with Bradlee during a visit to Washington. As we ate, Bradlee kept steering the conversation to me and St. Mark's and to our respective families. After breakfast, he took Development Director Chip Norris and me to the Washington Post building and showed us the newsroom and his office. The closest I ever heard Bradlee come to bragging was when he showed us a picture in his office of him arm in arm with Jason Robards, the actor who played Bradlee in a film that depicts his courageous leadership and Woodward and Bernstein's investigative reporting, All the President's Men.
Above: Ben Bradlee (left)(13) and Jason Robards, as Bradlee (right)(14).
I only wish Bradlee had still been alive when The Post came out a couple of years ago, a film that chronicles Bradlee's courageous decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. I am sure he would have gotten a kick out of seeing another illustrious actor, Tom Hanks, play him.
Above: Ben Bradlee (left) and Tom Hanks, as Bradlee (right). (15)
In 2010, I had the honor of presenting Bradlee with his St. Mark's Distinguished Alumni Award at a reception in Washington. I came away, again, with an impression of humility displayed by this courageous highly principled member of the St. Mark's Class of 1939. In every one of my interactions with Ben Bradlee, he came across as someone who simply believed he was confronted with a series of challenging decisions he needed to make. A responsibility was thrust upon him, and he just did what he thought was right, his own version of Age Quod Agis.

Few of us will be put under as much public scrutiny and pressure as Ben Bradlee. However, each of us is tested at moments requiring personal courage when we need to make a choice to follow the principles we know are ethically right. I hope I do the right thing in these moments, following the example of Ben Bradlee, and I hope each of you do too.

Above: Ben Bradlee '39 and Michael Greenwald '02 at the presentation of the Distinguished Alumni Awards.


(1) Interview from ABC News podcast No Limits, hosted by Rebecca Jarvis. Reference given to me by Tarah Donoghue Breed '00
(4) US National Registry of Historic Places,

Head of School


[Full Profile]

John Warren '74