The Washington Post’s vice president-at-large Ben Bradlee gave a lecture Monday night about the leadership of past and current American presidents as part of the Isabella Cannon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership program.
Through his connections with The Washington Post, Bradlee spent over four decades reporting on presidents. “Presidents like a chance to make a contribution,” Bradlee said. “They like a chance to change the future of their country.”
Bradlee’s anecdotes of his encounters with the presidents were the center of his lecture. When John F. Kennedy moved into Georgetown in Washington, Bradlee said they became close friends, which was rare for a politician. Bradlee said, “They don’t make friends. They bring them with them.”
Bradlee said Kennedy liked reporters which made his job at the Post easier. “Kennedy had a great staff and he didn’t know all of them. They weren’t all waiting for him [when he was elected],” Bradlee said.
President Nixon was the opposite of Kennedy because he did not like reporters. “Nixon had some good people in the White House,” Bradlee commented. “[George W. Bush] doesn’t aspire as high as Nixon,” Bradlee said.
Bradlee also said that President Bush is not very well liked at the moment. “I think the [George W.] Bush people aren’t very exciting,” Bradlee said.
Bradlee said President Ronald Reagan was a really good leader. “He could make people look up to him and he could make people work hard,” Bradlee said.
A president’s best quality according to Bradlee was the “ability to judge people” which some of these men had and some did not.
Freshman Amy Reitnouer said Bradlee gave a different perspective on the presidents. “They were human,” she said.
Reitnouer was concerned that Bradlee’s experience and high profile friends would make him calloused. “He was a lot more laid back,” she said.
Bradlee’s personal accounts of the presidents ranged from the political to the humorous. One story told how Bradlee received a photograph of Jimmy Carter reading: “I got my job at The Washington Post” that the president signed.
Through working with The Washington Post, Bradlee first-hand witnessed important political events in Washington, D.C. His newspaper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal earned The Washington Post a Pulitzer. “I think that it’ll come out. What has to come out will come out,” Bradlee said.
Bradlee said anyone being interviewed “has one thing in mind and that’s to convince you of his point of view whether or not that’s the truth.”
After his lecture Bradlee was asked the difference between a good and a great journalist by an Elon student. “A great journalist is a lucky good journalist,” Bradlee said.
Bradlee graduated from Harvard University in 1942 and served four years in the Navy. He became a foreign correspondent and was expelled from France in 1957 for conducting interviews with members of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.
Bradlee began reporting for The Washington Post as well as Newsweek Magazine in the 1950s and became a senior editor in 1961. He served as vice president and executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991.
Bradlee was “put on the map” for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. He was greatly criticized for Janet Cooke’s 1981 false story about an 8-year-old heroine addict published in The Washington Post.
Bradlee has written several books including two about President John F. Kennedy, “That Special Grace” (1964) and “Conversations with Kennedy” (1975), and his autobiography “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures” (1995). Bradlee is currently the vice president-at-large for The Washington Post.
The Isabella Cannon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership program is designed to bring nationally recognized authorities to campus to share insights about the nature, potential and responsibilities of leadership. The visiting professors give public addresses, hold seminars and meet with students on campus. The program is sponsored by the late Isabella Cannon ’24, who requested her estate be used to fund leadership programs at Elon.