The Night Ben Bradlee Came to See Me in the Emergency Room
Everyone at the Washington Post seems to have his Bradlee story. This is mine.
- Reporters did all kinds of things to get Ben Bradlee's attention. I was the first to do it by getting shot.
- Ben Bradlee called me to tell me, "OK, kid, can you get back to Washington tomorrow? You're gonna write a book."
- Ben Bradlee was a great editor because he had guts and, at the same time, took care of business.
- Ben Bradlee never doubted for a second that what he was doing was right for The Post and right for the country.
It seems that everyone who worked in the newsroom at The Washington Post when Ben Bradlee was executive editor has a story to tell about a man who really was larger than life. A Boston Brahmin with great panache, he talked like a sailor and had the nerve of a jewel thief.
Most of the stories his former reporters and editors tell highlight Mr. Bradlee’s style, self confidence and fearless pursuit of hypocrisy, demagoguery, incompetence and criminal activity.
It was this zeal that inspired them to go after the kind of front page “scoops” he loved — and that made The Post a great newspaper.
During my years at The Post (1972 to 1980), newsroom competition was fierce and becoming a star wasn’t easy, especially after Watergate. Reporters did all kinds of ingenious, daring, smart and outrageous things to get the scoops that would get Ben Bradlee’s attention.
But I was the first to do it by getting shot and nearly killed while on assignment.
Had I been shot while I was alone or interviewing someone no one had ever heard of — or, for that matter, even in a war zone — it wouldn’t necessarily have made me a star.
But I had the good fortune to be shot at the same time a Congressman was killed shortly before more than 900 Americans committed “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced punch a few miles away in Jonestown, which occurred in northwestern Guyana on November 18, 1978.
Best of all, The New York Times wasn’t there, which meant I not only had a great story but also a “scoop” because Bradlee definied scoops very narrowly. An important story was a scoop only if The Times didn’t have it.
So I had a scoop. And Ben Bradlee had another exclusive story, one that turned out to be the biggest story of the year, if not the latter half of the decade.
Jonestown happened on Saturday, November 18, 1978. We weren’t rescued by the Guyana Defense Forces and the U.S. Marines until Sunday, the 19th, which is when I wrote my first front page scoop.
That was followed by a second scoop the next day, when I was the first and only foreign reporter allowed into Jonestown to see the carnage.
My story that day opened with, “they started with the babies,” a direct quote from one of the few survivors, which gave my second scoop what it needed to become The Post’s lead story the following morning. And I had three more stories that first week.
On Wednesday, the 22nd, the day before Thanksgiving in the United States, Ben Bradlee called me in Guyana to tell me personally, “OK, kid, can you get back to Washington tomorrow? You’re gonna write a book.”
A book? Tomorrow?
I made it back to Washington early the next afternoon, Thanksgiving Day, and went immediately to the newsroom at The Post to write one more scoop.
Deadline of another kind
But when I finished, instead of going to my hotel, I passed out right there — in the middle of the newsroom near the foreign desk.
It had been five days since I had been shot and the wound on my hip hadn’t been treated. I had lost 10 pounds, had hardly slept and, no real surprise here, my body just gave out.
I was rushed to the Georgetown University Hospital emergency room, where I was treated like a celebrity, given my all too personal connection to the Jonestown massacre, which at the time dominated the news.
Not more than 15 or 20 minutes after I got there (it must have been about 7 p.m.) Ben Bradlee arrived, marching right past the signs that said “patients only,” to let me know that he had interrupted his Thanksgiving dinner to come to see how I was doing. He did it as only he could. I felt like a million dollars.
Five minutes later he was gone, ostensibly to confer with the nurses and doctor on duty to make sure they understood that I was one of “his” reporters.
In short, he made them understand that I was from The Washington Post, which in those days was about the same as saying I was from The White House.
No unselfish visit
It was only later that I was told the real reason Ben interrupted his dinner to come to the hospital. It had to do with me only tangentially.
The Post had signed a contract to produce an instant book about Jonestown — and the manuscript, which I was supposed to write, was due the following Monday.
To make it all work, the paper had taken half a floor across from the Post’s offices, at the Madison Hotel. Bradlee had assigned several researchers and editors to work through Thanksgiving weekend.
It was a big investment which promised a big reward — but, because of my singular eyewitness status, it couldn’t be done without me.
So Ben had come to see for himself how I was doing. By the time I awoke in my suite at the Madison the next morning, he had arranged for Richard Harwood, one of The Post’s other legendary editors, to take dictation from me as I recounted the details of what had happened less than a week before in Jonestown.
With Dick Harwood’s help, we had the manuscript finished on time and Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account was published a few days later. I was sent off on a five or six city book tour.
Guyana Massacre was one of the first “instant books” and the rights were later bought for a television mini-series. It still ranks as the 10th most watched mini-series in U.S. television history.
The aura of a man
For a week or two anyway, I was a star. And as recently as a year ago, the last time I saw Ben, his eyes lit up when I reminded him who I was.
Ben Bradlee was a great editor because he had guts and, at the same time, took care of business. The Washington Post was his baby and he made sure it had the same great style he did — and was just as fearless. He never doubted for a second that what he was doing was right for The Post and right for the country.
And most of the time it was.