Ben Bradlee dead at 93

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Ben Bradlee had entered hospice care at his home last month, his wife Sally Quinn told C-Span

By Ken Rossignol

UPDATE: Ben Bradlee, longtime editor of The Washington Post who retired in 1991 and continued to serve as Vice-President at Large until today, died at his home in Washington, D.C.

The Joy Boys of the Washington Post Elevator

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After Ben Bradlee bought a weekend farm in St. Mary’s County, Md., he began subscribing to my newspaper, ST. MARY’S TODAY, and I called him to thank him for his business. He invited me to D.C. for lunch, which began a twenty-five-year friendship where we often had lunch in Lexington Park or Washington to talk about his leading the St. Mary’s City Historic Commission or politics in general.

One day after having lunch at the Madison Hotel across from the Washington Post offices in Washington, Ben Bradlee and I were returning to his office and took the side door into the building and ran to catch an elevator as the door started to close.

In the elevator were legendary Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, known forever as Herblock, and Washington Post publisher Don Graham.

Bradlee introduced us, and then I asked, “Mr. Block, in your cartoons, are you the artist and the smart-ass or just the artist?”

“Why do you ask, sonny,” said Block.

“Well, in my newspaper, I hire an artist to draw the cartoon art, but I am the smart-ass with the idea in the toon as I understand the issues but haven’t a clue as to how to draw.”

With a loud laugh, Block answered: “Hell, I do it all, and those two SOBs there (pointing to Graham and Bradlee) are always trying to tell me what to put in a cartoon, but I just tell them to ‘Go to Hell’.”

Graham and Bradlee agreed.

“That’s what he always says,” said Bradlee with a laugh, echoed by Graham.


Bradlee Awarded Medal of Freedom

ST. MARY’S CITY — It isn’t often that a resident of St. Mary’s County, even a part-time resident, is selected for one of the 500 Medal of Freedom awards that have been given out by U. S. presidents over the last fifty years, but Drayden resident Ben Bradlee now joins that group.

President Obama recently announced the honor for Bradlee, the tough editor of the Washington Post who kept his junior reporters on a story about the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Obama’s recognition of Bradlee is about as close as any president has wanted to get to Bradlee since 1974, as such a photo op might inspire future investigative journalists to emulate Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Bradlee himself.

As the big day arrived in Bradlee's P.T. Barnum moment at St. Mary's City, the tent over the excavation of the colonial-era coffins was full of the important and distinguished for the officially sanctioned grave robbing.  THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

With so many “phony scandals” circling the Obama White House, it seems inevitable that reporters such as Fox News’s James Rosen, who has been the target of a secret Obama Administration investigation or an Associated Press reporter, whose firm has had its phone and email records investigated by the Obama Administration, just might keep digging. Just like Bradlee kept Woodward and Bernstein digging.

While the big dogs of the big city media might be overlooking the obvious similarities of the Nixon White House to the Obama White House, it seems beyond comprehension that an enterprising reporter might just find the smoking gun that ties the Obama White House to its many problems with the four dead Americans at Benghazi, the IRS probing of conservative Tea Party groups, the targeting of the news media by the Justice Department and the NSA spying on Americans.

Famed Watergate Editor as Coach for GOP Officials

At lunch in Trader Vic’s in Washington DC in 1995, hosted by Bradlee for the purpose of giving his view on the government to two newly elected Republican St. Mary’s County Commissioners, Larry Jarboe, and Chris Brugman, Bradlee had a lot to say about the GOP takeover of Congress in the previous year’s election.

One thing that he said that stood out in my mind was that with so many Republicans elected to Congress and the dramatic shift of GOP being in charge of Congress for the first time in forty years, that there would be plenty for reporters to write about.

“They will be able to come to work and fill their lunch buckets every day,” Bradlee said.

Bradlee had consented to the meeting with the newly elected GOP county commissioners at my request to take part in a group which would act as an orientation for Jarboe and Brugman to counter that being prepared by the defeated Good Old Boys County Administrator Ed Cox.

Jarboe and Brugman, along with Paul Chesser, Barbara Thompson, and Frances Eagan, had made a clean sweep of the St. Mary’s Commissioner board in the election in 1994, a historic realignment which has resulted in the board continuing to be held by a majority of Republicans with the exception of the four-year period from 1998 to 2002 when only Republican Shelby Guazzo served.

Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer holds up his souvenir tee shirt for the Lead Coffins with Burt Kumerrow of the Historic Commission staff, and Ben Bradlee, right.  THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo
Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer holds up his souvenir tee shirt for the Lead Coffins, Burt Kumerrow of the Historic Commission staff, and Ben Bradlee, right. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

End of Bradlee Era at Historic St. Mary’s City

Former St. Mary’s City Commission Chairman Ben Bradlee said in 2004 that the new appointments by Governor Robert Ehrlich to the Historic St. Mary’s Commission were excellent choices and a great boost to the goal of blending preservation of Maryland’s history and promoting the enjoyment of the site by the public.

Gov. Ehrlich, in 2004, made a round of recess appointments to the outdoor museum devoted to preserving and explaining the history of Maryland’s colonial capital located on the banks of the St. Mary’s River at St. Mary’s City.

Along with the selection of new appointees came the selection by the commission of a new chairman to succeed the long-time chairman, Ben Bradlee.

“Dick Moe was chairman of the National Trust for historic preservation for ten years and is a top-notch choice to lead the commission,” said Bradlee at the time of the changeover. Bradlee was selected to be chairman of the St. Mary’s City Commission by former Governor William Donald Schaefer in 1991.

Bradlee was asked if he was able to survive the rough and tumble of local St. Mary’s politics after only being prepared by the amateur antics of the nation’s capital.

“This was tough at first, but we worked with a great group of folks over the years, we were able to get the consolidation with the college five years ago, and that was a real plus; now we have a great director, a really top-notch guy with Dick Moe as chairman and I am glad to be able to stick around to work with them all,” said Bradlee in an interview in 2004 at his home at Portobello.

“We have a great group of fascinating people who really believe in the purpose of preserving the history of Maryland at this site and they have a lot ability, they are just a great group and I am really happy to see the appointments made by the Governor, it just makes a lot of sense,” Bradlee told me in the interview for ST. MARY’S TODAY.

Bradlee, who has been the longest-serving chairman since the commission was formed as a result of a bill passed by former Sen. J. Frank Raley in 1965, remained on the commission and on the St. Mary’s College Board of Trustees until finally ending his service in recent years.

More progress at showing the taxpayers something for their money invested in the historic site was made during Bradlee’s tenure as chairman than at any time since the original land purchases were made to assemble and preserve the colonial capital.

During Bradlee’s 13-year stint at the helm of the commission, the man who became the most famous newspaper editor in America at his job as executive editor of the Washington Post oversaw an ambitious series of projects to turn around the lackluster colonial capital.

Putting St. Mary’s City ‘On the Map’

Most weeks, St. Mary’s City had more people underground at the Trinity Church cemetery than tourists viewing exhibits or scenery above ground.

Bradlee vowed to ‘put this place on the map’, an expression which Bradlee has often used to describe the impact of the Post coverage of the Watergate scandal, which resulted in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon and put the Post ‘on the map’.

During Bradlee’s first year on the job, a part-time devotion he mixed in with his duties as a full-time vice president at the Post, he launched the now famous Lead Coffins Project.

Bradlee also convinced Gov. Schaefer to fund $500,000 to move the huge old country 1840-era manor house from where it was built in the middle of the old capital city several miles away to a riverfront site off of Rosecroft Road, where it was then turned into a bed and breakfast inn with facilities for dining and receptions.

After years of trying, the Broome Howard Inn closed its doors, and Lisa and Michael Kelly now run the Ruddy Duck at Solomon’s Island and have recently taken over the old Evans Crabhouse.

Bradlee, even though he was the chairman of the St. Mary’s City Commission and responsible for overseeing the operations of the commission, stuck his neck out financially to try to see to it that the restaurant and catering operations would make a go of it. The facility was desperately needed at the time, to assist the college in its goals of becoming a world-class educational institution which had as its only eating facilities, the college snack bar and the nearby Green Door, a redneck bar a few miles from the campus.

The crowd of officials watches as the Lead Coffins of the Royal Governor of Maryland and his family are unearthed. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo
TV satellite trucks were lined up next to the area of the grave-robbing of Maryland's Colonial Governor.  THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo
TV satellite trucks were lined up next to the area of the grave robbing of Maryland’s Colonial Governor. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

Assisted Young Couple to Get Business Loan

To see to it that the Kelly’s got the loan they needed
to buy the equipment and fund their startup in the old house which was moved to the field overlooking the St. Mary’s River, Bradlee told me he co-signed the loan at Maryland Bank & Trust.
As Bradlee is 91 years old and has been long gone from any involvement with oversight of Historic St. Mary’s City, any potential wanna-be investigative reporter might spend their time on real scandals and forget about this one of the chief of the state commission and his relationship with a vendor.

Broome Howard house moving day
Broome Howard house moving day

Bradlee’s co-signing the loan for the operator of the restaurant where the college and Historic St. Mary’s City held lavish receptions for years might well be unorthodox and perhaps illegal, but it was done solely for the intent to help a young couple make a go off it and at great financial risk to Bradlee.

Since the restaurant failed, it could well be that Bradlee ended up paying the balance of the loan, if any.

Most of those who seek appointments to the clubby boards of St. Mary’s College and Historic St. Mary’s City are usually out to build their resumes and suck up to the wealthy and powerful.

When Bradlee was appointed to head Historic St. Mary’s City, I warned him that the locals would chew him up and spit him out. He laughed and said he was used to it. As it all turned out, it appeared he held his own.

At a meeting in his office with ST. MARY’S TODAY reporter John C. Wright, to discuss the looming underground digs at the colonial capital, the hard-charging reporter for my newspaper asked Bradlee a series of probing questions.

Bradlee looked at Wright, and said, “hold it fella, I have been doing this since before you were born…”, I interrupted the two and reminded Wright that we were here only to do a report on the lead coffins and he could save his energy for the St. Mary’s County Commissioners and the Good Old Boys.

Later reporting in the paper earned a couple of strongly worded letters from Bradlee about subsequent critical coverage of his efforts at St. Mary’s City, but he kept up his subscription until I sold the newspaper in 2010, and we remained on friendly terms.

Maggies Erection The Yacht Club, three stories high, being built next to the new boathouse and obstructing the view of the river. The construction violated the clean water rules  and Critical Area laws, but since the violations were done by a state agency, no one was dragged into court.  THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

Much Ado About Stale Air in Lead Coffins

The lead coffins excavation in Chapel Field, the site of the first Catholic Brick Chapel in the original 13 colonies, was an ambitious project to determine the identity of those persons entombed in lead coffins discovered under the unexplored substructure of the first brick Catholic chapel at St. Mary’s City.

Bradlee’s efforts resulted in unprecedented numbers of visitors and media streaming to St. Mary’s City from around the world to watch the progress of the exploration.

Television satellite trucks jammed the field near large Army tents which were set up to provide shelter from the elements as the investigation reached a dramatic step when the coffins were finally disinterred.

With a press pool of national media peering over the shoulders of scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists, the unusual lead coffins were carefully opened to reveal their human remains and tell the story of colonial life in Maryland, which had been sealed for more than 200 years.

Reporters filed news stories from the scene via cell phones, CNN covered the event, while ABC’s Nightline sent its top reporter, Dave Maresh, and broadcast live at 11:30 p.m. from Chapel Field.

Nightline’s anchor, Ted Koppel, a buddy of Bradlee’s, lives in an old manor house around the bend, down-river from St. Mary’s City, and was part of the magic Bradlee was able to set in motion to bring widespread notoriety, national stature and historic standing to Maryland’s early beginnings.

Bradlee had set in motion a modern hi-tech version of a Barnum and Bailey Big Top atmosphere mixed with a historical Ripley’s Believe or Not explanation of what they expected to learn and hoped to achieve from the examination of the lead coffins.
Benefits to modern times included speculation that scientists could learn of the relationships between colonial era health and immune systems to solve modern health problems.

The Broom-Howard house, moving down Rt. 5 to Rosecroft Road seemed like a good idea, where it was turned into a tavern.

And just to keep up the more prurient interests of the public, Bradlee’s troop of professors and scientists continued to suggest that the bones of the biggest coffin were likely that of Maryland’s colonial governor, Phillip Calvert.

After the big dig, the coffins were shipped off to laboratories at the Smithsonian for more research, and it was later determined that the woman in a second lead coffin was likely Calvert’s second wife, proving that even then, most dead guys didn’t get buried with their first wives when they remarried.

While teams of experts in pathology, insects, colonial-era vegetation, fabrics, disease, pollen, and bones were assembled to examine the coffins and their contents, the public was involved in every step of the process.

Groups came by bus to tour and to learn what an examination of “stale air” could provide modern society.

While some might call the lead coffins effort government-sponsored grave-robbing, others could say it was simply entertainment and thrills for geeks not able to review the work of professors breaking into Egyptian tombs.

The work of the Lead Coffins project led into the plans for the restoration of the Brick Chapel, which was built by Jesuits around 1667 and later ordered shuttered by order of the Protestant Governor of Maryland in 1705.

While the restoration and reconstruction of the brick chapel has been subject to false starts and a near war over staff plans to simply use the chapel as a visitor’s center, a new twist to the plans came about as a result of intervention by Senator Roy Dyson (D. St. Mary’s, Calvert).

The reconstructed Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City stands on the site of the original chapel which was ordered closed by the British Royal Governor in 1705.  THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo
The reconstructed Brick Chapel at St. Mary’s City stands on the site of the original chapel, which was ordered closed by the British Royal Governor in 1705. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

The historic commission authorized a probe into what the chapel looked like and assured the public that the extensive research would result in an authentic recreation of the chapel and it would not be subject to any inappropriate activities.

The chapel site still has about 300 people buried under and near the chapel, posing special problems for the construction effort, which is not allowed to disturb any of the burial sites in order to install utilities. The site remains a protected cemetery under state law and is a consecrated Catholic cemetery in spite of the removal of the chapel due to the order outlawing the open worshiping by Catholics as religious intolerance became the law of the land in Maryland, a condition that existed up until the American Revolution.

The chapel’s research into the construction techniques of the era reveals that the church was likely 22 to 25 feet tall, and the foundation shows that it was built in the shape of a cross.
St. Mary’s City has been the battleground for some volunteers who believe that they know best how to run things, with many elitists taking action to rid the outdoor museum of the volunteers that they could not control and replace them with paid staff.

Bradlee set into motion a plan to consolidate Historic St. Mary’s City under the St. Mary’s College, two groups who had battled each other in turf wars for years.
Initially opposed by Sen. Dyson, the plan to marry the two panels finally won approval after assurances were made that the College would not decimate the commission.

Bradlee argued that it made sense for the College and Commission to share staff, and expenses, and work together to preserve the same small village that they both occupy.
The College finally began taking a major step as Bradlee ended his era, towards making the St. Mary’s River a laboratory for environmental sciences with a new waterfront facility located at the boathouse area of the college.

Maggie’s Erection

That effort turned into a major issue in 2008 when the college erected a huge three-story new boathouse which changed the very vista of the area, which, ironically, was part of the mission that Historic St. Mary’s City Commission was charged with protecting. In addition, the construction work was done in violation of Maryland soil erosion and pollution laws, which if done by an individual or business, could have resulted in fines and imprisonment.

Vows to set fire to the boat house were reported in ST. MARY’S TODAY, along with the admonition that arson is never a good idea, and soon St. Mary’s College President Maggie O’Brien was calling in fire marshals, erecting 10-foot-high construction fences and facing down an enraged community, all of which finally led to her resignation. But the boathouse was built as a lasting monument to bureaucratic and elitist superiority over the community.

The previous major use the College made of the river for the sailing team was to use it as a sewage discharge point. That problem was finally corrected with a sewage line connecting the college with the county’s sewage treatment plant, which serves Lexington Park.

Citizens who were active in saving St. Mary’s City from being overrun by the College pointed out various construction projects which unearthed Indian village remains and paved over early settler’s homes without any archeological digs performed.

The new commission/college alliance guided by Bradlee aimed to prevent such events from occurring again and foster a new spirit of cooperation, which seems to have taken place – while he was there, but that quickly ended, as shown by the Boathouse fiasco.

But regardless of the viewpoints of those who enjoy St. Mary’s City and believe it important, Bradlee has been a key figure in the long-term success of the colonial capital museum.

At the age of eighty-four, when he ended his service at St. Mary’s City, Bradlee remained a vigorous Washington Post executive and had his hand in a number of projects for the huge conglomerate around the world and with local concerns in St. Mary’s City, where he maintains a weekend home to escape Washington.

“With Marty Sullivan as the director, this place has really improved and we have ironed out problems which we inherited,” said Bradlee. “This is a great way to involve students in learning about history and taking part in discovering colonial life and our early beginnings. It is exciting to be a part of this and to work with such a great group of people.”
Sullivan did stick around for a number of years before moving on to other employment.

At the age of ninety, when setting up a day for lunch, which had become a fairly regular event since Bradlee began subscribing to my newspaper, he told me: “just pick a day; my calendar is empty, no one wants to talk to a ninety-year-old guy”.

When I met him at his office on 15th Street last year, I told him we could take my truck over to the Jefferson Hotel for lunch. “No problem, its only three blocks, we’ll walk.”

That could well be why he is now ninety-one and he does have one more thing to add to his calendar, a meeting at the White House to pick up his award.

The Story of THE RAG, available in Kindle, paperback and Audible editions
The Story of THE RAG, available in Kindle, paperback and Audible editions

At lunch, as always, he refused to let me pick up the check, and when he tried to pay with his credit card, the waiter came back and told him that his card was declined. While the Post was experiencing the dire consequences of the great decline in revenue, it was more likely his card had expired. I tried to pay, and he refused, then he ordered the waiter to call the manager, whom Bradlee told to “just keep the damn bill here, and I’ll pay it the next time I come in”.

The manager quickly agreed.

Bradlee, a close pal of President John F. Kennedy, while traveling in high society and as the executive editor of the Washington Post guided the now-sold newspaper through a path of prestigious Pulitzer, had two things on his resume that always impressed me as showing that he was cut from the same cloth as the rest of us.

Bradlee served as executive officer on a U. S. Navy destroyer for several years during the height of World War II in the South Pacific, and after the war, he spent a stint helping to run a weekly newspaper in New Hampshire.

Bradlee and millions of other veterans put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms and then worked hard to print the news that the powerful never wanted to be told. While it didn’t work out too well in New Hampshire, he scored a big fish in Washington, and we all owe him his Medal of Freedom.

I will always remember Bradlee, not only for the aforementioned incidents but for getting the Washington Post to do a serious take on what their cutesy reporter Annie Gowen had branded the “paper caper”. When Sheriff Richard Voorhaar, states attorney candidate Richard Fritz and six deputies set out on election eve to seize control of all available copies of ST. MARY’S TODAY, the result was that voters could not read critical articles of these candidates prior to voting.

Ben Bradlee gives a few news pointers to Ken Rossignol. Photo by Patrick Pena
Ben Bradlee gives a few news pointers to Ken Rossignol. Photo by Patrick Pena

Bradlee decided that the Washington Post would weigh into the story when we met for lunch at the hotel across the street from his office. He called Post Vice President Carol Melamed to meet with me, and soon the Post began to change its coverage to serious, with a front-page story appearing several months later, which led to my being invited to tell the story of how the cops cleaned out my newsstands on Good Morning America.

Many follow-up articles by Eugene L. Meyer and other Post reporters took a serious take on the newspaper raid and the resulting court decisions.

WUSA reporter Bruce Leshan did a story on Fritz’s actions and the story of him pleading guilty to rape, along with two other men. Fritz did plead guilty, according to court records, but in an interview with Chris Wallace on ABC 20/20, Fritz said the sex was consensual, which the victim denied and said was forcible rape.

The WUSA article won the news organization an Emmy while Fritz’s answer to Wallace, now the host of Fox News Sunday when asked if he expected people to believe that a 15-year-old girl would willing have sex with three young men, he answered: “it happens all the time”.

Following years of litigation, the Fourth Circuit United States Court of Appeals ruled that the acts of Fritz, Voorhaar and the deputies violated the Constitutional rights of myself and my readers and ordered the lower court to reverse its earlier ruling and proceed to trial. The defendants soon settled the case and the published opinion of the court is now the law of the land; see Rossignol v Voorhaar. The complete story is told in the book, The Story of The Rag, available in paperback and eBook on Amazon.

Bradlee told me after the Court of Appeals ruling that his Washington Post lawyers had said the ruling was the most important First Amendment ruling in forty years – since his win on the Pentagon papers.

Therefore, I am really happy that Bradlee has been awarded the Medal of Freedom. He did a good job for America and far more to help protect our rights in St. Mary’s County than most retirees.

  • At lunch in Trader Vic’s in Washington DC in 1995, hosted by Bradlee for the purpose of giving his view on government to two newly elected Republican St. Mary’s County Commissioners, Larry Jarboe and Chris Brugman, Bradlee had a lot to say about the GOP takeover of Congress in the previous year’s election. One thing that he said that stood out in my mind was that with so many Republicans elected to Congress and the dramatic shift of GOP being in charge of Congress for the first time in forty years, that there would be plenty for reporters to write about. “They will be able to come to work and fill their lunch buckets every day,” Bradlee said.

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