Ben Bradlee’s estate donates his papers to University of Texas archive

The desk-calendar entry for 11:30 a.m. on July 3, 1973, reads simply, “Watergate meeting.” It wouldn’t be of much importance except for the author of the hand-written note: former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee, who was then deep in the midst of directing the newspaper’s coverage of a scandal that would eventually bring down a president.

The calendar is one of thousands of items — memos, photos and correspondence with journalists and dignitaries — that Bradlee’s estate has agreed to donate to the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, a massive humanities archive. About 70 boxes of Bradlee’s papers, spanning much of his life, will go to the archive in Austin, the center announced Wednesday.

The center is already home to the Watergate-era papers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who were instrumental in breaking many of the key early stories about the illicit activities of President Richard M. Nixon and his top aides. The two reporters sold their papers to the center for $5 million in 2003.

Bradlee, who died last year at 93, had little connection to the University of Texas during his lifetime. But he wanted his papers to go the university’s archive to complement the Woodward and Bernstein collection, and pledged in 2012 to donate them upon his death, said Sally Quinn, his widow and a veteran Post writer.

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“He just felt it made more sense to have the whole collection there,” Quinn said. “It really consolidates [Watergate-related material] and compounds the value of each one by having them all together. . . . It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Bradlee demonstrated “how vitally important the press was to a democratic society,” said Stephen Ennis, the Ransom Center’s director. “In a way, I think he almost made a case for the press being the fourth branch of government.”

Among the items in Bradlee’s papers is a memo to Post Publisher Katharine Graham in March 1975, as the newspaper was discussing its cooperation with the producers of the movie version of “All the President’s Men,” Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about their Watergate reporting.

“Do we allow them to use the Post’s name?” he asks Graham. “They want it and they want it bad. . . . Will we cooperate with them to the extent that they can shoot the Post entrance, the Post elevators, and the Post production facilities?”

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Bradlee writes that he has no problems with the filmmakers’ requests. But he adds, “I do have problems about the use of our names — certainly before knowing who is going to play any of us, and what he or she is going to be made to say.”

The Post ultimately cooperated with the movie’s producer and co-star, Robert Redford, and its director, Alan Pakula. Bradlee was played in the movie by Jason Robards, who won the Academy Award for best supporting actor — cementing Bradlee’s fame and legacy as one of the most celebrated newspaper editors in American history. (Graham was not portrayed in the movie.)

Bradlee’s sharp, salty language is on display in a 1978 letter to talk show host Phil Donahue. Taking exception to a Donahue program in which a guest accused Bradlee and The Post of covering up John F. Kennedy’s affairs while president, Bradlee wrote, “Just for the record, pal, please know that: The first newspaper to report Judith Campbell Exner’s affair with JFK was The Washington Post. The first. Page One. That makes most of that particular part of the conversation bull—-, no?”

Bradlee also saved a letter from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in November 1981, complaining, in Spanish, about a Post column written about Cuba and El Salvador by columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Castro protests that the column’s assertion that Cuba supplied arms to Salvadoran rebels is “absolutamente falsas.”

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A July 1979 letter from President Jimmy Carter upbraids Bradlee and The Post for not reporting the passage of a trade bill in Congress. It is signed, “A reader, Jimmy Carter.”

More poignant is a December 1963 letter to Bradlee from former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy a month after her husband’s assassination. It reads, “I consider that my life is over and I will spend the rest of it waiting for it really to be over.”

Materials from the archive will be available to researchers and the public once they are catalogued, a process that could take several months, Ennis said.