WHEN Ben Bradlee walks into a roomful of people, he looks as though he's editing it. The quick, olive-brown eyes flicker over the crowd, assessing what the news is here, what the lead should be, where the story may be thin. While he is sometimes a figure of controversy, many see Mr. Bradlee as the ultimate editor, and ever since ``All the President's Men,'' he is also America's most famous editor. This year the prestigious Washington Journalism Review named Washington Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee the ``Most Respected Newspaper Editor'' in the United States in its annual ``The Best in the Business'' readers' poll.
It was Bradlee's steel as editor during the Watergate scandal that resulted in exposing, through the stories of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the cover-up that toppled the Nixon administration. In their book, ``All the President's Men,'' the two reporters -- ``Woodstein,'' as Bradlee called them -- wrote:
``There was an alluring combination of aristocrat and commoner about Bradlee; Boston Brahmin, Harvard, the World War II Navy, press attach'e at the US Embassy in Paris, police-beat reporter, newsmagazine political reporter, and Washington bureau chief of Newsweek.''
When the movie of ``All the President's Men'' was made, starring Robert Redford as Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, and Jason Robards Jr. as Bradlee, it made Ben Bradlee more famous than Hildy Johnson in the classic newspaper film ``The Front Page.''
His son, Ben Bradlee Jr., now national correspondent for the Boston Globe, was just beginning his career at the time Robards was playing his crusading father in movie theaters all over the country.
``It was a kick, I remember, at the time, and I was thrilled for him,'' says Ben Jr. ``In many ways that movie was a big roll of the dice for him. Because, for better or for worse, he's going to be remembered in this business on how Jason Robards portrayed him, to a great extent.''
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee may be the hero and father figure of a generation of journalists. But he says he never talked to his son about journalism. ``Not once. . . . He obviously knew what I did for a living, but we didn't talk about it.''
They finally did talk about it when Ben Jr. came back from a Peace Corps hitch in Afghanistan, where he'd reported for an English-language newspaper in Kabul. ``I was certainly aware of his work,'' says his son by his first marriage, to Jean Saltonstall, ``and of course I always respected him and had great admiration for him. Maybe it trickled down through osmosis, I don't know. But he never urged me to go into journalism.''
The man who has become almost a mythical figure in US journalism works behind a clear glass-walled office at the head of the Post's newsroom, where he can see his staff and they can see him.
He strides out from behind an oval teak table he uses as a desk and shakes hands with one slightly callused paw.
Ben Bradlee in person, like Lord Louis Mountbatten in the PBS series ``The Last Viceroy,'' is more conventionally good-looking than the star who played him. He has patrician features and a full head of iron-gray hair combed close to his head. His big, broad grin has left smile parentheses on his seamed, tan face. And there are those brown, editing eyes, which size you up as if you were a three-column story for tomorrow's edition.
Writer James Fallows, in an Esquire profile on ``Big Ben'' 10 years ago, noted: ``Although not a great athlete himself,'' Bradlee ``radiates a sense of athletic toughness and vigor.'' The real Ben Bradlee has ``charisma,'' as his son puts it, a leathery charm that was missing from the movie Bradlee.
Bradlee is talking in his distinctive voice, rough as fresh gravel under a tractor's wheels, about what he looks for in a journalist:
``Sometimes I think it all boils down to energy,'' he says. ``Energy is certainly something I look for, and curiosity. Intelligence, obviously, and an ability to write. But I find the best reporters are the ones who work the hardest and who aren't impressed with their successes or the high positions of their friends.'' His job as executive editor, he says, ``has to do with conceptualizing and energizing and leading. You gotta like people.'' But Bradlee also has a reputation for being tough as a Quantico sergeant, sometimes profane, an editor who wants winners in his newsroom. As David Halberstam writes in his media book ``The Powers That Be,'' ``When someone at the Post no longer measured up, it was not an entirely pleasant experience. It was as if Bradlee did not quite see the person anymore.''
Ben Bagdikian, now dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, had some visceral differences with Bradlee when Bagdikian was assistant managing editor for national news at the Post. But he calls Bradlee ``a brilliant editor, extremely sharp and perceptive in his literal editing of stories. . . .'' Bagdikian notes that when Bradlee is ``confronted with the question of whether to publish whatever is important or not, he can be very tough. We went through the Pentagon Papers together and he was absolutely steady on that, and very tough.''
At this writing, Bradlee is at the eye of the storm after publishing a story on alleged spy Ronald Pelton, a story that Central Intelligence Agency director William Casey said would result in federal prosecution of the Post if printed. Under pressure from the White House, the Post deleted certain classified information from the story, which has caused some people to accuse the paper of succumbing to intimidation.
If Ben Bradlee has a credo as an editor, it comes from his days as a kid at Dexter grade school in Brookline, Mass., outside Boston. ``The motto of my school was `Best today, better tomorrow.' You know, if you put out the best paper you possibly can and try to do better the next day, you'll do fine.''
The summer he was 16, Ben Bradlee fell in love with newspapers as a copyboy on the Beverly Evening Times, north of Boston. After Harvard and the war, he became a reporter for an independent newspaper, the New Hampshire Sunday News; arch-conservative William Loeb later bought it and fired him. It was then that he joined the Washington Post.
Ben Bradlee Sr. has written two books -- ``That Special Grace'' and ``Conversations With Kennedy,'' a vivid reminiscence of his neighbor, friend, and President, John F. Kennedy. In the latter book he wrote: ``This is part of the fundamental dichotomy in Kennedy's character: half the `Mick' politician, tough, earthy, bawdy, sentimental, and half the bright, graceful, intellectual `Playboy of the Western World,' and there aren't many people who cross over that line.''
A similar paradox has shaped the life of Ben Bradlee, the tough Brahmin who played tennis with one President and political hardball with another. Reading ``Conversations With Kennedy,'' you realize how much of his personal stamp Bradlee has put on the Post, including the innovative Style section, which he began and other papers rushed to imitate.
He explains that, in one sense, it took him 10 years to write the book; notes taken for his Newsweek coverage on close friend and sometime-source JFK steeped for a decade until Bradlee had, as he says dryly, ``some spare time after Nixon resigned.'' Then he took his 35,000 to 40,000 words of notes to his West Virginia cabin and wrote the 251-page best seller in three to four weeks.
For years now there's been a rumor that he is writing a book on his life at the Post. ``Naw, I'm not going to now. If I could conquer what seems to be the totally unnatural act of writing about yourself, I would write about myself. I mean, I've had a wonderful, interesting ride. But it isn't over yet. So I'm really worried about how to do that.''
He says his wife, Sally Quinn, plans another novel, ``and we have a young child, Quinn. . . . He's had an awful lot of trouble getting started in this life.'' Bradlee mentions Quinn's recovery from surgery as an infant. ``But he's joyous, free, rambunctious, very athletic, and he laughs all the time.'' In addition to his other roles in life, Bradlee has majored in being paterfamilias. He is the father of five: Ben from his first marriage; Dominic and Marina from his second marriage to Antoinette Pinchot, which included four stepchildren; and now Quinn Bradlee in his third marriage.
When asked what the toughest moment in his life so far has been, he rumbles: ``There haven't been all that many. Well, the worst moment I had [as editor] was Janet Cooke, obviously. That was the bottom of the curve, that was rock bottom.'' The Post found reporter Cooke had won a Pulitzer Prize for a fictitious story. ``We determined very early on that we would tell the whole story and the world would hear about everything from us. We did that, and I'm proud of that.''
And what has been, in Winston Churchill's phrase, his finest hour? ``You probably want me to say Watergate, but [it's] just the whole of being allowed the opportunity to assemble a group of talented people and to ride with them on this wonderful trip through history.''
As his son Ben Bradlee Jr. says, journalism is ``uh, attractive, something different every day, and more exciting than selling insurance.'' Ben Jr. has just led the way through the vast city room of the Boston Globe, which looks like a candlelit word factory: dim, hushed for the video display screens. He is not an exact print of his father, but he has the Ben Bradlee stamp -- an X-ray gaze and a certain leashed energy. Ben the younger has a thick crown of walnut-brown hair; in the days when he wore a desperado mustache he looked as though he might have galloped out of a western. He still wears cowboy boots, brown ones with white stitching, which have a certain panache when worn (as they were the day we talked) with navy pin-striped trousers, a blue-and-white windowpane plaid shirt, and apricot tie with green paisleys.
We hunker down for a talk in the Globe cafeteria. His current job for the Globe as national correspondent gives him ``a lot of rope,'' he says, traveling around the country and writing about national affairs. But his toughest assignment so far has been in South Africa. He sees it as ``the foreign story for the next five years'' and says he's ``just captivated by it.''
His national stories on everything from the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to the sanctuary movement for refugees are so extensively researched and comprehensive you suspect he's done books. He has. He's written two nonfiction books, ``The Ambush Murders'' and ``Prophet of Blood,'' the latter about a Charles Manson-like figure in Utah, written with Dale Van Atta. ``The Ambush Murders'' was based on his experience as a reporter for the Riverside (Calif.) Times, covering the third trial of a black man accused of killing two white policemen. ``It was a story about small-town justice . . . and how emotions can color the search for justice.'' In 1979 it was made by CBS into a film, what Bradlee calls with a sigh ``a terrible movie, a classic TV `B' movie.''
There are a few gaps in Ben Bradlee's memories of his famous father: ``We were divorced'' -- that's the way he puts it -- when he was 7. Ben Jr. grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and was a copyboy at the Globe during summers before graduating from Colby College in Maine with a major in political science. He and his wife, Martha Raddatz (Bradlee), a television reporter for the ABC affiliate in Boston, have a five-year-old daughter, Greta.
The inevitable question must be asked: Is it a plus or a minus working in the shadow of a famous father? ``It's a mixed blessing, probably a foot in the door initially in getting a job . . . and then it's perhaps double the pressure when you get hired, because there would be the initial suspicion, perhaps, by your colleagues that this is some sort of political appointment. But that fades and you prove yourself like anyone else, and then it's over.''
And as Ben Bradlee Sr. told the WJR: ``I'm plainly delighted with him, even more delighted that he's good.'' Winding up our interview for this series, Ben Bradlee Jr. said with a half smile, ``My old man and I, we did our bit again.''