Estate donates archive of Watergate editor Ben Bradlee to Ransom Center

Selah Maya Zighelboim

Seventy boxes filled with documents sit in the Harry Ransom Center, waiting to be archived. Among these piles lie part of the Ben Bradlee archive. Bradlee was a former Washington Post editor who died in October and who famously oversaw the investigative reporting on Richard Nixon’s cover-up of his administration’s involvement in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, also known as the Watergate scandal.

On June 3, the Ransom Center announced that the estate of Bradlee had donated his archive to the Ransom Center. These documents reveal correspondence with some of the most important American figures of the 20th century — a note from former First Lady Jackie Kennedy regarding the assassination of her husband, a critical letter from former Cuban President Fidel Castro, a desk calendar that notes the date of a “Watergate meeting.”

According to Stephen Mielke, the associate director for cataloguing services, the Ransom Center is currently in the process of hiring archivists to catalog the documents. When the archivists are done — a process that Mielke believes will take approximately 18 months — the papers will become available in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room to any registered user with a current photo ID.

“For Bradlee, the newspaper served as a check on the abuse of governmental power, and it performed a valuable civic role in reporting how our government works,” said Stephen Enniss, director of the Ransom Center. “Ben Bradlee showed us what a valuable role the press performs; ironically, on the very eve of the digital revolution which has profoundly altered how we get our news. We may never again see a print newspaper play such a significant role in our nation’s political life.”

Bradlee placed his archive in the Ransom Center in 2012, but the archive was restricted from access to the public. He wanted it to be donated to the Ransom Center upon his death, to accompany the works of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who did the actual reporting of the Watergate scandal.

“We are delighted that the Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin has acquired Ben Bradlee's extensive archive," Woodward and Bernstein said in a joint statement. "He was the most significant newspaper editor of his time — a golden journalistic era spanning the second half of the 20th century, during which he set the highest standard of fearless and aggressive but fair inquiry; and re-invented the modern newspaper through the news and feature coverage of The Washington Post.”

Bradlee served as the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1969 to 1991. During those years, he oversaw the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, which is the name given to a secret government study chronicling its own involvement in Vietnam leading up to the Vietnam War.

“Ben often quoted Philip Graham, husband of Katharine Graham and a former publisher of the Post, saying that, ‘Journalism is the first rough draft of history,’” said Sally Quinn, Bradlee's wife, in the Ransom Center’s announcement. "This is why he wanted his papers to go to the Ransom Center along with those of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Historians can now take these rough drafts and enlarge the record for posterity. I am thrilled that they are now residing in the perfect place for that to happen."