David Bradley appears to be the perfectly evolved modern man, the epitome of success.
At 47 he is wealthy, even by dot-com standards. He has built a pair of Washington-based consulting companies and begun to cash out with $300 million at his disposal. He has a lovely wife and three healthy sons who rush to greet him at the door when he arrives home from work or travel. He lives in a grand house where the Cuban ambassador once gave parties at which John and Jacqueline Kennedy danced on the veranda. He is buying media enterprises–including National Journal and the Atlantic Monthly–that will place him at the table among the political and cultural elite.
More important to him, he has a remarkable reputation for civility and intelligence. He is regarded by journalists and venture capitalists as a self-effacing man of integrity and kindness. He may be the most civilized man in Washington.
Yet at a place in his heart, David Bradley considers himself a failure.
From an early age, Bradley focused on becoming a politician. He wanted to run for Congress, then the Senate. He groomed himself and searched for a place to launch his career.
"I was a failure, and I remain disappointed," he says. "I wish I had had that wiring, that gift.
"That is utterly over."
Having accepted his flaws, Bradley is remaking himself as a media mogul for the 21st century. He talks about Henry Luce and Walt Disney rather than Trent Lott or John Warner. When he purchased the Atlantic last year, he promised to honor the magazine's 142-year-old literary tradition. He talked about slow changes. Now, with a new editor, he's about to roll out a redesign, a new stable of writers, and a business plan drawn up by his consulting firms.
Two years from now, he will have created a new David Bradley. For the past two decades he has grown and operated consulting businesses: the Advisory Board Company and the Corporate Executive Board. He started to draw his money and his attention from the companies a few years ago. By his plan, he soon will sell his remaining interest in the Advisory Board Company by taking it public or findinga buyer.
"I likely will exit," he says.
And head down the path to becoming a media magnate, buying or starting more publications, which will bring him closer to his first love and failure–politics.
The gentleman is bent over a legal pad and and a stack of three-by-five cards neatly arranged on the plastic table. Dressed in a black cotton sweater over a button-down shirt, gray slacks, and black loafers, he could pass for a college professor–or a grad student, if it weren't for the halo of hair going white at his temples. He's engrossed in his work, oblivious to the teenagers chatting in the corner booth; they have taken his regular desk here at the McDonald's on Wisconsin Avenue at Van Ness Street in DC. It's 9 o'clock on a Wednesday morning. Outside the wall of windows a couple of homeless men huddle over coffee. Britney Spears smiles from a poster in the window.
This is Bradley's hideaway, the place he comes to think and write when he's not in his Watergate office with its panoramic views of Georgetown and Roosevelt Island. He gets up to greet me as if he were welcoming me to a table covered with starched white cloth at the Hay-Adams. He's been here since 7:30. His task this morning is figuring out how to resuscitate the Atlantic Monthly, the cultural institution he bought a year ago.
"It's going to be harder than I thought," he says. Bradley speaks in soft, almost apologetic tones. His trademark is listening, not talking–one of the many qualities that make him unusual in a town of A-list people who like to hear themselves speak.
He's written out a place card for me and set it across from him on the table. It's a touch of Old World charm in a fast-food joint and deftly disarming. It's hard not to like the man. In the three years he's been in the publishing business, he's won the respect of some of the most cynical journalists in town.
"I've never in my life met a less self-promoting media mogul," says Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post.
Says Michael Kelly, a writer with a wicked pen whom Bradley has installed as his "CEO"–chief editorial officer–at both the Atlantic and National Journal: "It sounds vaguely like I drank the Kool-Aid, but he's an unusual guy with an unusual approach. Look at all the evidence–he's for real."
Avid Bradley spent 20 years building the research-and-consulting businesses that made him a wealthy man by the age of 40. "There was no moment of genius," he says–just lots of hard work that led to year after year of rising profits. When he took the Corporate Executive Board public in 1999, Wall Street blessed the IPO, and he walked away with $165 million. A second public offering this year brought him another $155 million.
Bradley first turned his attention to magazines in 1995. Two years later he bought the National Journal Group. It includes National Journal, a policy and political weekly; Hotline, a daily diet of dishy political news on the Internet; Government Executive magazine; the Almanac of American Politics; and several newsletters.
Bradley dismisses his foray into the publishing world as "the gift of shopping." As if on cue, an older man shuffles by our table and looks us over.
"Must be you two are working on a big business deal, huh?" he asks and continues on his way. He's another regular at this McDonald's. Bradley remembers the day last September when the old gent and his cronies sat at a table near Bradley, reading news that he'd just bought the Atlantic, telling one another in voices meant to be heard at the nearby booth that it was a foolish move.
That remains to be seen, but David Bradley's odyssey into the world of journalism will test his reputation as a man of honor, charm, and collegiality. It already has, in a confrontation over the way he handled a revolt among editors that left him questioning his own "moral capital."
"Can his genteel style survive the shark-infested waters?" asks Craig Crawford, editor-in-chief of Hotline. "He's not a Washington jerk, but he has a core of steel. Can honesty win in Washington?"
Even Bradley wonders. "It's entirely unproved that I will be the least good at any of this," he says.
The David Bradley story has plenty of plot lines: religious, political, romantic, quixotic. At heart, it is a quintessential Washington tale.
His mother, Terry, called him "a five-dollar baby" because that was the cost of giving birth in 1953 at Walter Reed Army Hospital on DC's Georgia Avenue. His father, Gene, was a General Electric executive. For a few years the family moved around, from Cincinnati to Schenectady, before settling in Georgetown in 1964 and later moving to Westmoreland Hills and Kenwood near Bethesda.
In the Bradley home–which included David's younger sister, Barbara–Gene Bradley played practical jokes and Bob Newhart albums, but discussion around the dinner table was intense, David recalls. "There were only four of us, but you would have thought we were an auditorium of people," he says. "We discussed public-policy issues–public housing to integration to discrimination. We were a very religious family. There was plenty of conversation about matters spiritual."
Bradley was a shy teenager; his father made him join social committees. To push him intellectually, he suggested his son write for school newspapers. Bradley wasn't athletic; he weighed 95 pounds in junior high. His father recommended wrestling. "It was the darkest hour of his life," recalls Barbara, now a reporter for National Public Radio. He won one match, when his opponent tripped on the mat and Bradley pinned him.
The Bradleys were devout Christian Scientists. There was no smoking, no drinking, no visits to doctors' offices–though dentists were allowed. Growing up, David Bradley endured severe headaches without aspirin or other painkillers.
Bradley calls Christian Science a "largely optimistic" religion that's "still in me," though he and his sister no longer practice it. "It's 19th-century Puritanism," he says. "Hard work, discipline, no easy answers."
The young Bradley yearned to go into politics. He wanted to be the junior senator from Maryland. Admiral Stansfield Turner, Bradley's Sunday-school teacher in the mid-1960s, saw even greater potential. He stopped Bradley's mother in church one day. "Terry," he said, "do you know your son's going to be President of the United States one day?"
Thirty-five years later, Turner's relationship with David Bradley took a more personal turn.
Last January Turner and his wife boarded a 20-passenger, twin-engine prop plane in Costa Rica that would take them over mountains to a resort. Turner had retired from the Navy after a career that included being CIA director from 1977 to 1981. They had just sold their home in McLean and planned to buy a cottage in Warrenton. It was time to enjoy life.
Minutes after takeoff, the plane banked and plunged into the trees. The crash killed Turner's wife and put him in a coma for three weeks. He was lifted from the wreckage with a punctured lung, a broken shoulder, and nine broken ribs. A military aircraft flew him to a hospital in San Antonio. President Clinton phoned and sent notes.
Bradley canceled a week of meetings and flew to Texas to be by his friend's side.
Though Bradley is 30 years Turner's junior, he had gone out of his way over the years to turn his Sunday-school teacher into his friend. He would call the admiral and suggest that they go windsurfing on the Potomac. Turner would decline and suggest that they take in a Redskins game. They established a tradition of spending Christmas Eve together. Turner became godfather to Bradley's second son.
When Turner came out of the coma in February, a widower, he had nowhere to live. David and Katherine Bradley invited him to move in with them and their three children in DC's Massachusetts Heights. "I contemplated living with them for two to three weeks and then looking for an apartment," he says, "but they insisted so lovingly that I stayed."
It's a warm afternoon in May. Turner–stout, grizzled, proud, still the tough military man–is sitting at the table in the Bradley's cavernous kitchen. He's been living with the family for four months, through the weeks when he couldn't get up and down the stairs, through the pain and the healing. He plans to stay until the fall, when he takes a teaching job at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
"He says he's not a Christian Scientist any longer," Turner says. "I don't believe him."
Bradley was still a member of the church when he entered Sidwell Friends School in 1964, and he needed the moral backbone.
The Vietnam War was beginning to divide the country into camps of hawks and doves, but there was no ambiguity in the Bradley household. "My parents created a young Curtis LeMay and dropped me into Sidwell Friends," he says.
The Quaker school on Wisconsin Avenue was a hothouse for liberal, antiwar activists. So when Dean Acheson, one of the "wise men" whose Cold War policies established the climate for the Vietnam War, came to speak at Sidwell in 1971, the students were primed. After his polite talk about foreign policy, they attacked.
At which point Bradley stood up and defended the aging statesman with a statement he now describes as "not only not compelling but probably obsequious, cloying, and lots of other things, but it was gutsy to do in that setting." Acheson stopped to thank Bradley after the talk.
The debating and positioning were in preparation for the day he would fulfill his dream of running for Congress or the Senate. Toward that end, he ingratiated himself with Young Republican groups.
Naturally, he became a Nixon man.
In 1969, when He was 16, Bradley took part in the White House conference on children and youth. Two years later he talked his way onto the Committee to Re-elect the President. He got to know all of Nixon's lieutenants: John Ehrlichman, Robert Haldeman, Egil "Bud" Krogh. In 1972 he drew number one in the lottery for the military draft. Bradley had visions of shipping off to Vietnam. It was the first year that no one was called.
The following year the White House hired him as an intern, and he became a full-fledged Nixonian just as Watergate was beginning to captivate the country.
After a year at George Washington University, in 1973 Bradley transferred to Swarthmore College, a small school outside Philadelphia that was as left-leaning as Sidwell Friends. One of the first people he met was Jim Snipes, a fellow Christian Scientist but a liberal who needled Bradley about Watergate plumbers and obstruction of justice.
"Is there any truth to these stories?" Snipes recalls asking.
"Jim," Bradley responded, "I worked at the White House. I know these people. They are very fine. They are very honorable. I know their children. I can assure you there's no truth about these charges. You have my word."
Snipes laughed as Bradley dined on his words, but the two went on to become best friends. Most of their classmates graduated and went to law school in hopes of changing the world. David Bradley went to Harvard Business School at a time when "business" was an epithet.
After getting his MBA from Harvard, Bradley took himself down to the banks of the Charles River one day, looked across the water, and decided to leave Christian Science. He simply could no longer adhere to its strict rules. Expecting the worst, he went to Washington to tell his parents.
"They were extremely understanding," he says.
Bradley left the country for a Fulbright fellowship in the Philippines. He studied whether multinational corporations preferred martial-law governments (the answer was yes), and he taught economics. In his free time he decided to make contact with the island nation's Marxist guerrillas. He used his teaching credentials to get passes into Philippine prisons to interview political prisoners and went into the mountains to meet with guerrillas.
But it was a medicinal moment that had the most impact on Bradley. Suffering from another pounding headache on a midnight ride through the mountains, he complained to his companion, who suggested that he try taking a couple of Tylenol. For the first time, Bradley did. Two pills killed the pain.
"You have no idea how my impression of happiness, of life, improved when I discovered what you all had known for 20 years," he says.
Back in Washington, Bradley returned to the business of making himself into a politician.
He enrolled in Georgetown Law School and spent a summer working for a young lawyer, Ken Starr, a man he found to be "generous, brilliant, and fun." But Bradley, not convinced he could become a great lawyer, took a year off from school and decided to devote all his time to a venture that might give him an independent base to launch a political campaign.
Bradley's father had started a nonprofit think tank, which he ran from an office in the Watergate. Bradley took his father's idea and applied it to business: Why not start a for-profit think tank for corporations? Hire smart, energetic young people. Hook up a few phones. Find a place to call an office. In 2000, entrepreneurism is a national obsession; this scene unfolds every five minutes. But two decades ago, when Bradley became an entrepreneur, nobody could spell the word. He was 26; the year was 1979. >
The idea was simple: Washington and the federal government are packed with information that could prove useful for businesses around the country.
Bonnie Williams was his first employee. The office was the den of Bradley's parents' Watergate apartment. Williams's first job every morning was to take the Princess phone out of a bureau. Bradley often was still ironing his shirt. They would unfold card tables and start calling companies. Bradley came up with a name: Research Counsel of Washington. Companies started paying them to answer such questions as who made uniforms for the National Football League.
A year later, the company's ten employees had filled the Watergate den, so Bradley bought the Lee House, a rowhouse at Stanton Park on Capitol Hill. A four-story walkup with no air conditioning, it got its name from the Lee crematorium next door.
Matt Olson answered an employment ad in the newspaper and went for an interview at the Lee House in May 1982. "I thought it was a front for a right-wing organization," he says.
Bradley lived on the top floor and rented out rooms to an intern or two. In cramped rooms on the first two floors, Matt Olson joined the young researchers answering questions for corporations. "We investigated federal regulations on butterfly valves as if we were researching a curious aspect of Winston Churchill's life," says Olson. They became world experts on the military market for flight simulators. It was like a coed dorm where everyone had a final paper due the next day.
"We were students playing at business," says Franciska Shaw, Bradley's second employee.
In 1983 Bradley tried to pitch his services to 40 top banks during a three-week whirlwind tour. He didn't make a single sale and realized that he needed to recast his business. With the help of some clients and other advisers, he decided to offer companies ongoing research for fixed sums–sort of a membership think tank for corporations. He put his bright college grads on call for executives. He changed the name to the Advisory Board Company. The recast business began to take off, especially in advising companies in banking and healthcare.
"David was driven," says Derek van Bever, who started working with Bradley at the Lee House. "He's the classic entrepreneur. As soon as he can see that he's achieved something, he's onto the next thing."
But Bradley didn't like to drive over bumps in the road. He hated confrontation.
From the early days, he was used to making people happy with ideas, good humor, and money when it became available. But soon a clash over power and control led to an insurrection.
By 1988 Matt Olson, Elizabeth Keffer, Franciska Shaw, and Derek van Bever were Bradley's top lieutenants, running the Advisory Board's four divisions. The company had grown to 80 employees. They had outgrown the Lee House. But Bradley was still running the company by himself.
"He made all the decisions," says Keffer. "It was time to share."
The quartet invited Bradley to lunch at La Brasserie on Capitol Hill. Bradley was about to leave on a trip to the Philippines. He was expecting a friendly talk. They ambushed him. In an emotional session that lasted five hours, the four presented a list of 20 complaints about Bradley's management. It sprung from a reservoir of resentment, anger, and disappointment. Bradley tried to defend himself.
"Just listen," van Bever said.
Bradley's four colleagues told him he had to give up some power and show some respect for his coworkers.
Bradley was shocked. He didn't raise his voice or dispute their main points. In the aftermath, he was furious and hurt. Still, he returned from his trip with a plan to reorganize the company and give key people more control. Since then, they've been known inside the company as the Gang of Four.
Two Bradley characteristics revealed themselves in that confrontation: He shies away from conflict, and he often gives people what they want when he decides he needs them.
"You will never see David in a tirade," says Keffer. "It's just not him."
His enduring characteristic is reliance on research–even when it comes to love.
A 19-year-old junior from Princeton came to intern at the Advisory Board in the summer of 1983. She was tall, thin, and blonde with blue eyes, porcelain skin, and a sweet smile. Bradley–tall, thin, 30, and losing his hair–didn't give her a second look as he galloped up and down the stairs of the Lee House. When Bradley did take a moment to notice Katherine Brittain, he was smitten.
But first–in his trademark fashion–he asked his staff to do a bit of research. The news wasn't promising–she was all but engaged to be married.
Bradley mounted a romantic siege designed to win her without her realizing he was in pursuit. He concocted a research project that would draw Brittain back to Washington the next summer. He invited her on benign dates, like tea on Tuesday or a horseback ride.
After nine months of Bradley's stealthy pursuit, Brittain phoned her mother and said, "Either he's the nicest man in the world or he's interested in me."
Bradley was unmasked when he started escorting her around Washington to black-tie events that would sometimes end with moonlit walks on the National Cathedral grounds. They were married in 1987.
The bride got a sense of her husband's political passions when they returned from their honeymoon and took a drive to check out property around the base of Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County.
As she remembers it, they were having dinner at an Italian restaurant when Bradley suggested that they buy a house there and "set up shop." Becoming a Maryland resident might make it easier to run for office. The thought of becoming a pioneer in Bradley's political expedition left the new Mrs. Bradley crying in her spaghetti. She vetoed that foray into Maryland.
There would be others.
In the Spring of 1989 David and Katherine drove across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge for a meeting of the local Republican party at a hotel on the other side. He'd traded in his VW on a used Jaguar. The couple arrived to find 40 people gathered in the corner of a huge ballroom with purple shag carpet and a dimly lit chandelier. Bradley figured he was ready to run for political office in Maryland. True, he was still living in DC, but the people of Maryland's first congressional district needed him.
The county selection committee was hearing from prospective candidates. Bradley came loaded with research on the district and a speech he had labored over for days. He was hoping the locals would think: "Who is that guy? He's astonishing! He's the kind of candidate we need."
Barbara Bradley didn't make the trip, but she had accompanied him on visits to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he would sidle up to people and start talking politics. "It was excruciating," she recalls. Bradley had been asking Advisory Board staffers to research potential political races for years.
Now a primary battle was shaping up in Maryland's First District, which was held by Republican Roy Dyson. Bradley thought, "Why not me?"
He and Katherine arrived at the hotel, settled into the audience, and listened to the presentations. When Bradley's turn came, he handed out copies of his demographic studies. He took the podium to discuss the political landscape and present his vision. He finished. There was polite applause but no questions. It was clear that the crowd had no clue what Bradley was doing there.
Soon a portly funeral director rose from the dais, crooned a few bars of "Some Enchanted Evening," looked to a woman in the front row, and said, "Hilda, do you want to dance?" The crowd cheered. The music played. Everyone got up to dance.
"I watched this natural grace for a moment decimate 80 hours of preparation," Bradley says. He and Katherine headed to their car for the ride back across the bridge. No one said goodbye.
A few years later Bradley's friend from Swarthmore, Jim Snipes, gave him a round-trip ticket to Vietnam for a 40th-birthday present. They took off from Dulles one morning in November 1993, flying first class. Bradley tells me the trip came at a particularly introspective moment.
We are sitting in his office on the eighth floor of the Watergate office building. He's dressed in his uniform: button-down cotton shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows; club tie slightly loosened; black loafers. His eyebrows are swept up in a perpetual, quizzical arch. The long room is anchored by a solid, blond-wood desk on one end and a matching round stone table on the other. The decoration is spare and solid. A wall of windows looks out on the Potomac River and Roosevelt Island. Crew teams in sculls are making lazy turns back to Georgetown.
When Bradley and Snipes took off for Vietnam, Bradley says the Advisory Board Company was on solid footing. He had turned down $4 million for the company from Saatchi & Saatchi; he had 2,000 clients who paid between $20,000 and $200,000 a year for research services and special reports. Bradley could look forward to years of growth, perhaps taking the company public. He and Katherine had two sons, and another was on the way. But David Bradley was, as he put it, "unfulfilled."
Snipes advised Bradley to stay awake for the 13-hour first leg of the flight and promptly fell asleep, leaving Bradley to contemplate his existence for half a day.
"I realized I no longer had the opportunity to be a young congressman," he says. "It was unlikely that I would ever be in government. I have no innate gift of leadership to have done that in the first place. I cannot walk into a room and command the space.
"It was really a bitter moment for me," he says.
The Vietnam trip, which included a trek up the country's tallest mountain, Fan Si Pan, was a good adventure. But Bradley returned to Washington a man without a dream–"beached up without a theory of how to participate."
David Bradley had always loved reading political and policy magazines. He liked weeklies, especially the New Republic and Newsweek.
There was no particular moment, no epiphany, he says, but sometime in 1995 Bradley began to explore the idea of buying a magazine. If he couldn't be in politics, at least he could get "a derivative pleasure."
Bradley's friends and colleagues extol his intellect and his mental discipline. When attacking a problem, Bradley is said to "go granular," breaking the matter under discussion into grains of sand. But when it came to searching for a magazine, Bradley just went shopping.
He contacted Marty Peretz, publisher of the New Republic, to see if it was for sale. Peretz said no through intermediaries.
He ran into Alan Spoon, president of the Washington Post Company at the time. Was Newsweek for sale? No–and it was too expensive anyway.
Bradley realized he needed some guidance, so he got in touch with Richard LePere, a magazine consultant who advises The Washingtonian and many other publications. He saw his role with Bradley as making sure his client did not buy the wrong magazine.
One Wednesday in May 1997, John Fox Sullivan, publisher of the National Journal, got an unexpected visit from an executive at the Times Mirror Company, which owned his magazine. The executive told Sullivan that the National Journal was going to be sold.
Sullivan had been founding publisher of the weekly magazine for two decades. He had built a small empire around the weekly that covered Washington politics and policy. He'd added Government Executive magazine, Congress Daily newsletter, the Hotline tip sheet, the venerable reference book The Almanac of American Politics, and several newsletters, including the Cook Report by longtime political analyst Charlie Cook.
Times Mirror had been a benevolent owner, treating the National Journal as a "little jewel," Sullivan says. "They kind of liked the idea of having a classy publication in Washington." But National Journal wasn't making money; it was time to sell the jewel.
Sullivan considered his options. Selling to the Washington Post Company was a natural, since it already owned a piece of the National Journal.
"Give me a week before you talk to someone," Sullivan asked the executive, "even before you talk to the Post."
After the times mirror Executive departed, Sullivan dropped the news on National Journal editor Steve Smith, another veteran of Washington journalism wars. Smith knew Rick LePere and knew David Bradley, and he knew that LePere was looking to buy a magazine for Bradley.
LePere lived down the street from Smith in DC's Spring Valley neighborhood. So at 10 o'clock that night Smith poured himself a drink, wandered down the street, and knocked on LePere's door. They wound up talking long after midnight.
Steve Smith had worked at Time and Newsweek and Civilization before coming to the National Journal at the end of 1996. He didn't know Bradley well, but he believed he knew a few things about him.
"Usually, when an owner puts a publication up for sale, there's no happy ending," Smith was thinking at the time. "With David, given his commitment to quality in everything–to have him as an owner could be terrific. And he's a Washington guy, which would keep everything here and locally owned."
LePere looked at National Journal's numbers and considered the deal worth taking to Bradley. A few nights later LePere, Smith, National Journal senior vice president Steve Hull, and Government Executive editor Tim Clark met with Bradley and Jeff Zients. The 33-year-old executive essentially operates all of Bradley's business concerns as CEO of the Advisory Board, his partner in others, and his principal financial strategist.
Bradley liked the idea from the start, and he warmed to it more when he read the stack of magazines delivered to his doorstep. National Journal was akin to the Advisory Board in that it produced high-quality reports for a high price to a select group of subscribers. And the price tag, about $11 million, was reasonable.
To keep Times Mirror from announcing that National Journal was on the block and to fend off other suitors, LePere and Sullivan proposed a management buyout that would complicate a deal with any other prospective buyer. Meanwhile, Sullivan called everyone in town who might reveal Bradley's dark side. No luck.
"Kind of scary," Sullivan thought.
A week after Times Mirror called him about the sale, Sullivan met Bradley, Le-Pere, and Jeff Zients for dinner at Kinkead's, one of Bradley's favorite restaurants. They had already talked numbers. Now it was a matter of comfort and compatibility.
Sullivan was wondering, "Am I going to turn over the company I built for the last 20 years to a guy nobody knows? Can I trust him? What's his character like?"
By the end of dinner, they had an agreement. Sullivan remembers going home and telling his wife he was going with Bradley. "I've never met anyone quite like David," he told her. A day later Sullivan and LePere flew to Los Angeles and made the deal with Times Mirror.
David Bradley was a publisher.
"National Journal was like a date that provided the rebound," he says. "If I can never be of that world, at least I can be in that world."
The world inside National Journal was musty. And the magazine was losing money. It had about 7,000 subscribers, but not all paid the full price of $1,000 a year.
"The magazine needed to be energized," says Sullivan.
After the deal was struck, Sullivan and Smith held strategy sessions with Bradley. From the beginning, Bradley made clear that he was more interested in sprucing up the magazine's content than turning a profit.
Bradley asked, "If you could get the best journalists, who would they be?"
"Michael Kelly," Smith said, "but we can't get him."
Kelly had just been fired as editor of the New Republic, but he was known as one of the most talented writers in town. He had written for the New Yorker and other magazines, wrote a book, and was a columnist for the Washington Post. He was entertaining other job offers when Steve Smith called to talk about the National Journal and set up a meeting with Bradley.
"You should meet this guy no matter what," Smith said.
Kelly and Bradley met on a Saturday for two hours. Bradley spelled out his vision for a media business that might include radio and cable and Web-based publications but the core of which would be magazines. He told Kelly that his models were empire builders like Disney and Paley and Luce. They met again for five hours on Sunday.
"At times I would step back and ask myself, 'Is this guy for real? Is he too much?' "
Kelly agreed to become a columnist for the National Journal, and when Steve Smith left a few months later to become editor of U.S. News & World Report, Kelly became editor–and eventually Bradley's friend.
"As a friend and colleague, David has an unusual combination of styles," Kelly says. "On one hand, he's very formal–in dress, in the way he carries himself. He insists on good manners and courtesy. At the same time he's unusually candid and will tell you matter-of-factly he did something wrong or feels badly about something. He surprises people by essentially leaving himself vulnerable."
Bradley added two more name-brand journalists, legal-affairs writer Stuart Taylor and media critic Bill Powers, both of whom write weekly columns for the National Journal. Both initially were put off by the weekly's tiny circulation, but they were attracted by Bradley's commitment to building the publication and by the salaries he offered. As a signing bonus, Taylor even got ponies for an afternoon. Bradley owns the concession for Meadowbrook Stables in Chevy Chase, where he worked as a groom when he was a teenager. When he heard that Taylor's children rode, he had two horses dropped off in their yard.
The new writers and a new design have delivered both readers and advertisers. Circulation is up to nearly 10,000 since last fall, in part because more copies of the weekly are distributed at bulk rate to Congress every Friday. And the magazine is fat with ads.
"National Journal would be making a healthy profit if I hadn't added $2 million in editorial costs," Bradley says.
Does Bradley bring his political views to the magazine or, like U.S. News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, take column space for himself? Aside from hiring Kelly and Taylor, both of whom tend to hold conservative views, Bradley keeps his politics to himself.
"I honestly don't have strong views," says Bradley. "I define the middle. I can't gather the acute things to say that gather everyone's attention.
The Atlantic is the David Bradley of general-interest magazines.
The 142-year-old literary journal, once a forum for Emerson and Thoreau, can be courtly, genteel, scholarly, didactic –almost 19th-century–just like Bradley. In the spring of 1998, Rick LePere contacted publisher and real-estate mogul Mort Zuckerman to see if he would sell.
Negotiations were just starting when Bradley awoke one morning to find that he couldn't speak. He'd had voice problems for ten years. Now his voice was gone. His vocal cords hurt when he tried to talk. He went through three operations on his vocal cords, none successful. From early in the morning, when his three sons left for school, to the early afternoon, he was alone in his house.
"It was the most isolating experience I've ever had," he says. "I did not have the courage for pain."
Alone in his room, Bradley read biographies: Luce, Hearst, Churchill, FDR. He read the Bible front to back.
Bradley had split his consulting business into two separate entities: The Advisory Board took all healthcare clients, while the Corporate Executive Board handled research duties for banking and other business clients. In February 1999, the Corporate Executive Board would put its shares on the market in an initial public offering. The move was unusual in that Bradley went public not to raise funds for the company but to cash out his investment. Jeff Zients oversaw the transaction. Bradley, alone in his room, netted $162 millionB .
He and Katherine were focused on his larynx. They went on pilgrimages to specialists up and down the East Coast. Then Katherine, who once dreamed of becoming a physician, sat on the bed one Friday night and asked, "What if the pain is separate from the voice problem?"
They researched nerve specialists and found a good one in Boston. After one consultation, the doctor prescribed medication. Immediately, the pain in his throat began to clear. His voice came back in a day.
"My whole life returned in a 24-hour period," Bradley says, with a snap of his fingers.
At that, he returned to buying the Atlantic Monthly.
Mort Zuckerman's reputation is the opposite of David Bradley's. The real-estate magnate is brash, tough, high on himself; as a media mogul, he's eager to get on TV talk shows to expound on foreign policy and politics. At the New York Daily News and U.S. News, he's known to weigh in on everything from news judgment to personnel decisions.
Zuckerman had never heard of Bradley until LePere contacted him, but Zuckerman was in the mood to sell the magazine that had been his first media buy back in 1980.
"My life had changed," he told me. "I have a young daughter and a huge array of companies with not enough managers. My intention is to focus on the Daily News and U.S. News."
The Atlantic was losing $1 million a year in a world that seemed to be less and less interested in its long, sometimes ponderous articles. "It was a fool's errand that I had all to myself," Bradley says.
Bradley told Michael Kelly he was trying to buy the Atlantic and asked him to become its editor.
"You do know we could end up at a place five or ten years down the road where we've lost a lot of money and have no impact," Kelly says he told Bradley, who brushed him off with a polite gaze and kept talking about their future with the Atlantic.
Because Bradley, by his own account, "buys retail," LePere and Jeff Zients did the negotiating with Zuckerman and his partner, Fred Drasner. Zuckerman's first numbers were unacceptable, so they went back and forth. At one point Zuckerman and Drasner went at each other on the speakerphone like an old married couple. A deal was struck in the fall; Bradley signed letters of agreement without ever having met Zuckerman.
Bradley wanted at least one face-to-face, so he took the shuttle to New York one day in September and grabbed a cab to Zuckerman's Boston Properties office. The two men talked for an hour. Zuckerman told Bradley the things he wished he had done with the Atlantic. At the end of the session, Bradley said he was headed back to DC. Zuckerman asked if he needed a ride.
"No thanks," Bradley said, "I'll get a taxi."
"I mean a ride to Washington in my airplane," Zuckerman said.
They boarded Zuckerman's helicopter for the ride to the airport but learned en route that they wouldn't be able to take his private jet, so they stayed on the chopper all the way to Washington. Bradley says he didn't know whether to pretend he did this all the time or to say what was really on his mind:
"Gee, Mr. Zuckerman, I've never been in a helicopter before."
Neither had Bradley ever published a literary monthly that was losing money and readers. His first move in September 1999 was to jettison longtime editor William Whitworth and install Kelly, a move that angered the Atlantic staff. Bradley visited the Boston office to smooth over hurt feelings.
Sitting at his McDonald's spot one morning, Bradley says he is rethinking the magazine's mission.
"In 1857, when the Atlantic was first published, there was no strong US literary magazine," he says, "and there was slavery. New England wanted to weigh in on the agenda. It created a fabulous intellectual imperative for a group of some very smart people.
"What's the imperative now? What's the big thing a monthly should be about?"
Bradley has dispatched his researchers on the mission of re-creating the Atlantic, just as he applied their skills to pursue his dream of running for office and romancing his future wife. He recently delivered to Kelly ten notebooks with the results of a "global literary search" of writers and columnists. He has scheduled marketing meetings with 170 advertisers around the country. He intends to personally conduct a series of five "retreats" for advertisers, from London to St. Barts. Elizabeth Keffer, one of the Gang of Four, will now focus on the Atlantic. Bradley and Kelly are testing a new design they hope to unveil in January.
"I expect the price to go up, too," he says, with confidence that readers will pay more for the magazine he intends to deliver. At $12.95 a year it is "a trivial commercial commitment."
He and Michael Kelly believe that the Internet is not their competition.
"The heart of the dot-com problem is not the Internet," Bradley says. "I think those are distribution tools. I think the problem is velocity. We live at too antic a pace for reading and reflection. The thing that's missing is the lamplit society, those New England evenings between 5 o'clock and 10 o'clock when you were at home and the entertainment was what the Atlantic Monthly presented that month. We're never returning to a lamplit society. And we won't have a lamplit hour."
Bradley and Kelly–who holds the title of editor at both National Journal and the Atlantic–hope to create a magazine that will compel readers to spend a few halogen-lit hours on a magazine devoted to great storytelling. Magazines like the New Yorker do that already.
"That formula seems very outdated in this Internet era," says Steve Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter. "It's going to be awfully hard." On the other hand, Cohn says Bradley has turned National Journal into a "marketing machine," and he might be able to do that with the Atlantic.
"What the Atlantic Monthly needs is an upgrading of its look to enter the 21st century," says magazine expert Samir Husni, a journalism professor at University of Mississippi. "But it also needs to keep its audience, so a tweaking rather than a revamping is in order."
Says Bradley: "The business proposition is manageable. The heart is an intellec- tual problem."
Bradley meanwhile has run into management problems at the National Journal.
Since Hotline was acquired from former GOP political consultant Douglas Bailey in 1995, it's been the difficult child in the National Journal Group. The daily report on political news and gossip culled from other news outlets began as a regular, faxed fix for political junkies. Now the daily feed on the Internet has reached cult status with politicians and reporters, who pay for Hotline and other National Journal Web sites.
Hotline's young reporters and hotrod brand of journalism created some friction with the relatively staid National Journal. Hotline's offices were in Virginia; National Journal was in downtown DC. Hotline was part of the wired world; the flagship was still on the ink-on-paper planet.
"The two publications are like oil and water," says Hotline editor-in-chief Craig Crawford.
Early in 1999, Charles Todd, a key Hotline editor, got an offer to leave Hotline for Voter.com, a free Web site that provides a daily smorgasbord of political news and columns and Internet contact with politicians. He met with Bradley and told him National Journal's culture was "too conservative and not invested in new product." Bradley saw Todd as a franchise player, so he set out to keep him. He promised to move Hotline to the Watergate and finance new projects on television and the Internet.
For a year, nothing seemed to happen. In May, Craig Crawford called Bradley with more bad news. He said Voter.com was making another play for Chuck Todd. "He likes you," Crawford said, "but there's a credibility issue. You didn't perform."
Bradley set up a meeting with Todd, Crawford, and managing editor Vaughn Ververs. They had a three-hour dinner at Dominique's. Jeff Zients was on hand. Conspicuously absent was John Fox Sullivan, National Journal publisher, to whom the Hotline editors had been reporting. Bradley listened and took notes on a yellow legal pad. Toward the end of the discussion he read the list of complaints and promised to step up the move to the Watergate, invest in new technologies like Webcasting, put a TV studio in the new offices, and give Hotline a freer rein. He raised the trio's salaries. And Hotline would report directly to Bradley instead of Sullivan.
"The money wasn't outrageous," Crawford says. "It wasn't a dealmaker. None of us was coming at it from that point of view."
But the view within the National Journal was that David Bradley had caved in to pressure and bought off the rebels. More important, he had undercut John Fox Sullivan by keeping him out of the talks and by removing him from the chain of command.
If Mort Zuckerman had been publisher, word of the deal might not have gotten out. He certainly would not have pulled a Bradley, which in this case was to call the entire National Journal staff together to discuss and explain the changes. Bradley spoke first in a series of meetings, then the reporters and editors took over.
Bradley had allowed himself to be "blackmailed," one staffer said. Another said he'd "sold out" John Sullivan. Others stood up to tell their publisher he had disappointed them by playing favorites.
Bradley listened patiently. He left. Then he got angry.
"I couldn't believe how little trust there was in me," he said after the incident. "I thought I had more moral capital. I thought my support over the last two years would carry me through. I suppose there were more pangs of disappointment than anger."
Says Sullivan: "David took it much too personally with regard to his moral authority. He took it more seriously than he should have. No one was saying the guy isn't fit to run the company."
Did Sullivan feel diminished by Bradley's actions regarding Hotline?
"To the extent that I love Hotline and enjoyed dealing with it, yes," he says. "At the end of the day, David Bradley, Michael Kelly, and myself are managing the media properties. That hasn't changed."
Bradley's reaction suggests that he hasn't changed much over the years. "If I have a character flaw, it's in the family of needing to be liked," he says. "I don't like confrontation. I'm not good in the moment. But I'm not a pushover on things I care about. There are lines, there are convictions."
After the dressing-down, Bradley retreated within himself, then went back to the editors and talked to them about the core values that he had tried to instill in his think tanks: force of ideas, spirit of generosity. He said he expected great citizenship within his publishing house. He said they should honor talent, above all, and the talent in this case was in the journalists.
Bradley honors talent with cash. When National Journal White House correspondent Carl Cannon won a prestigious award this year, Bradley gave him a weekend trip anywhere in the United States. When Jon Broder left his job last year with the Internet magazine Salon on matters of principle, Bradley offered to help tide him over, though he barely knew him. Broder turned down the offer, but it showed one of Bradley's trademarks: small acts of kindness.
Still, the question remains whether editors and journalists, who are ornery and competitive by nature and by training, can live by Bradley's credo.
Hotline's relocation will be the first in a series of moves that will bring Bradley's publishing arms closer to his research company. He intends to move the National Journal Group's business side to the Watergate. He hopes that the Advisory Board's marketers will help reposition the Atlantic. Strategy sessions on the future of the monthly have been held in Washington rather than Boston.
Meanwhile, Bradley's second public offering in the Corporate Executive Board brought his net worth close to the $300-million mark. He's known to be interested in expanding his media holdings, perhaps to include a weekly magazine. Might he buy U.S. News?
"I have not the slightest bit of interest in selling U.S. News or the Daily News," says Mort Zuckerman.
Rumors circulated in June that Bradley was buying the New Republic, but they were not true.
It's more likely that Bradley, a bit of an Anglophile, will start a weekly magazine from scratch–something perhaps with the kind of sensibility for which the Economist is known. And should he follow through in selling his interest in the Advisory Board Company, he will have more millions for media acquisitions.
"We have to find our own beat," says Bradley. He hopes to locate it within the next two years.
Whatever the beat may be, Bradley is bound to become a more public man. His house in Massachusetts Heights would make a perfect salon.
But for the immediate future, David Bradley plans to come home in the evening, have dinner with his wife and three sons–and Admiral Stansfield Turner–and spend a few lamplit moments, even if the rest of the world is rushing along at dot-com speed.