Legendary Washington Post Editor, Ben Bradlee, Dies at 93

Benjamin C. Bradlee in late 1995. He retired as executive editor in 1991 but continued to serve The Washington Post as vice president at large. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Benjamin C. Bradlee in late 1995. He retired as executive editor in 1991 but continued to serve The Washington Post as vice president at large. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Benjamin C. Bradlee, who presided over The Washington Post newsroom for 26 years and guided The Post’s transformation into one of the world’s leading newspapers, died Oct. 21 at his home in Washington of natural causes. He was 93.

From the moment he took over The Post newsroom in 1965, Mr. Bradlee sought to create an important newspaper that would go far beyond the traditional model of a metropolitan daily. He achieved that goal by combining compelling news stories based on aggressive reporting with engaging feature pieces of a kind previously associated with the best magazines. His charm and gift for leadership helped him hire and inspire a talented staff and eventually made him the most celebrated newspaper editor of his era.

The most compelling story of Bradlee’s tenure, almost certainly the one of greatest consequence, was Watergate, a political scandal touched off by The Post’s reporting that ended in the only resignation of a president in U.S. history.

But Mr. Bradlee’s most important decision, made with Katharine Graham, The Post’s publisher, may have been to print stories based on the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration went to court to try to quash those stories, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision of the New York Times and The Post to publish them.

The Post’s circulation nearly doubled while Mr. Bradlee was in charge of the newsroom — first as managing editor and then as executive editor — as did the size of its newsroom staff. And he gave the paper ambition.

Mr. Bradlee stationed correspondents around the globe, opened bureaus across the Washington region and from coast to coast in the United States, and he created sections and features — most notably Style, one of his proudest inventions — that were widely copied by others.

During his tenure, a paper that had previously won just four Pulitzer Prizes, only one of which was for reporting, won 17 more, including the Public Service award for the Watergate coverage.

“Ben Bradlee was the best American newspaper editor of his time and had the greatest impact on his newspaper of any modern editor,” said Donald E. Graham, who succeeded his mother as publisher of The Post and Mr. Bradlee’s boss.

“So much of The Post is Ben,” Mrs. Graham said in 1994, three years after Bradlee retired as editor. “He created it as we know it today.”

Leonard Downie Jr., who succeeded Mr. Bradlee as The Post’s executive editor in 1991, said, “Ben’s influence remained very much alive at The Washington Post long after he retired, distinguishing the newspaper and our newsroom as unique in journalism.” President Obama saluted Mr. Bradlee’s role at The Post when giving him the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2013: “He transformed that newspaper into one of the finest in the world.”

Mr. Bradlee’s patrician good looks, gravelly voice, profane vocabulary and zest for journalism and for life all contributed to the charismatic personality that dominated and shaped The Post. Modern American newspaper editors rarely achieve much fame, but Mr. Bradlee became a celebrity and loved the status. Jason Robards played him in the movie “All The President’s Men,” based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about Watergate. Two books Mr. Bradlee wrote — “Conversations With Kennedy” and his memoir, “A Good Life” — were bestsellers. His craggy face became a familiar sight on television. In public and in private, he always played his part with theatrical enthusiasm.

“He was a presence, a force,” Woodward recalled of Mr. Bradlee’s role during the Watergate period, 1972 to 1974. “And he was a doubter, a skeptic — ‘Do we have it yet?’ ‘Have we proved it?’ ” Decades later, Woodward remembered the words that he most hated to hear from Mr. Bradlee then: “You don’t have it yet, kid.”

Mr. Bradlee loved the Watergate story, not least because it gave the newspaper “impact,” his favorite word in his first years as editor. He wanted the paper to be noticed. In his personal vernacular — a vivid, blasphemous argot that combined the swear words he mastered in the Navy during World War II with the impeccable enunciation of a blue-blooded Bostonian — a great story was “a real tube-ripper.”

This meant a story was so hot that Post readers would rip the paper out of the tubes into which the paperboy delivered it. A bad story was “mego” — the acronym for “my eyes glaze over” — applied to anything that bored him. Maximizing the number of tube-rippers and minimizing mego was the Bradlee strategy.

Mr. Bradlee’s tactics were also simple: “Hire people smarter than you are” and encourage them to bloom. His energy and his mystique were infectious.

“It was hard to explain the full force of his personality to people who never met him,” said Ward Just, the reporter-turned-novelist whom Mr. Bradlee sent to cover the Vietnam War for The Post in 1966-1967. “He really was one of those guys you’d take a machine-gun bullet for. You only meet three or four of them in an entire lifetime.”

But his strengths sometimes became weaknesses. The editor who could inspire his troops to do some of the best journalism ever published in America also fell for an artful hoax by a young reporter, Janet Cooke. Cooke invented an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy and wrote a moving story about him. After the story won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, Cooke was exposed as an impostor who invented not only Jimmy but also her own life story.

When they realized that Cooke had concocted an imaginary résumé, Mr. Bradlee and his editors interrogated her and extracted a confession. Mr. Bradlee quickly returned the Pulitzer, then encouraged The Post’s ombudsman, Bill Green, to investigate and report how the incident could have happened. This was the biggest assignment ever given to the in-house reader’s representative. Mr. Bradlee had created the position in 1970, making The Post the first major paper to employ an independent, in-house critic.

Green produced a detailed, embarrassing report about a newsroom where the urge for journalistic impact overrode several experienced reporters’ doubts about Jimmy’s existence. “Bradlee was really hurt” by the Cooke affair, recalled Peter Silberman, who served under Mr. Bradlee as a senior editor.

Mr. Bradlee had a notoriously short attention span. He rarely dug into the details of an issue himself, leaving that to the people he had hired. He managed The Post newsroom with a combination of viscera and intellect, often judging people by his personal reaction to them. He or she “makes me laugh” was perhaps Mr. Bradlee’s greatest compliment. He never enjoyed the minutiae of management and spent as little time on administrative work as he could get away with.

But Mr. Bradlee coped successfully with many crises. “Ben’s famous drive for a good story makes it easy to overlook his good judgment on matters ranging from national security to personal privacy,” observed Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., who was The Post’s lawyer when Mr. Bradlee was editor and who later became publisher.

Although he graduated from St. Mark’s School and Harvard University, the Navy left as much of a mark on Mr. Bradlee as did his early life among Boston’s WASP aristocracy. The Navy taught him to swear, as well as to respect talent wherever it appeared.

He made friends easily with important people — his most famous friend was John F. Kennedy — but he also had pals among printers at The Post and farmers in Southern Maryland, where he spent weekends at his country estate for many years.

He and his third wife, the writer Sally Quinn, loved to give parties at their big Georgetown house. In his 80s, Mr. Bradlee still caroused energetically with people 30 and 40 years younger, amazing his old friends. “He gave a whole new meaning to ‘over 80,’ ” Don Graham said.

Mr. Bradlee’s wartime experience left him an unabashed patriot who bristled whenever critics of the newspaper accused it of helping America’s enemies. He sometimes agreed to keep stories out of the paper when government officials convinced him that they might cause serious harm. But he also reacted angrily to what he considered phony attempts to invoke “national security” by officials who were really just trying to avoid embarrassment.

Lying, especially lying by public officials, particularly offended Mr. Bradlee. He wrote and lectured on the subject for decades.

“The values that Ben instilled in our newsroom — independence and fairness, aggressive reporting, compelling writing and individual initiative — will long outlive him,” Downie said. “And it will always be a newsroom where everyone has fun, as Ben did.”

Mr. Bradlee’s relationship with Mrs. Graham was critical. She allowed him to spend money, ultimately many millions of dollars, to build a great newspaper. At key moments — particularly the 1971 decision to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers and later during Watergate — she stood squarely behind him, defying the advice of her attorneys and business advisers and her powerful Washington friends.

Mr. Bradlee “was just what Kay needed — somebody who built her confidence and worked hard at it,” said the late Philip L. Geyelin, who was editor of The Post’s editorial page from 1968 to 1979. “He made her comfortable. He called her up and told her dirty jokes and told her the latest skinny. It was a wonderful relationship. I can’t remember any time they had any quarrel. She was nuts about him.”

Mrs. Graham had said as much herself. In one of the end-of-year letters she and Mr. Bradlee came to exchange annually — warm, intimate notes of mutual appreciation — she wrote: “Over the years, I have been spoiled by you and I hope most of the time, it’s been reciprocated, in sharing the best, most productive, rewarding working combo that I’ve had or even know of. And best of all, it’s been fun.”

She also teased him sometimes and criticized his erratic management of the newsroom, including impetuous hiring decisions that sometimes turned out badly. One year, she sent him a list of 15 names, his hiring “mistakes,” as she called them, and asked how he could avoid such errors in the future. But mostly she sang his praises, as in her end-of-1974 letter to Mr. Bradlee: “The things [about you] that people don’t know — that I know — are style, generosity, class and decency, as well as understanding of other people’s weaknesses.”

When Mrs. Graham died in July 2001, Mr. Bradlee spoke at her funeral. “She was a spectacular dame, and I loved her very much,” he said, looking down on the vast crowd from the lectern at the east end of Washington National Cathedral. Walking back to his pew, Mr. Bradlee took a slight detour to pass her coffin and give it an affectionate pat.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post – Robert G. Kaiser