Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was a journalism legend, and his death Tuesday, at the age of 93, was marked by loving tributes across the country.
The Washington Post gave Bradlee center stage on its Wednesday front page:
The Post ran a piece by former publisher Donald Graham, who called Bradlee a hero of the newsroom. Graham’s piece explained the newsroom’s love for Bradlee through anecdote, showing his tenacity to get a story. In one case, Bradlee convinced a lawyer to give him an all-clear to publish the Pentagon papers:
Ben knew the next step, the only step that would give Kay [Post Publisher Katherine Graham] the confidence she needed to publish. Without authorization, he called a greater lawyer, his friend Edward Bennett Williams. They had met when Ben was a Post reporter covering the U.S. District Court in Washington and Ed was flamboyantly winning cases and building his reputation. Summoned by a note begging him to ask for a recess in a Chicago trial and call Bradlee, the football-loving Williams heard the story and said, “Christ, Benjy, you’re behind 28-0, and it’s the fourth quarter. You’ve got to print.”
If you love newspapers, read the Post’s full coverage of Bradlee. It’s worth your time.
Bradlee’s passing was noted in almost every major American newspaper and magazine by the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Mr. Bradlee was a bravura figure: colorful, profane, stylish (his sartorial trademark was wide-striped shirts with white collars from the exclusive London tailor Turnbull Asser). He was a close friend of John F. Kennedy and wrote two books about the president, “That Special Grace” (1964) and “Conversations with Kennedy” (1975).
The two men had much in common: youthful vigor, an aristocratic bearing, and charismatic presence, as well as a highly developed libido and sense of machismo. “I’d give my left one for it,” Mr. Bradlee famously declared to Post publisher Katharine Graham in 1965 when the possibility of his becoming managing editor was first raised. He was not referring to his arm. The swashbuckling, testosterone-driven ardor of that statement could have served as his motto when he joined the Post later that year and right up until his retirement, in 1991.
Mr. Bradlee — “this last of the lion-king newspaper editors,” as Phil Bronstein, a former editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, described him — could be classy or profane, an energetic figure with a boxer’s nose who almost invariably dressed in a white-collared, bold-striped Turnbull Asser shirt, the sleeves rolled up.
When not prowling the newsroom like a restless coach, encouraging his handpicked reporters and editors, he sat behind a glass office wall that afforded him a view of them and them a view of him. “We would follow this man over any hill, into any battle, no matter what lay ahead,” his successor, Leonard Downie Jr., once said.
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was gliding through the newsroom of The Washington Post, pushing a sort of force field ahead of him like the bow wave of a vintage Chris-Craft motor yacht. All across the vast expanse of identical desks, faces turned toward him—were pulled in his direction—much as a field of flowers turns toward the sun. We were powerless to look away.
After W. Mark Felt, the former second-in-command at the FBI, identified himself in 2005 as “Deep Throat,” Mr. Bradlee admitted he had never asked [reporter Bob] Woodward to name his source during the two years of stories in the Post that tied [President Richard] Nixon and his administration to a variety of clandestine and sometimes illegal activities aimed at political enemies. He only learned who “Deep Throat” was after Mr. Nixon resigned in 1974.
“The important thing about Deep Throat from day one was that he was telling the truth. Everything he told us was true, and in that sense that was all I needed,” Mr. Bradlee said after Mr. Felt came forward.
Bradlee’s self-confidence was the stuff of legend, and, as the saying goes, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. When he walked through the newsroom of the Post that he single-handedly had made (in Post editor Meg Greenfield’s words) “dangerous to people in government,” he clanked between the waist and knees (as he would have himself confessed).
Bradlee, a Boston Brahmin with a brash personality, is widely credited with transforming the Post from a locally oriented newspaper into a lively, well-written daily that competed with the New York Times in its national reputation. He hired a slew of talented journalists and rethought the news and feature pages, including creating the Post’s much-copied Style section, which replaced the traditional “soft” women’s section with one that had humor, flash and bite.
“I like a nice rowdy metropolitan paper,” Bradlee once said of the institution that, under his leadership, became one of the two or three top newspapers in the country.