Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, the former Washington Post editor who was a confidant of one president and helped force the resignation of another, died Oct. 21 at his home in Washington of natural causes, the newspaper announced. He was 93.
Bradlee’s swashbuckling demeanor and outsize personality helped make him a national figure as he reinvigorated journalism during Richard Nixon’s presidency by fighting for the right to publish the Pentagon Papers and exposing the Watergate scandal.
Bradlee will be forever remembered and celebrated as an icon of journalism, says Neil Foote, a Post reporter from 1986 to 1990 who teaches journalism at the University of North Texas.
“What he stood for was a brand of journalism that you’ve got to dig deep and aggressively to seek out new information that people have a right to know,” Foote says.
President Barack Obama issued a statement saying "For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession — it was a public good vital to our democracy. A true newspaperman, he transformed the Washington Post into one of the country’s finest newspapers, and with him at the helm, a growing army of reporters published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate, and told stories that needed to be told — stories that helped us understand our world and one another a little bit better."
‘A good life’
Bradlee was born in Boston on Aug. 26, 1921. His father, Frederick Bradlee, was an investment banker. His mother, Josephine, was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her work with French children during World War II. Her son received the same award in 2007.
When Bradlee was 14 and attending a boarding school outside Boston, he contracted polio. One of his classmates, a close friend, died and four others were permanently paralyzed.
Bradlee told the National Press Club in 2005, in what was his first public comment on the experience, that the crippling disease required him to wear leg braces and a corset for months as he recuperated.
Knowing that President Franklin D. Roosevelt “had the same disease was just a stunning comfort,” Bradlee said. Doctors wondered why the disease did not depress him, he said. “There was something in me that said, ‘OK, don’t get worried.’ ”
When Bradlee was about to turn 16, his father got him his first journalism job — a summer position as a copy boy at the Evening Times in Beverly, Mass. Bradlee fetched coffee for the city editor and obituary writer before being promoted to “City Locals,” a column of one- or two-sentence blurbs about local citizens.
Bradlee graduated from Harvard College in 1942 and immediately joined the Office of Naval Intelligence. He served on several ships during World War II and his duties included handling classified and coded cables.
In his 1995 autobiography, “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” Bradlee wrote that he loved his time in the military. He called it “more exciting, more meaningful than anything I’d ever done … . Loved the excitement, even loved being a little bit scared.”
A lesson Bradlee learned in wartime influenced his later career as an editor. “You can’t do any better than surround yourself with the best people you can find, and then listen to them,” he wrote.
A passion for journalism
After the war, Bradlee had a job offer from one of his father’s investment banker friends in Boston. “I could see the country club life ahead of me and it just didn’t seem very interesting,” he told The Atlantic in a 2009 interview.
Instead, he pursued his passion for journalism. He helped start a newspaper in New Hampshire that ultimately went broke. In 1948, Bradlee boarded a train for job interviews in Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C.
It was raining when the train stopped in Baltimore, so he stayed aboard until it arrived in Washington, where he landed a reporting job covering courts for the Post.
Bradlee’s career moved quickly after that. In 1951, he moved to Paris to work at the American Embassy. Still in Paris, he joined the staff of Newsweek in 1953.
He returned to Washington, still working for the magazine, in 1958 and soon met Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, a neighbor in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood.
Friendships between politicians and journalists can be tricky. Bradlee told PBS in 2006 that the relationship was not unwise. “It got me a lot of good stories,” he said, but he “didn’t pull a punch” in his coverage of Kennedy.
Chris Daly, a Boston University journalism professor who was the Post’s New England correspondent from 1989 to 1997, says Bradlee was “awfully chummy” with Kennedy. “But I would ask: Wasn’t that just what he was supposed to do?” he adds. “Judged by the standards of the times, Ben was guilty of nothing more than being lucky.”
In 1975, Bradlee wrote a book, “Conversations with Kennedy,” about their friendship.
‘What he stood for was a brand of journalism that you’ve got to dig deep and aggressively to seek out new information that people have a right to know.’
Post reporter, 1986 to 1990
Bradlee returned to the Post in 1965, where he served first as managing editor, then executive editor until his 1991 retirement.
In 1971, the paper became the second to publish the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of U.S. policies in Vietnam. The government tried in court to block publication; ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Post and other newspapers.
The following year, Watergate unfolded. What started as reporting on a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters evolved into an unveiling of deep corruption in Richard Nixon’s White House.
Bradlee allowed two metro reporters on the Post staff, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to stick with the story even as other news organizations ignored it.
The saga concluded with Nixon’s 1974 resignation and the criminal convictions of several members of his staff. The Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage, and Woodward and Bernstein’s book on the scandal, “All the President’s Men,” and the 1976 movie based on it made them, Bradlee and other Post editors famous.
Len Downie, who supervised much of the Post’s Watergate coverage and succeeded Bradlee as executive editor in 1991, says actor Jason Robards’ portrayal of Bradlee in the movie was uncannily accurate.
“The little mannerisms, the tap on the desk as he was walking away from reading a good story — that’s exactly the way Ben behaved,” Downie says.
Bradlee was always “the best leader in the room.” He never yelled at his staff, Downie says, but “he had that aura about him that made people respect him.”
Those who worked for him “would do anything for him,” his former colleague says.
Richard Benedetto, a former White House correspondent for USA Today who teaches journalism at American University in Washington, says a more antagonistic relationship between reporters and politicians is part of Bradlee’s legacy.
“I don’t think that most people who go into journalism today really like politicians,” he says. “They see them as the enemy rather than the adversary. I don’t think it’s a good thing at all.”
Daly says Watergate “was a big rupture in the relationship between big-shot journalists and politicians, with both good and bad results.”
A major embarrassment
In 1980 the Post published a story by reporter Janet Cooke about an 8-year-old boy who was a heroin addict. The story was later revealed to be fabricated and the Pulitzer Prize it won was returned.
“My nightmare was that Janet Cooke would be the second paragraph of my obit,” Bradlee told PBS in 2006. In his autobiography he wrote, “There really is no protection against a skillful liar who has earned the trust of his or her editors.”
After Bradlee’s tenure as executive editor ended, he was named vice president at large and maintained an office at the Post. Downie often sought his guidance. He was “much older and slower” in his later years, Downie says, but he was still a presence in the newsroom.
Downie cherishes memories of his times with Bradlee. When he was a reporter, Downie recalls, Bradlee stopped by his desk to tell him that the presidents of all of Washington’s savings and loans banks had just threatened to cancel all their ads because of a story Downie was reporting.
“He tapped me on the shoulder,” Downie says, “and said, ‘Just make sure you get it right, kid.’ ”
When Foote was interviewing for a Post job, Bradlee kept him waiting while he met in his office with Post publisher Katharine Graham, his great friend and mentor.
When Bradlee emerged, he apologized to Foote and explained that he had been meeting with “the old lady.” They went into Bradlee’s office. The editor put his feet up on his desk and said to Foote, “Tell me about yourself, kid.”
The feet-on-the-desk move, like his penchant for calling employees “kid,” was classic Bradlee. When he summoned the newspaper’s correspondents from around the country to Washington, Daly says, he would “put everybody at ease by putting his feet up on the desk” and asking, “What the hell is going on your way?”
“Like many editors, he had a tremendous curiosity about the world,” Daly says. “And unlike many editors, he actually liked people.”
Bradlee, who was married three times and had four children, told The Atlantic that the failures of his first two marriages were the most unhappy times of his life. He met his widow, Sally Quinn, while she was a Post reporter.
“I don’t see any great virtue in staying in a marriage that is not great,” he said, “but the world judges it as a failure.” He also said he regretted that he “wasn’t as attentive to my children as I should have been or could have been” while focusing on his career.
Still, he said, “they’re hanging around me a lot. It’s a good, close-knit family.”
Bradlee told the magazine that he had led “a much more interesting life than I thought I was going to lead. I have met a lot of interesting people and really been friends with a lot of them.”