Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post from 1965 to 1991, died on Tuesday at 93 of natural causes, former managing editor Robert G. Kaiser wrote for the Post.
Bradlee’s time as editor of the Post included coverage of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers — still some of journalism’s biggest stories.
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.”
David Remnick wrote about Bradlee’s death for The New Yorker.
Recently, Tom Zito, a feature writer and critic at the Post during the Bradlee era, told me this story:
“One afternoon in the fall of 1971, I was summoned to Ben’s office. I was the paper’s rock critic at the time. A few minutes earlier, at the Post’s main entrance, a marshal from the Department of Justice had arrived, bearing a grand-jury subpoena in my name. As was the case ever since the Department of Justice and the Post had clashed over the Pentagon Papers, earlier that year, rules about process service dictated that the guard at the front desk call Bradlee’s office, where I was now sitting and being grilled about the business of the grand jury and its potential impact on the paper. I explained that my father was of Italian descent, lived in New Jersey, had constructed many publicly financed apartment buildings—and was now being investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York regarding income-tax evasion. ‘Your father?’ Ben exclaimed in disbelief, and then called out to his secretary, ‘Get John Mitchell on the phone.’ In less than a minute, the voice of the Attorney General could be heard on the speaker box, asking, somewhat curtly, ‘What do you want, Ben?’ In his wonderfully gruff but patrician demeanor, and flashing a broad smile to me, Ben replied, ‘What I want is for you to never again send a subpoena over here asking any of my reporters to give grand-jury testimony about their parents. And if you do, I’m going to personally come over there and shove it up your ass.’ The subpoena was quashed the next day.”
The Post has quotes on Bradlee from a number of its stars, including Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
“Ben was a true friend and genius leader in journalism. He forever altered our business. His one unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of that pursuit. He had the courage of an army. Ben had an intuitive understanding of the history of our profession, its formative impact on him and all of us. But he was utterly liberated from that. He was an original who charted his own course. We loved him deeply, and he will never be forgotten or replaced in our lives.”
On October 3, Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, wrote about Bradlee for Time, including how he weathered the scandal after it was revealed that Pulitzer winner Janet Cooke made up the work that won her that Pulitzer.
During that time Ben showed what he was made of. He had to return a Pulitzer Prize that Cooke had won about a made up 8-year-old heroin addict. He had to invite his boss, Donald Graham, to have breakfast at his house and tell him that he and his vaunted team of all-stars, made famous in the movie All the President’s Men, had failed the Graham family. He had to face his own crushed newsroom and, ultimately, the Post’s disappointed readers.
This would surely have brought down any other editor. So why did Ben Bradlee survive and triumph? It wasn’t simply because he was so powerful or well connected, having transformed the Post during Watergate into a national newspaper and showcase for the blazingly talented writers he hired and nurtured. Bob Woodward tried to explain Ben’s durability after the top editors at the Times lost their jobs in the Jayson Blair scandal. “Bradlee was a great editor and loved by everybody,” Woodward said. “Not just the people who knew him well, but down the ranks.”
On Tuesday night, journalists shared quotes from Bradlee on Twitter.
"In the Washington bureau of Newsweek, even one's most beautiful prose was rewritten by some faceless bastard in New York." #BenBradlee
— Carlos Lozada (@CarlosLozadaWP) October 22, 2014
"Get some better information next time." RIP #BenBradlee
— Sean Robinson (@seanrobinsonTNT) October 22, 2014
— Jack Limpert (@bluepencil2) October 13, 2014
— Bryan Logan (@BWLogan) October 22, 2014
"Worry? Me, worry?I don't fucking worry!" Ben Bradlee to young David Remnick – from my NPR obit for Bradlee http://t.co/c5PdH0sSBT
— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) October 22, 2014
— Jeff Good (@jgoodstories) October 22, 2014
#BenBradlee in his memoir, on Richard Nixon: "In his darkest hour, he gave the press its finest hour."
— Carlos Lozada (@CarlosLozadaWP) October 22, 2014
"Those [Watergate] tapes are going to take me to my grave with a huge smile on my face.." -Ben Bradlee http://t.co/Bgv45Hrtc5
— Christine Delargy (@CADelargy) October 22, 2014
— David Beard (@dabeard) October 22, 2014
Ben Bradlee: "If you made the paper better every day, … and you reached higher, the paper would get better." http://t.co/2QakFF6Hde
— Michael Gold (@migold) October 22, 2014