Ben Bradlee, Who Led 'Washington Post' To New Heights, Dies At 93 As editor, Bradlee led the newspaper to national eminence with charm, drive, instinct and, most notably, an epic confrontation with the Nixon White House.
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Ben Bradlee, Who Led 'Washington Post' To New Heights, Dies At 93

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Ben Bradlee, Who Led 'Washington Post' To New Heights, Dies At 93

Ben Bradlee, Who Led 'Washington Post' To New Heights, Dies At 93

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A few years ago, longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee talked of how journalists thrive on bad news. On C-SPAN, he was recalling days when his paper uncovered the Watergate scandal.


BEN BRADLEE: If you had told any editor of any - of The Washington Post since the beginning of time there was going to be a story that would - 40 people would go to jail, and the president of the United States would resign, he'd say, thank you, Lord.


Bradlee, who died yesterday at age 93, oversaw the Watergate coverage of Woodward and Bernstein. He also built The Post into a major national institution. Just as notable as what he did is the style in which he did it. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Let's set the scene. Nearly 30 years ago, a young reporter is summoned from the newsroom to his boss's office - the big boss. In fact, the boss is Ben Bradlee, with hair slicked back, an American aristocrat wearing a tailored British shirt, his feet propped up on his desk. A powerful Democratic senator had complained that the young writer was looking into reports about his drinking. Thirty years later, that young reporter, David Remnick, picks up the tale.

DAVID REMNICK: And I heard him say, (imitating Ben Bradlee) so what's going on with Moynihan? And I, you know, quickly explained what I was doing and what I was up to. And then, I unwisely ended my aria with, and so, Mr. Bradlee, don't worry, at which point I saw his silvery head rise above his shoot tips and say, worry - me worry? I don't [bleep] worry. And that was the end of the meeting. (Laughter).

FOLKENFLIK: A salty phrase, a hearty laugh, an unyielding journalistic backbone - Ben Bradlee was well known for all three. Born to a family of Boston Brahmins, Bradlee served in naval intelligence during World War II and saw major conflict in the Pacific arena. After the war, he launched a small paper in New Hampshire and decided to head south to seek a job at a bigger paper, landing a job in D.C. with The Post only because he refused to get off the train in Baltimore during a downpour. To tell the truth, Bradlee only enjoyed mild success as a reporter. He next departed for Paris, where he became a diplomatic aide with ties to figures in the CIA. But in 1953, he joined Newsweek and thrived. He became close to a Georgetown neighbor, a young senator named John F. Kennedy, and would later find himself accused by Richard Nixon's defenders of being too cozy with the Democratic establishment. There was another, even more fateful connection, however. Bradlee had convinced the publisher of The Washington Post, Phil Graham, to buy Newsweek, where he was Washington bureau chief. A few years later, the company's new president, Graham's widow, summoned Bradlee.


KATHARINE GRAHAM: So we went to a club I belonged to. And I said, what is it that you do want to do? I notice you've turned these jobs down in New York.

FOLKENFLIK: This is the late Katharine Graham talking to Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air.

GRAHAM: And of course, Ben being Ben said, well, now that you ask me, I'd give my left one to be managing editor of The Post. I know that's a little bit vulgar, but Ben talks like that. And I was really brought up short because I didn't expect that.

FOLKENFLIK: Soon enough, Bradlee joined The Post as managing editor with a promise quickly fulfilled of leading the previously undistinguished paper as its executive editor. He went on a hiring spree and a firing spree, too, embracing the so-called new journalism, giving featured writers leeway to develop a personalized voice once they had proven themselves. Len Downie was a young investigative reporter and editor at The Post in the 1960s and 1970s. And he says he wanted to prove himself to Bradlee as desperately as anyone else.

LEN DOWNIE: He was sexy for women, and men wished they were him. He was attractive to men as well. People followed him around the newsroom with their eyes, followed him around physically when they were able to. They got excited when he came up to them in the newsroom. He had a magnetic effect on people.

FOLKENFLIK: When the Nixon administration convinced a judge to stop The Times from publishing new installments of the Pentagon Papers, Bradlee and Graham decided to publish them right away. The decision exposed her company to significant financial risk. The ensuing Supreme Court ruling in the two papers' favor enshrined protections for the press against so-called prior restraint. That was not the only high-stakes clash between Bradlee's newsroom and the Nixon administration. Two unknown Metro reporters for The Post started to unravel a criminal conspiracy involving the 1972 elections and a cover up that led back to the White House itself. Bradlee wasn't a details guy, but he helped to oversee the coverage of a story that soon took on the cinematic elements of a blockbuster thriller. Len Downie was one of the junior Metro editors helping to edit the stories. He recalls that rival news organizations had little appetite beyond the first stories of a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters.

DOWNIE: Nobody else was following it. Nobody else seemed interested in it. Political reporters, including the political reporters in The Post newsroom, were skeptical of it. They couldn't believe that the president's campaign committee or the White House could be connected to something like this. And meanwhile, the Nixon administration was castigating The Post and our reporting every day. It left us in a very isolated position where we were concerned about the future of the paper, the future of our careers, if this story didn't pan out in the way we thought it would.

FOLKENFLIK: Bradlee kept his cool and catapulted to celebrity along with his reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, thanks to the Watergate story along with the book and movie, "All The President's Men." Jason Robards won an Academy Award for playing an editor whose reporters helped expose the criminality of a White House.


JASON ROBARDS: (As Ben Bradlee) You guys are about to write a story that says the former attorney general, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook. Let's be sure you're right.

FOLKENFLIK: For all that, Bradlee could be a notably incurious editor. He didn't know the identity of Bob Woodward's top-secret source until two years after President Nixon resigned. Bradlee spoke to NPR's Michele Norris in 2005, after the source was revealed to be a top FBI official, Mark Felt.


BRADLEE: I knew that he was high-ranking, but I didn't know how high-ranking. And as a matter of fact, it wasn't very important what job he held, so long as he did one thing; and that was tell the truth. And before long, it was obvious that this man knew what he was talking about because from day one, he never gave us a bad steer.

FOLKENFLIK: Bradlee's strengths were often also closely linked to his weaknesses. The star system that orbited around him led to tensions within the newsroom. A celebration for a Pulitzer for one of those young stars, an expose by Janet Cooke about an 8-year-old heroin addict, turned to ash in just hours. The story proved to be largely fabricated. She couldn't even introduce her editors to the boy. Bob Woodward had been the top editor for Metro news. The story was from his desk, and the scandal knocked him from the path to succeed Bradlee, although he became a best-selling investigative author. But Bradlee survived largely unscathed. So much of his DNA marked the paper as his own. David Remnick is now the editor of The New Yorker magazine.

REMNICK: Reporters need to know that they have to keep banging away at it. And they have to give their own energies and curiosity and aggressiveness full reign. And they have to have somebody saying behind them, it's OK - because the world is telling them all the time that it's not, whether it's politicians, PR agencies and all the rest. They're saying it's not. And you need somebody behind you saying, keep at it. And that was Bradlee's message in a thousand different ways.

FOLKENFLIK: Remnick says it was almost touching. Several of the senior editors competing to replace Bradlee adopted some of his sartorial traits, his reading glasses on a string, the slicked-back hair, the striped shirts. After decades of Bradlee's leadership, no one could imagine an editor with a different look. Len Downie succeeded Bradlee in 1991, a less flamboyant, more careful newsroom leader with a dedication to investigative reporting. But the paper continued to carry Bradlee's trademark swagger. After his retirement, Bradlee served as a vice president at large for the paper's parent company, a charismatic emblem for the glory of the paper's journalism, even as it as it hit rocky economic times. Bradlee wasn't introspective, but in an interview with his friend Jim Lehrer of PBS, he sought to pin down what animated him.


BRADLEE: It changes your life, the pursuit of truth. And it, at least if you know that you have tried to find the truth and gone past the first apparent truth towards the real truth, it's very - it's very exciting, I find.

FOLKENFLIK: Among Bradlee's survivors are his wife, the longtime Washington Post feature writer Sally Quinn, their son Quinn and his son by an earlier marriage, the journalist Ben Bradlee, Jr. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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