I once met Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor who died Tuesday at 93. At 80, he was bantam-sized, barrel-chested, natty in a Turnbull & Asser striped shirt, and imposing. What would I say to him?
“Mr. Bradlee, I read ‘Conversations With Kennedy.’ I thought it was better than Red Fay’s book (about JFK).”
“Yeah,” he roared. “WAY BETTER!”
This competitiveness served him well as the editor of the Post during the Nixon years. His determination to get the Watergate story led him to the front rank of American journalism. Bradlee was perhaps the one newspaper editor in the United States the general public could name. It didn’t hurt that Jason Robards won an Oscar for portraying him in “All the President’s Men.”
While the Post survives him, it is a different world. The Graham family no longer owns it, and lean times have led all newspapers to seek different avenues of survival. I wonder how Watergate might have been covered in this Twitter and three-blog-posts-a-day journalism environment.
Washington, D.C., in Bradlee’s time was a comparatively genteel place, where the elites met in Georgetown cocktail parties after hours. The 1972 Watergate burglary shattered the salons. The Post was an adversary and no longer a pleasant companion.
Investigative reporting as we know it was born out of Ben Bradlee’s newsroom. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, both under 30 when they broke the story of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters, became the archetype for a generation of reporters. Many have master’s degrees, a far cry from the start-as-a-copyboy world of manual typewriters, cigarettes and Jack Daniels.
Bradlee wasn’t the first courageous editor, and certainly not the only one of his generation. The San Francisco Chronicle’s innovative editor, Bill German, died last week at age 95, after a career that was less renowned but far more consequential than he ever got credit for in East Coast circles. Nor is Bradlee the last of his kind.
He was a handsome, craggy, media-savvy swashbuckler who knew he was a celebrity and played the part far more effectively than any actor. That endeared Bradlee to some and made others uncomfortable.
Backed by Publisher Katharine Graham, Bradlee’s tenacity and resoluteness in the face of enormous pressure from the Nixon White House, and from a slow-moving Washington press corps, led to the resignation of Nixon and the indictment of 40 other administration figures.
A famous scene from “All the President’s Men” portrayed Bradlee standing at night in his robe on the lawn of his home, telling Woodward and Bernstein that nothing was at stake except “the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”
Without Ben Bradlee, we might be living in a much different country than we do today.
With him, it was way better.