WASHINGTON — In a charmed life of newspapering, Ben Bradlee seemed always to be in just the right place.
The raspy-voiced, hard-charging editor who invigorated The Washington Post got an early break as a journalist thanks to his friendship with one President, John F. Kennedy, and became famous for his role in toppling another, Richard Nixon, in the Watergate scandal.
Bradlee died at home Oct. 21 of natural causes, the Post reported. He was 93.
Ever the newsman and ever one to challenge conventional wisdom, Bradlee imagined his own obituary years earlier and found something within it to quibble over.
“Bet me that when I die,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir, “There will be something in my obit about how The Washington Post ‘won’ 18 Pulitzer prizes while Bradlee was Editor.” That, he said, would be bunk. The prizes are overrated and suspect, he wrote, and it’s largely reporters, not newspapers or their editors, who deserve the credit.
Yet the Post’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Watergate scandal is an inextricable part of Bradlee’s legacy, and one measure of his success in transforming the Post from a sleepy hometown paper into a great national one.
As managing editor first and later as executive editor, Bradlee engineered the Post’s reinvention, bringing in a cast of talented journalists and setting editorial standards that brought the paper new respect.
When Bradlee retired from the Post newsroom in 1991, then-Publisher Donald Graham said, “Thank God the person making decisions in the last 26 years showed us how to do it with verve and with guts and with zest for the big story and for the little story.”
With Watergate, Bradlee himself became a big part of a story that epitomized the glory days of newspapers — back before websites, cable chatter and bloggers drove the talk of the day.
Actor Jason Robards turned Bradlee into a box-office hit with his Oscar-winning portrayal of the editor in the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, which recounted the unraveling of Watergate under the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Bradlee’s marriage in 1978 to Post star reporter Sally Quinn (his third) added more glamour to his image.
He was one of the few to know the identity early on of the celebrated Watergate source dubbed Deep Throat, revealed publicly in 2005 to be FBI official W. Mark Felt.
“I think he did a great service to society,” Bradlee said after Felt’s role finally came out.
In enduring partnership with publisher Katharine Graham, Bradlee took a stand for press freedom in 1971 by going forward with publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret study of the Vietnam War broken by The New York Times, against the advice of lawyers and the entreaties of top government officials. The ensuing legal battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the right of newspapers to publish the leaked papers.
The Post’s decision to publish helped pave the way for all of the smaller, difficult ones that collectively produced the newspaper’s groundbreaking coverage of Watergate.
Bradlee “set the ground rules — pushing, pushing, pushing, not so subtly asking everyone to take one more step, relentlessly pursuing the story in the face of persistent accusations against us and a concerted campaign of intimidation,” Katharine Graham recalled in her memoir.
In November 2013, at age 92, Bradlee stood in the White House East Room and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, who saluted Bradlee for bringing an intensity and dedication to journalism that served as a reminder that “our freedom as a nation rests on our freedom of the press.”
Quinn disclosed in September 2014 that her husband had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for several years. She described him as happy to be fussed over and content even in decline. “Ben has never been depressed a day in his life,” Quinn said in a C-SPAN interview.
Impatient, gruff, profane, Bradlee was all that. But also exuberant, innovative, charismatic.
“Ideas flew out of Ben,” wrote Katharine Graham, who died in 2001. “He was always asking important ‘why’ questions. … Ben was tough enough and good enough so that for the most part I not only let him do what he thought was right, I largely agreed with him.”
The low point in Bradlee’s career involved a 1981 Pulitzer for the Post that was rescinded after the Post itself revealed that reporter Janet Cooke had invented her story of an 8-year-old heroin user.
Bradlee, whose offer to resign over the debacle was rejected, said it was a cross he would bear forever. Critics faulted editors for failing to ask enough questions about the story and said the incident was in part a reflection of the competition and tension within Bradlee’s newsroom.
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was born Aug. 26, 1921, a Boston Brahmin reared in comfort but for family financial setbacks in the Depression and a six-month bout with polio at age 14.
He hurried through Harvard in three years to take his place on a Pacific destroyer during World War II. On his return in 1945, he helped start a daily newspaper in New Hampshire, but it folded 2½ years later for lack of advertising.
From there, Bradlee experienced a series of lucky breaks. He landed his first job at the Post in 1948 when a rainstorm in Baltimore prompted him to skip a job interview there and stay on the train to Washington.
He happened to be riding a trolley car past Blair House in 1950 when Puerto Rican extremists opened fire on the Presidential guest house while President Truman was staying there. Bradlee turned it into a page-one eyewitness story.
Restless at the Post, he left the paper in 1951 to become press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Two years later, he joined Newsweek’s Paris bureau and spent four years as a European correspondent before returning to Washington to write politics.
He happened to buy a home in Georgetown in 1957, a few months before Sen. John F. Kennedy and his wife moved in across the street, the beginning of an intimate friendship and a proximity to power that burnished his credentials as a journalist and brought him rare insights into government.
“I was on a roll being in the right place at the right time, a luck that has stayed with me,” Bradlee wrote in his best-selling memoir, A Good Life: Newspapers and Other Adventures.
Long after his newspapering days were finished, even in his declining years, Bradlee would head over to the Post once a week to have lunch with “the guys” and “talk about the good old days in journalism,” Quinn recounted.
Bradlee’s access to Kennedy continued through JFK’s presidency, bringing Bradlee scoops for Newsweek, and experiences that he ultimately turned into the 1975 book, Conversations with JFK. The release brought Bradlee much attention and cost him a valued friend, Jacqueline Kennedy, who thought the book a violation of privacy and stopped speaking to Bradlee.
Bradlee had been in Newsweek’s Washington bureau four years when he found the nerve in 1961 to telephone Post Publisher Philip Graham to propose that The Washington Post Co. buy Newsweek.
“It was the best telephone call I ever made — the luckiest, most productive, most exciting, most rewarding,” Bradlee wrote. The deal came together and Bradlee ended up with a cache of Post stock and the title of Washington bureau chief for Newsweek.
Four years later, it was a conversation with Philip Graham’s widow that proved pivotal for Bradlee. Katharine Graham had taken over the Post after her husband’s suicide and was looking to inject new life into the paper. In a quotation that has become Post lore, Bradlee told her over lunch that if the managing editor’s job ever opened up, “I’d give my left one for it.”
Bradlee soon had the title of deputy managing editor and an understanding he would move up quickly. As recounted in Howard Bray’s book, “The Pillars of the Post,” managing editor Al Friendly cautioned Bradlee, “Look, buster, don’t be in a hurry.” Bradlee smiled and replied, “Sorry, but that’s my metabolism.” He succeeded Friendly three months later.
Bradlee had four children from three marriages: Benjamin C. Jr., Dino, Marina and Quinn. His first two marriages, to Jean Saltonstall and Antoinette Pinchot, ended in divorce. Quinn Bradlee, his son with Sally Quinn, has battled a variety of ailments, including a hole in the heart and epilepsy, and was eventually diagnosed with a genetic syndrome called VCFS.