Gruff but charming hero of investigative journalism

Ben Bradlee: August 26th, 1921 - October 21st, 2014

President Obama awards  Ben Bradlee  the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington last November. Photograph: AP/ Evan Vucci

President Obama awards Ben Bradlee the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington last November. Photograph: AP/ Evan Vucci

 

Ben Bradlee, who has died aged 93, presided over the Washington Post’s reporting of the break-in at the Watergate building in the capital in 1972 that led to the fall of President Richard Nixon and that stamped Bradlee – played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men – as the quintessential newspaper editor of his era: gruff, charming and tenacious.

With full backing from his publisher, Katharine Graham, Bradlee led the Post into the first rank of American newspapers, courting controversy and giving it standing as a thorn in the side of Washington administrations. When government officials called to complain, Bradlee protected his staff. “Just get it right,” he would tell his reporters. Most of the time they did, but there were mistakes, one so big that the paper had to return a Pulitzer Prize.

Bradlee – “this last of the lion-king newspaper editors” as Phil Bronstein, a former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, described him – could be classy or profane, an energetic figure with a boxer’s nose who almost invariably dressed in a white-collared, bold-striped shirt, sleeves rolled up.

When not prowling the newsroom like a restless coach, encouraging his handpicked reporters and editors, he sat behind a glass office wall that afforded him a view of them and they a view of him. “We would follow this man over any hill, into any battle, no matter what lay ahead,” his successor, Leonard Downie Jr, once said.

Neighbour of Kennedy

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“We had a long way to go,” he said. How long became painfully clear to him in June 1971, when the paper was scooped by the New York Times on the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of US involvement in Vietnam. After the Times printed excerpts for three days, a federal court enjoined it from publishing any more, arguing that publication would irreparably harm the nation.

The Post, meanwhile, had obtained its own copy of the papers and prepared to publish. But it was also on the verge of a $35 million stock offering, and publishing could have scuttled the deal. At the same time, Bradlee was under pressure from reporters threatening to quit if he caved in. It was up to Graham to choose. She decided to publish. The government tried to enjoin the Post from publishing, as it had the Times, but the supreme court ruled in favour of both papers.

Watergate consolidated the Post’s reputation as a crusading newspaper. A break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex on June 17th, 1972 caught the attention of two young reporters on the metropolitan staff, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Soon they were working the phones, wearing out shoe leather and putting two and two together.

With the help of other staff and the support of Bradlee and his editors – and of Graham – they uncovered a political scandal involving secret funds, espionage, sabotage, dirty tricks and illegal wiretapping.

Along the way they withstood repeated denials by the White House, threats, and the uncomfortable feeling of being alone on the story of the century.

Nixon quits

Post

In the book All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernsteinn describe meetings in Bradlee’s office, recalling how he would pick up an undersized sponge-rubber basketball and toss it at a small hoop attached to a window. “The gesture was indicative both of the editor’s short attention span and of a studied informality,” they wrote. “There was an alluring combination of aristocrat and commoner about Bradlee.”

After Watergate, journalism schools filled up with would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins, and journalism changed, taking on an even tougher hide of scepticism. “No matter how many spin doctors were provided by no matter how many sides of how many arguments,” Bradlee wrote, “from Watergate on, I started looking for the truth after hearing the official version of a truth.”

The Post’s Watergate coverage won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for public service. It was one of 18 Pulitzers the paper received during Bradlee’s tenure. (It had won only a handful before then.) The total would have been 19 if it had not been compelled to return one awarded to a young reporter, Janet Cooke, for an article, titled “Jimmy’s World”, about an eight-year-old drug addict which turned out to have been a fabrication.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was born in Boston in 1921, the second son of Frederick Josiah Bradlee Jr. and Josephine de Gersdorff Bradlee. In a family that moved from 211 Beacon Street to 295 Beacon Street to 267 Beacon Street. and finally to 280 Beacon Street, his boyhood, he wrote, was “not adventuresome”.

Stricken with polio

Continuing a family tradition that dated to 1795, he attended Harvard, where he joined the naval ROTC. On August 8th, 1942, Bradlee graduated (by the skin of his teeth, he said), was commissioned an ensign and married Jean Saltonstall – all in all a busy day. A month later, he shipped out to the Pacific on the destroyer Philip and saw combat for two years.

After the war, he and a group of friends started the New Hampshire Sunday News. When the paper was sold, in 1948, he moved to the Washington Post. In the early 1950s he worked as a press attaché at the US embassy in Paris and then for Newsweek in 1954, as European correspondent based in Paris.

Divorce and remarriage

Newsweek

In 1961, on Bradlee’s recommendation the Washington Post company bought Newsweek. Bradlee was rewarded with enough Post stock as a finder’s fee to live as a wealthy man.

Bradlee continued his friendship with Kennedy and the Kennedy clan. When the president was assassinated in 1963, he was among the friends invited to receive the first lady on her return from Dallas to Washington. Months before Kennedy’s death, the Post’s publisher, Philip Graham, committed suicide, leaving his widow, Katharine, in charge of the family business. Two years later she was still finding her way at a newspaper that had been suffering losses of $1 million a year when she proposed that Bradlee join the Post as a deputy managing editor. The two formed a lasting bond.

Their relationship came under scrutiny in a 2012 biography by Jeff Himmelman, a journalist and former research assistant to Woodward. The book suggests that Bradlee had questioned Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting during Watergate. And through letters and interviews it reveals intimate details of Bradlee’s family life, including an assertion by him that he and Graham, who died in 2001, had had a mutual romantic interest that was never acted on.

Of the relationship between proprietor and editor, colleague Philip Geyelin wrote: “It was a wonderful relationship. I can’t remember any time they had any quarrel. She was nuts about him.”

When Graham died in 2001, Bradlee spoke at her funeral. “She was a spectacular dame, and I loved her very much,” he said. Walking back to his seat, he took a slight detour to pass by her coffin and give it an affectionate pat.

Presidential medal

Post

Perhaps, however, Bradlee’s human qualities were as important as his professional ones: In a letter from 1974, Katharine Graham wrote to him: “The things [about you] that people don’t know – that I know – are style, generosity, class and decency.”

He is survived by his third wife, Sally Quinn, their son, Quinn Bradlee, and three children from previous marriages, Benjamin C Bradlee jr, Dominick Bradlee and Marina Murdock, grandchildren and a great-grandchild.