WASHINGTON – Benjamin Bradlee, who presided over the Washington Post newsroom for 26 years and guided the Post’s transformation into one of the world’s leading newspapers, died Tuesday at his home in Washington of natural causes. He was 93.
From the moment he took over the Post newsroom in 1965, Bradlee sought to create an important newspaper that would go far beyond the traditional model of a metropolitan daily. He achieved that goal by combining compelling news stories based on aggressive reporting with engaging feature pieces of a kind previously associated with the best magazines. His charm and gift for leadership helped him hire and inspire a talented staff and eventually made him the most celebrated newspaper editor of his era.
The most compelling story of Bradlee’s tenure, almost certainly the one of greatest consequence, was Watergate, a political scandal touched off by the Post’s reporting that ended in the only resignation of a president in U.S. history.
But Bradlee’s most important decision, made with Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher, may have been to print stories based on the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration went to court to try to quash those stories, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision of the New York Times and the Post to publish them.
The Post’s circulation nearly doubled while Bradlee was in charge of the newsroom – first as managing editor and then as executive editor – as did the size of its newsroom staff. And he gave the paper ambition.
Bradlee stationed correspondents around the globe, opened bureaus across the Washington region and from coast to coast in the United States, and he created sections and features – most notably Style, one of his proudest inventions – that were widely copied by others.
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 Graham, who succeeded his mother as publisher of the Washington Post and Bradlee’s boss.
“So much of the Post is Ben,” Katharine Graham said in 1994, three years after Bradlee retired as editor. “He created it as we know it today.”
“He was a presence, a force,” Woodward recalled of Bradlee’s role during the Watergate period, 1972 to 1974. “And he was a doubter, a skeptic – ‘Do we have it yet?’ ‘Have we proved it?’ ” Decades later, Woodward remembered the words that he most hated to hear from Bradlee then: “You don’t have it yet, kid.”
Bradlee loved the Watergate story, not least because it gave the newspaper “impact,” his favorite word in his first years as editor. He wanted the newspaper to be noticed. In his personal vernacular – a vivid, blasphemous argot that combined the swear words he mastered in the Navy during World War II with the impeccable enunciation of a blue-blooded Bostonian – a great story was “a real tube-ripper.”
When they realized that Cooke had concocted an imaginary resume, Bradlee and his editors interrogated her and extracted a confession. Bradlee quickly returned the Pulitzer, then encouraged the Post’s ombudsman, Bill Green, to investigate and report how the incident could have happened.
Bradlee managed the Post newsroom with a combination of viscera and intellect, often judging people by his personal reaction to them. He or she “makes me laugh” was perhaps Bradlee’s greatest compliment. He never enjoyed the minutiae of management and spent as little time on administrative work as he could get away with.
He and his third wife, the writer Sally Quinn, loved to give parties at their big house in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. In his 80s, Bradlee still caroused energetically with people 30 and 40 years younger, amazing his old friends. “He gave a whole new meaning to ‘over 80,’ ” Don Graham said.
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was born into the old aristocracy of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Boston on Aug. 26, 1921. His father, Frederick Josiah Bradlee Jr., known as “B,” could trace his American ancestry back through 10 generations of Bradlees. B was an all-American football star at Harvard who became an investment banker in the booming 1920s. He married Josephine deGersdorff, daughter of a prominent New York lawyer and a New England aristocrat named Helen Crowninshield.
Bradlee’s biggest coup at the Post, in his estimation, was hiring David Broder from the New York Times.
Soon after he joined the Post, Broder said, “I knew it was heaven for me.” Bradlee’s Post was fast, loose and fun, and it gave Broder and other self-starting reporters plenty of room to flourish. Laughter and irreverence were crucial ingredients. Bradlee played favorites, so the people who made him laugh, or who wrote those tube-rippers, agreed that working for him at the Post was a heavenly experience. Those left out of Bradlee’s magic circle could feel their exclusion with some pain.
Bradlee had the reputation of a tough guy, but he almost never fired an employee.
Local news was never a favorite Bradlee topic, but he understood its importance and encouraged the editors and reporters who cared about aggressive coverage of the Washington region. The Post expanded into the suburbs just as they were becoming the dominant force in the regional economy.
“He took the Post, then affluent and filled with underutilized potential, and made it a formidable national newspaper worthy of a head-to-head competition with the [New York] Times. He did it in a way that made the paper itself a joyous place to work. The paper reflected his personality. He was exuberant, competitive and combative if challenged. He made the Post a magnet for young reporters looking for a chance to play in a very high-stakes game.”
Robert G. Kaiser is a former managing editor of the Washington Post.