Ben Bradlee oversaw the Washington Post during Watergate
He died Tuesday in Washington at the age of 93
Ben Bradlee, the zestful, charismatic Washington Post editor who guided the paper through the era of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and was immortalized on screen in “All the President’s Men,” has died. He was 93.
Bradlee began end-of-life care at his home last month after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia for several years. He was the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991, during which time the paper covered the downfall of President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.
“He was diagnosed a while ago, but it became obvious that he had a serious problem about two years ago,” his wife, Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn, said in a recent C-SPAN interview.
In November, President Barack Obama awarded Bradlee the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to civilians.
“Ben was a true friend and genius leader in journalism,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – the Post duo who broke and pursued the Watergate story – said in a statement. “He forever altered our business. His one unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of that pursuit.”
Bradlee was, in his way, Washington royalty: friend to John F. Kennedy, overseer of the capital’s most important newspaper, a mover and shaker in a tailored suit. In one era, when politicians and journalists were chummier, he kept the capital’s secrets; in another, he exposed them. He was descended from Boston Brahmins and easily hobnobbed with the wealthy and eminent.
Still, even as he became one of them, Bradlee always maintained his skepticism of Washington power players. And it only grew stronger over time.
In a 1995 interview with CNN’s Larry King, Bradlee said he had observed “an enormous increase in not telling the truth, lying” during his career covering government. Asked whether it was Democrats or Republicans who lied more, Bradlee said, “Well, the whole mob.”
It was a pair of scandals that made Bradlee a national figure.
In 1971, the Post and The New York Times decided to publish the Pentagon Papers, leaked classified documents that showed that the war in Vietnam was not going as political leaders and the military brass portrayed it. Bradlee, publisher Katharine Graham and the Post fought the objections of Richard Nixon’s administration all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the newspapers’ right to publish the documents.
The editor said the fight propelled the Post into the upper echelons of American journalism.
“The Post was still looking for a seat at the big table,” he recalled. “We weren’t at the big table yet. We very much wanted to go there.”
A year later, Post reporters Bernstein and Woodward led the way in unraveling Watergate, the story of the break-in and coverup that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
“The stakes were enormous,” Bernstein recalled. “Every day the White House, the leader of the free world, his spokesman would get up and attack The Washington Post, attack Ben Bradlee by name. Attack Bob Woodward and myself. And (Bradlee) backed us up.”
In the movie version of Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men,” Bradlee – played by Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his performance – put it succinctly while bucking up his reporters: “We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”
Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.
An early start in journalism
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was born August 26, 1921, in Boston, Massachusetts. Though his immediate family wasn’t wealthy, the family tree included 17th-century Bay Staters, wealthy New York lawyers, ambassadors and artists. His great-uncle, Frank Crowninshield, was the first editor of Vanity Fair.
Bradlee survived a childhood battle with polio. He served on a destroyer in the Navy during World War II and was a veteran of more than a dozen battles, including the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.
After the war, Bradlee helped start the New Hampshire Sunday News, a small paper in Manchester, which folded after two years. He was hired as a reporter for the Post in 1948 but left after three years to become assistant press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
He jumped from that position back into journalism in 1954 as a European correspondent for Newsweek magazine and returned to Washington with it in 1957, becoming bureau chief after the Post bought the magazine in 1961.
Bradlee paid a key role in the transaction. In the ‘50s, Newsweek was a sleepy publication, a distant second in the newsweekly world to the towering Time magazine. “Newsweek was a shambles,” recalled Osborn “Oz” Elliott, who edited the magazine from 1961 to 1976, in an oral history. “The whole staff was shot through with drunks, incompetents, and hacks.”
Bradlee encouraged Phil Graham, the publisher of the Post, to buy the downtrodden magazine. Graham “loosened the purse strings on every front,” recalled Elliott.
Meanwhile, Bradlee had established a key friendship. As a reporter in the 1950s, Bradlee became friends with John F. Kennedy, who had moved into a house on the same block after winning his first election to Congress. Bradlee later wrote two books about his onetime neighbor and future president, the first in 1964, just after Kennedy’s assassination.
A story that changed the country
In 1963, Phil Graham committed suicide and his widow, Katharine, took over as owner of the Post. In 1965 Bradlee became managing editor and, three years later, executive editor. The Post’s most tumultuous and heroic era was about to begin.
The Pentagon Papers consisted of a history of the Vietnam War commissioned by Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. After one of the report’s compilers, Daniel Ellsberg, slipped copies to The New York Times, the resulting articles prompted the Nixon administration to issue a temporary restraining order against publication. The Post joined with the Times in a case that threatened the livelihood of both papers. They were vindicated when the Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, to lift the ban against publishing.
Then came Watergate.
The scandal that brought down a president started with a “third-rate burglary,” in the words of Nixon’s press secretary, at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex. Woodward and Bernstein, assigned to the story, started realizing that the crime was no local matter – and that it appeared to reach into the government’s highest offices.
Woodward was aided by a source inside the government nicknamed “Deep Throat” after a controversial porn movie of the era. Only Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein knew his identity, which remained a subject of speculation for more than 30 years. Only after Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI under Nixon, came forth in a 2005 Vanity Fair article did Bradlee confirm that, yes, Felt was the man.
Bradlee said his instincts told him that Felt’s information was reliable, but one worry nagged him:
“If this is such a good story, where in the hell are the rest of the newspapers?” he recalled.
During a CNN interview a few days after Felt’s identity became known, Bradlee discussed the risks that anonymous sources can be unreliable: “I think there was danger of that, and I suspect that a lot of young reporters who were attracted to the business faced that danger. But, you know, that’s what editors are for.”
One lesson of the “Deep Throat” saga, he said, “Is that when the press says they will protect a source that they will, in fact, protect a source.”
The Post won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service – the first time a Washington newspaper won the Pulitzer board’s most prestigious award – for its Watergate coverage. “All the President’s Men,” Woodward and Bernstein’s book about breaking the story, was made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the two reporters and Robards as Bradlee.
“It’s awfully hard to beat the truth, to beat being right,” he said in the 2005 interview with CNN. “And the fact of the matter is that Woodward and Bernstein were right. ‘Deep Throat’ was right.”
“He was demanding, but in just the right measure,” said Bernstein in 2012. “You want to please him.”
The Watergate scandal inspired a generation of students to go into journalism, many hoping for a big investigative story like Watergate. At the high-flying Post, Bradlee was taken down a peg when one such story caught him off guard.
A reporter named Janet Cooke wrote a piece, “Jimmy’s World,” about an 8-year-old drug addict. The story won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981, but also raised questions about Cooke’s reporting. The reporter soon admitted that she had never interviewed Jimmy and that the story was fabricated.
“It is tragedy that someone as talented and promising as Janet Cooke, with everything going for her, felt that she had to falsify the facts,” Bradlee said at the time. “The credibility of a newspaper is its most precious asset, and it depends almost entirely on the integrity of its reporters. When that integrity is questioned and found wanting, the wounds are grievous, and there is nothing to do but come clean with our readers, apologize to the Advisory Board of the Pulitzer Prizes, and begin immediately on the uphill task of regaining our credibility.”
The Post returned the Pulitzer and Cooke resigned from the paper.
In other ways, however, the Post was personally rewarding. Bradlee met his third wife, reporter Sally Quinn, at the paper. The two married in 1978 and had a son, Quinn.
Bradlee also has three other children by his first two marriages. Son Ben Bradlee Jr. was a longtime reporter and editor for the Boston Globe and has written four books, most recently a biography of Boston Red Sox icon Ted Williams.
Ben Bradlee’s memoir, “A Good Life,” was published in 1995.
Bradlee was 91 in 2013 when he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Barack Obama spoke to his impact on journalism and democracy.
“With Ben in charge, the Post published the Pentagon Papers, revealing the true history of America’s involvement in Vietnam; exposed Watergate; unleashed a new era of investigative journalism, holding America’s leaders accountable and reminding us that our freedom as a nation rests on our freedom of the press,” Obama said at the ceremony.
Bradlee, though, insisted he just did what he loved.
“There’s nothing like a good story,” he said in a 2012 interview with the Post. “If it’s true, and if you’ve got it, and you can get some more, you’re in business.”