Ben Bradlee would not have liked me to say so, but he was the living refutation of the Declaration of Independence: All men are not created equal. Certainly, he was not. He was born rich and well-connected, a member of the WASP tribe that once ran much of America and nearly all of its prestigious institutions. He was compellingly handsome and so smart that no crossword puzzle could really challenge him. It’s not that he didn’t have a weakness. He did. He was a sucker for the underdog.
If you could not be Ben Bradlee, then the next best thing was to be his friend. This was my unbounded good luck, and I watched him, always taking mental notes just to be a touch like him. I used to come into The Post’s newsroom early, and so did Bradlee. We would talk in the empty newsroom, going over the news and some gossip, and this is how I learned the answer to the question so many people had: What were his politics? Surely, he was a liberal. When asked, I would shake my head no.
Bradlee believed only in fairness — that and a bespoke Anglican God with a Back Bay accent. He would bridle at the efforts of the rich, the connected and, especially, their children to steal in the ways the rich always have, through investments and control of institutions. “What is it with you, Bradlee?” I once asked him. “Why do you like to poke your finger into the eye of your own people?” He laughed. “I don’t know. But I do.”
He had another belief. As an editor, he believed in the story. Was it true? Was it good? Was it great? Watergate was both true and great and, really, he bet his career on the work of two young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. That is well-known — a book, a movie, more books, even more movies.
Less known is that powerful people would call and complain about this or that article and Bradlee, with a lethal insouciance, would essentially say that the facts were the facts. I can’t say he never killed a story (nothing important, that I know of), but the most chilling boasts of the powerful — “I can get that story killed” or “I know Ben Bradlee” — were never heard in Washington. If they really knew Bradlee, they knew their demands would be counterproductive. Threaten and the story would surely run. Hemingway, another newsman, popularized the phrase “grace under pressure.” It applied to Bradlee. It was another way of saying guts.
For 26 years Ben Bradlee steered The Washington Post through some of the most trying and triumphant episodes in the paper’s history. Friends, colleagues and Bradlee himself talk about his legacy, including the publishing of the Pentagon Papers and the coverage of the Watergate scandal. (The Washington Post)
That, in short, is the way he ran The Post. The story — in other words, the reader — was everything. When he retired, a Post reporter prepared a story about him. It was too heavy with references to Bradlee as a Georgetown grandee, a martini-swirling socialite. Bradlee was offended by the story. He was a great American newspaper editor — maybe the greatest — and a World War II veteran as well. His Georgetown house was beside the point. He showed me the story. I was appalled, but Bradlee would not intervene. Later, a senior editor modified the piece.
I got an email the other day saying that a column of mine had received 955 comments by 8 a.m. That’s my world now, but it was never Bradlee’s. He did not edit by the numbers, giving the readers more of what they already had. There was no such thing as “trending” for him. He edited by instinct, by experience, by his gut. He led. He did not follow, and when he retired the entire newsroom rose as one — a football field of talent Bradlee had assembled — and applauded. I was coming toward him as he walked out with his wife, Sally Quinn. Our eyes met. His had a tear in it.
The word charismatic gets abused a lot, sometimes applied to politicians who get 51 percent of the vote. But Bradlee was the genuine article. Men were drawn to him, women, too, but that was a different matter. It’s easy and sometimes squalid to be a ladies’ man — not that Bradlee chose to be — but harder and rarer to be a leader of men, the kind of man whom other men both envy and follow. Bradlee had that quality, and he knew it, and when I mentioned it to him once, he said in that growly voice of his, “Eat your heart out, Cohen.” I never did. It was simply too much fun just being with him.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.