RIP Ben Bradlee

Having taken up journalism rather late in life (right when it had become an almost impossible profession), I never had occasion to idolize Ben Bradlee or Woodward and Bernstein or internalize the whole idea of brave inkstained wretches as guardians of the Republic and its liberties. But like anyone in politics, particularly in the pre-internet years, I admired and relied on Bradlee’s handiwork at the Washington Post, which he turned into a great newspaper, for all its occasional foibles.

There will be plenty of choices of obituaries and appreciations to read for those less familiar with Bradlee’s work–and his formidable mystique. David Remnick’s reminiscence at The New Yorker is particularly good:

The obituaries will properly give Bradlee credit for building, along with the owner, Katharine Graham, the institution of the Post. (Abe Rosenthal, Bradlee’s rival and contemporary, deserves credit for his stewardship of the Times, but he inherited an infinitely more established paper.) Together, Bradlee and Graham took a mediocre-to-good paper and turned it into something ambitious, wealthy, and brave. The Bradlee-Graham partnership was behind the publication (along with the Times) of the Pentagon Papers, in 1971, which made plain the extent of Presidential deception and folly during the Vietnam War. And they were behind Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting, which led to the downfall of the Nixon Administration. Those same obituaries will cover the familiar ground of Bradlee’s close friendship with John F. Kennedy—a relationship that was, at best, deeply problematic for a journalist in his position (he was then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek), but which lent Bradlee much of his dash and glamour. A certain post-Watergate overconfidence also seemed to help fuel a scandal, in 1981, when a young staff writer named Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for “Jimmy’s World,” a fabricated story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Bradlee was able to survive a scandal of that scale, as others would not have been, because he set a standard for immediate and investigative correction of Cooke’s confabulation—and because he had the long-standing affection of the owner and everyone in the newsroom. Even if you were quite sure he didn’t know your name, you were prepared to go to fantastic lengths to live up to his standards. And he was fun, the embodiment of how much fun journalism could be. Ben Bradlee was the least dull figure in the history of postwar journalism.

He was also, Remnick notes, very much a Washington Insider and social lion, with his third wife wife Sally Quinn, and very conventional in his political instincts. But the inadequacies of his world view shouldn’t entirely obscure how well he functioned within it. When I moved from Atlanta to Washington in the 1980s and gained daily access to WaPo, I had to change my entire morning ritual to create time to consume the morning paper, sometimes the very highlight of the whole day in the Emerald City (I also had to learn to be careful not to get ink on the white walls of my apartment because WaPo was printed at the latest feasible moment to harvest late news). Bradlee and the newspaper he built were as essential to the political system of those days as any of the civic institutions his reporters covered. His successors, navigating a very different world, have high standards to meet.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.