If you're a person of a certain age, you know the name Ben Bradlee. You know he was executive editor of the Washington Post. He supported and protected young reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward while they sought to uncover the greatest government scandal in our nation's history. He worked with Katharine Graham, owner of the WaPo, for 26 years; they published the Pentagon Papers and are closely aligned with the defining moment that changed politics and how we will forever view our elected officials, our government, our defense department and our country: the burglary at the DNC headquarters in the Watergate building ultimately resulting in the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee changed politics in America forever. As editor of The Washington Post during the critical years of the Viet Nam War - the beginning of the Clinton presidency, 1965-1991, he and Post owner Katharine Graham prevailed against the U.S. Government in a 6-3 Supreme Court decision, allowing the Post to publish the Pentagon Papers,a study of U.S. political and military activities in Viet Nam. They went on to support and publish the Watergate scandal as written by two unknown-at-the- time reporters, Woodward and Bernstein.
He was a great newspaper man.
When Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, then two young reporters, first approached Bradlee about a burglary in the Watergate complex the details were murky, but he was certain there was a story...he supported Woodward and Bernstein as they began pursuing leads and took direction from an anonymous source known as “Deep Throat.” They were young reporters, though, without sources on the record. PBS NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer asked Bradlee in 2005 how he knew they were right.
“Because nobody told me they were wrong and nobody could prove they were wrong; they weren’t wrong,” said Bradlee. PBS Newshour The Rundown 10/21/14
In reading a few of the hundreds of articles published since his death was announced, I am struck by stories of his humanity, his sense of right and wrong, his kindnesses. Often, portrayals of people who've changed the world are two-dimensional. Bradlee sounds anything but that.
He was a great mentor.
He left us alone. He never told us what the story was, how he wanted it written, or what it was supposed to prove that he already believed. You were in charge. And when you’d had your say, he stood by you, battling the detractors, defending your choices, answering all charges of incompetence with praise for your guts and good sense. “You can’t do any better than surround yourself with the best people you can find,” he wrote in his memoir, "A Good Life,” “and then listen to them.” M. Sherrill Washington Post 10/21/14
I received a letter from Ben dated March 6, 1970. It began: “Dear Ted: You got nosed out in the finals of the toughest competition we have ever had... You are really a year premature and your lack of previous experience in journalism was a tough hurdle for us to overcome. I was particularly sorry about you, because I was attracted by your love of writing, and your attitude generally. I hunch that you have a hell of a future in this business, and I hereby urge you to reapply again and again. I enjoyed my time with you enormously. Keep up your interest in this business. You will make it. Sincerely, Ben Bradlee” Ted Gup New York Times 10/22/14He was a patriot.
“You don’t think of journalists automatically as patriots, one. You don’t think of them as real authorities in the question of what is classified and what isn’t, and what is a threat to the United States and what isn’t. But in fact at that time, we were,” said Bradlee in his interview with the Academy of Achievement. “We were more expert that a lot of the government witnesses who testified against us…most of us had served in World War II and had quite fancy security clearances. So we did, and there was no threat to the national security, and information, truth, is not a threat to security, and we believed that.” PBS News Hour The Rundown 10/21/14He was a leader.
He took over an also-ran newspaper and turned it into a battleship like the one on which he served in World War II. Once the newspaper he ran gained steam, there was only the relentless effort to beat the competition, to find and woo talent, to afflict those that The Post deemed worthy.In the more than quarter-century he helped lead the newsroom, from 1965 to 1991, he doubled its staff and circulation, and multiplied its ambitions. He would have been a terrible newspaperman in the current context — buyouts, reduced print schedules, timidity about offending advertisers — but he was a perfect one for his time. David Carr NY Times 10/22/14
I find the last line in the above David Carr excerpt particularly appropriate as I wonder what Ben Bradlee would think of today's media, sensationalist reporting and irresponsible journalism.