In February of 1968, I went down to Washington from New York, where I was in graduate school, and interviewed for a spot on The Washington Post. One of the editors was a strange fellow of a type I had not met before. He used the word “quite” in the British fashion. He had a booming, concussive voice, but it was always somehow conversational, and he had, like no one I knew, the straight hair of a British actor in some drawing-room drama. The editor’s name was Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, and it was my good fortune to work for him for 23 years and to be his friend for 20 more. Today, he turns 90.
Movies have been made about Ben Bradlee, and books too. One of the best is his own, “A Good Life,” which is the story of a man and his times — combat in World War II, combat later with the Nixon White House. I can add little to these accounts, except for something that the biographers and profilers always miss, and that is Bradlee’s passionate conviction that what matters most in life is fairness. This, not the liberalism that was often ascribed to him, is what animated him — and, when he was in charge, it’s what animated the coverage of The Washington Post as well.
It was my habit to arrive early in the newsroom of The Washington Post — way before the standard 10 a.m. starting time. I’d come in around 8:30 or so, and a bit later Bradlee would arrive. I would amble into his office and we would talk: the day’s news, people we knew in common, some gossip and often whether someone or something was right or wrong, fair or unfair. It always struck me as odd that this privileged scion of a Boston Brahmin family had the social conscience of a Chicago settlement worker. That overstates it a bit, but fairness did motivate Bradlee greatly. He was always cognizant of his own advantages — some money, many connections — and he had contempt for those of his social class who used their advantages just to become more advantaged.
Ben Bradlee built a great newspaper. He did it with Graham family money and support and with the great luck of being precisely on time — when the newspaper business was lucrative — but he did it also with his gut. That was his editing tool, his survey, his poll and his spreadsheet. He connected with the reader, most of whom were so unlike him, because his first allegiance was to the story — not to a man or an interest. Once, I wrote a column in The Post criticizing some decision Ben Bradlee had made, and out of courtesy I showed it to him. He read it over and said, “You’re wrong, but it’s a good column” — and walked away. It ran the next day, as I knew it would.