The beginning of a new era at The Washington Post might be traced to a private conversation between two old friends in January at that fustiest of Washington insider rituals, the annual Alfalfa Club dinner.
Frederick J. Ryan Jr., having recently decided to step down as president of Allbritton Communications and chief executive of Politico, was discussing the turbulent media business with his guest, philanthropist Jean Case, a former technology executive and wife of AOL founder Steve Case.
She asked him what he wanted to do next, and according to someone with knowledge of the conversation, Ryan replied, “I want to be publisher of The Washington Post.”
Case offered to introduce Ryan to The Post’s new owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, who had been involved in business deals with AOL.
It was yet another turn of a quintessentially Washington establishment success story — that is, one built on connections and relationships.
On Tuesday, Ryan got the job he wanted. In a surprise move, Bezos announced that Ryan will replace publisher Katharine Weymouth, the only member of the Graham family, which has led The Post since 1933, who remains at the paper.
That Bezos would want to put his own leader in place a year after spending $250 million to buy The Post was not a shock. But instead of recruiting from his own world of technology visionaries, Bezos reached deep into the Washington firmament.
Asked to sum up his own view of the role he is about to assume, Ryan said in an interview that “the primary job of the publisher is to support the newsroom and to lead a news organization forward with a shared sense of mission, innovation — to, in this case, encourage forward thinking.”
Ryan wouldn’t say whether Case engineered his introduction to The Post’s new owner.
“Jean is a good friend of mine, and she was a guest of mine at the Alfalfa dinner,” the incoming publisher said. He added that he and Bezos have “several mutual friends.”
He also acknowledged that he has long had a special regard for the newspaper he will lead, starting Oct. 1.
“Since I’ve been in Washington at every incarnation, The Washington Post has been the dominant news institution in Washington. There’s no question about it,” he said.
He added that under the deep-pocketed Bezos, “I think The Post is better positioned than any other media organization because it’s got a mandate to innovate, to experiment and to do it for the long term.”
Ryan, 59, is a political hand going back to his days as a recent University of Southern California law graduate volunteering as an advance man in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. He followed Reagan to the White House in 1982 and stayed through the end of Reagan’s second term. In his time at the White House, he ran the president’s scheduling operation and served as the president’s liaison to the domestic and international business community.
Within the Reagan White House, Ryan’s reputation was that of an affable, efficient and politically astute taskmaster, former colleagues said. But his real power within the inner circle derived from his personal rapport with the president. (His informal duties included helping Reagan warm up for the opening pitch of the major-league baseball season.)
Ryan was particularly close to first lady Nancy Reagan, who was fiercely protective of her husband and did not give her trust easily.
“There was no doubt he had the ear of both Reagans,” said Tom Griscom, a former Reagan White House communications director who became a newspaper publisher in Tennessee. Other aides “knew he had this relationship and could many times help you stay out of trouble,” Griscom added.
When Reagan left office in 1989, Ryan followed him home to California as chief of staff of the post-presidency. That phase of Reagan’s life got off to a bumpy start. When the former president made the then-novel move of giving a speech for money overseas, Ryan drew criticism from former inner-circle colleagues and was lacerated in a Newsweek article as “perhaps the weakest link in Reagan’s new chain of command.”
Reagan’s image recovered. Ryan was instrumental to overseeing that as chairman of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library and of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission. He was so dedicated that even after Reagan’s death, he personally bought a pub in Ireland that had been named for the president and shipped its contents back to the library in Simi Valley, Calif. He also procured Reagan’s Air Force One to be an exhibit in the library.
Running board meetings at the Reagan Foundation, Ryan was known for his finesse in a small circle with big egos. “These are people who are not bashful,” said former Reagan lawyer Theodore Olson, a fellow board member. “Fred is very good at pulling people together.”
In 2011, Ryan organized a year of events to celebrate what would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday, including a float at the Rose Bowl, a car at the Indianapolis 500 and a Beach Boys concert.
“He did not want to just roll out the birthday cake and blow out the candles,” said John Heubusch, the Reagan Foundation’s executive director. “He wanted a worldwide set of events and activities that lasted a year.”
Ryan, a former newspaper delivery boy, maintained a long interest in the news business.
In 1995, he made the leap into media — and back to Washington. He took a job at Allbritton Communications, a conglomerate of broadcast and cable television stations, including WJLA, Washington’s ABC affiliate.
Those who have worked with him say that despite his history in partisan politics, Ryan understands and respects the role of an independent media.
“He’s an honorable man, and his word is his bond,” said veteran WJLA-7 anchor Gordon Peterson, who worked under Ryan for more than a decade. “The newsroom is a sacred place. Politics will never intervene, ideology will never intervene, and I just can’t say enough positive things about Fred Ryan.”
Ryan’s main job at Allbritton was running the TV stations, but he also was a co-founder of Politico, which launched in early 2007.
The innovative political news operation was largely the vision of two former Washington Post reporters, John Harris and Jim Vandehei, but Ryan led its business strategy as chief executive and helped build its advertising base. (He is reputed to have championed its practice of referring to itself as POLITICO in all capital letters.)
“He is extremely competitive, and he believes in accountability, but he also helps you do stuff,” said Bill Lord, general manager at Allbritton’s WJLA and NewsChannel 8. “He creates an environment where people can succeed, which is to me what being a leader in a media company is all about.”
Ryan successfully negotiated for Politico to sponsor its first presidential debate at the Reagan Library, a high-profile validation for the burgeoning news outlet.
His personal life centers on his wife, Genevieve, and their three daughters. They live in Potomac, Md.
Ryan is known as an impeccable dresser, wearing gold cuff links inscribed with his initials and shiny black leather shoes. At Politico, employees joked that Ryan’s idea of casual Friday was a white starched shirt with no monogram.
“He looks like he just stepped off the yacht club in Newport,” said Julie Mason, a former Politico reporter. “But that’s not what he was at all. . . . He’s the nicest, warmest guy. All those presumptions just fall away.”
With Ryan, “you definitely get a sense of a Washington type,” said Mark Leibovich, author of “This Town,” a book about the tribal customs of the nation’s capital. “There is nothing about him that is unpolished.”
Alice Crites, Chico Harlan, Richard Leiby, Steven Mufson, Roxanne Roberts and Craig Timberg contributed to this report.