Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee has led a colorful and storied life, from combat service in World War II to the Watergate years of the 1970s that certified him as the most famous newspaper editor of his generation.
The executive editor of The Washington Post for more than two decades, Bradlee was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama on Tuesday in a ceremony at the White House. Bradlee, 92, was among a diverse group of honorees that included former president Bill Clinton, feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, baseball great Ernie Banks, the late astronaut Sally Ride and talk-show host and actress Oprah Winfrey.
Under Bradlee’s 23-year tenure as executive editor, The Post was transformed from a genteel local newspaper covering the capital and its environs into one that reported from news bureaus across the country and abroad.
In the process, it became one of the most influential and important news organizations in the world, one that reflected its leader’s personality — brash, stylish and often hard-hitting.
During his lengthy journalism career, Bradlee was at the center of two key moments in American press history.
The Post’s publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department history of U.S. military and diplomatic involvement in Vietnam, touched off a precedent-setting legal decision regarding press freedom. After the Nixon administration brought an injunction to stop the New York Times from publishing further articles based on the leaked papers, Bradlee decided to publish reports about them in The Post. The newspaper eventually won vindication in the Supreme Court over its right to do so.
The following year, The Post began publishing a series of revelations about the Nixon administration that grew out of its coverage of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate complex. The articles led to a series of official investigations, congressional hearings and court rulings that led up to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
The movie, in particular, established Bradlee as a household name. He was played by Jason Robards, who portrayed Bradlee as a tough and exacting boss and father figure to The Post’s two young Watergate reporters, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
Robards’s portrayal, which won an Academy Award for best supporting actor, captured Bradlee’s gruff and demanding side but missed some of the playful — and playfully profane — qualities that have endeared him to his newsroom over the years.
In a characteristic act, Bradlee decorated a new editors’ conference room with the original metal type from The Post’s front page from one particularly momentous day. “Nixon Resigns” read the headline.
In an interview Wednesday, Woodward called Bradlee “a patriot and an iconoclast who would not cave to any external authority, whether it was the president or the mayor.” He noted Bradlee’s impatience with anything that might prove dull to readers. “If you went into his office with a story idea and he kept doing the crossword puzzle or reached into his in-box, you knew that story was going nowhere,” he said.
The Post’s reporting of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate scandals are echoed in contemporary press battles over government secrecy, from WikiLeaks’ disclosure of military and diplomatic documents to the release of classified information about the National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance programs by government contractor Edward Snowden.
Bradlee’s low point as editor may have been The Post’s publication in 1980 of a lengthy feature story about the life of an 8-year-old heroin addict in the District. The story, titled “Jimmy’s World,” set off a desperate but futile search for its young protagonist by city officials. It won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1981.
The Post and Bradlee initially resisted doubts about the story’s authenticity and about its author, a young staff writer named Janet Cooke. But as questions grew, Bradlee forced the issue, confronting Cooke. She subsequently admitted she had made it up, prompting the newspaper to retract it and to return the Pulitzer.
Bradlee personally apologized to city officials, including Mayor Marion Barry. Cooke was forced to resign. A subsequent investigation by the paper’s ombudsman faulted Bradlee and Woodward, by then an assistant editor, with not sufficiently vetting the story.
Bradlee also apologized in 1986 for two stories in The Post’s newly redesigned Sunday magazine that many African Americans viewed as racially insensitive.
Bradlee grew up in Boston, the son of Josephine de Gersdorff, the daughter of a prominent New York lawyer, and Frederick Bradlee, an all-American football player at Harvard University who became an investment banker. Bradlee was descended on both sides of his family from Benjamin Williams Crowninshield, a prosperous Massachusetts businessman who served as secretary of the Navy under Presidents James Madison and James Monroe.
The Bradlees were among Boston’s leading families until Bradlee’s adolescence. “One day a Golden Boy,” Bradlee wrote of his father in “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” his 1996 autobiography. “Next day, the Depression, and my old man was on the road trying to sell a commercial deodorant and molybdenum mining stock for companies founded and financed by some of his rich pals.”
Nevertheless, Bradlee, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, attended Harvard. He served in the Navy during World War II and was involved in 13 Pacific battles, including the decisive Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in 1944 that effectively destroyed the Japanese navy.
Bradlee worked briefly as a reporter for The Post in 1948. He then joined the government, serving as a press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Paris and later with a U.S. propaganda unit that had ties to the CIA in Europe.
Returning to the United States, he became Washington bureau chief for Newsweek. He later helped an old friend, Post publisher Philip L. Graham, purchase the magazine from the foundation that controlled it. Graham rewarded Bradlee with Post stock that would help finance his 1983 purchase of a Georgetown mansion, as well as Grey Gardens, the decrepit Long Island estate once owned by relatives of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Bradlee and his wife, Post writer Sally Quinn, restored the house and gardens to their former glory.
Bradlee made another powerful friend among his Georgetown neighbors, a fellow veteran and young senator from his home state of Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Bradlee covered Kennedy’s successful campaign for president in 1960 and wrote a book about their relationship, “Conversations With Kennedy,” in 1975.
After Graham’s death in 1963, his widow, Katharine Graham, took over The Washington Post Co. She hired Bradlee as managing editor of the paper, the No. 2 newsroom position, in 1965 and appointed him executive editor three years later.
He retired from the paper in 1991 but has remained as a vice president at-large since.
The news business, Woodward said, doesn’t have many magicians — “but Ben Bradlee was one of them.”