When I came to the newsroom as an intern [summer, 1981] … you can’t imagine how unbelievably excited I was to be there. It was the red-hot center of journalism because of Watergate. The newsroom was filled with romance and swagger, and you just had to be a part of that. It was Bradlee, more than Woodward and Bernstein, who set that tone. You wanted to be part of his team. Just his presence in the dugout was enough.
But I came during the lowest moment for Bradlee as an editor, following Janet Cooke. He was able to survive that episode because he had so much credit in the bank with everyone as far as his integrity and devotion to The Post. And then he set [ombudsman] Bill Green loose to do a full-length study of what went wrong.
You can’t begin to explain to civilians how embarrassing it was. But he did the right thing. Sometimes it’s how someone acts in his or her worst moments that is the measure of that person.
He built an institution. Katharine Graham built an institution. That paper wasn’t any good before he got there. It wasn’t even the best paper in Washington. It became the second best paper in the country. He gave it its ambition.
Bradlee wasn’t Noam Chomsky. He was not an outsider or a leftist. He was a Cold War Democrat who probably voted for some Republicans. It helped that he had the good fortune that in a room full of schlubs that he looked like a grandee. He was funny and flashy, but not a stuffed shirt.
In my experience, he was the most alive presence, not only in journalism but in any realm. He wasn’t the most powerful intellectual, or the most radical thinker or the most self-questioning but the most alive. And that was the most important part of why you wanted to please him and bring the story home.
* Janet Cooke was a Washington Post Metro reporter who concocted a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict in Washington; the story won a Pulitzer Prize in April, 1981, which The Post had to return when the story was revealed to be fraudulent.
David Remnick is editor of the New Yorker and a former Post reporter.