When Ben was executive editor and I was [managing editor], we had to attend an often tedious weekly meeting, which Ben called the “so-called vice presidents’ meeting,” with publisher Don Graham and the vice presidents of the various production and business departments.
Periodically, Don would urge everyone to “tighten their belts” to hold down expenses. Ben began ridiculing this as Don’s “belt-tightening speech.” Finally, at the beginning of such a meeting during one particular tough budget period, before Don could say anything, Ben, sitting at the end of the long table opposite Don, took off his belt and tossed it on the table. Even Don laughed, and there was no belt-tightening speech that morning.
Ben was similarly unawed at the offsite Washington Post Co. corporate meetings that Don held with senior executives of all the Post companies. Sitting in the back of the room with me and few others, Ben would ask us to look over everyone in front of us, asking “Who do you think won’t be here next year?” Ben’s guesses were always right.
More seriously, when I was a young investigative reporter in the 1960s, working on a series of articles about the financial exploitation of black homeowners involving many of Washington’s then numerous savings and loan associations, Ben made a rare appearance at my desk and asked what I was working on.
With his characteristic short attention span, Ben interrupted my overly long answer to tell me that he had just met with the heads of those savings loans in his office and that they had threatened to pull all their advertising from The Post if he published the articles I was working on.
I wasn’t able to breathe until he clapped my shoulder in his characteristic way and said, “Just get it right, kid.” The Post published the series, and the savings and loans pulled all their ads for a year, but neither Ben nor anyone else told me that they did. I had only been at the paper for a few years, but I knew then that I’d want to spend my entire career there.
Leonard Downie, a former executive editor of The Washington Post, served as managing editor under Ben Bradlee. He is a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.