Following the death of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee on Tuesday, media notables and readers expressed their sympathies and shared personal recollections of the industry giant.
“The story of the modern Washington Post starts the day Kay Graham made Ben Bradlee the editor of the paper,” said Donald Graham, chief executive of Graham Holdings Company and former publisher of The Washington Post. “He was the best.”
Graham remembered Bradlee’s editing at The Post as a shaping force in newsroom culture.
“He pushed as hard as an editor can push to print the story of the Pentagon Papers; he led the team that broke the Watergate story,” Graham said. “And he did much more. His drive to make the paper better still breathes in every corner of today’s Post newsroom.”
President Obama, who last year honored Bradlee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said in a statement: “For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession – it was a public good vital to our democracy.
“A true newspaperman, he transformed the Washington Post into one of the country’s finest newspapers, and with him at the helm, a growing army of reporters published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate, and told stories that needed to be told – stories that helped us understand our world and one another a little bit better.”
Said Martin Baron, executive editor of The Post: “Ben Bradlee has made an indelible mark on history and on our profession. His spirit has been an inspiration to generations of journalists, demonstrating what our profession can achieve when it is led with courage and an unwavering commitment to truth. As we mourn his passing, we remain guided by the high standards he set in building one of the world’s greatest newsrooms.”
[RELATED: Ben Bradlee | 1921-2014.]
Frederick J. Ryan, who was named publisher of The Post in September, remembered Bradlee as the “heart and soul of The Post newsroom for decades.”
“Members of The Post family past and present, and indeed all who pursue excellence in journalism, owe a great debt of gratitude to Ben Bradlee for setting and achieving the highest journalistic standards,” he said. “Ben has been the heart and soul of The Post newsroom for decades. He brought honor to our publication and to the profession he loved. Our hearts go out to Sally and the Bradlee family at this sad time.”
Other remembrances from people who worked closely with Bradlee showcased this same duality: admiration for his humor and wit, as well as respect for his ferocity in the newsroom.
Dana Priest, Post editor and reporter since 1986:
His magic was the most powerful kick-in-the-butt I’ve ever felt, and it was simply this: He loved a great story and he always made you feel like he was envious that you got to be the one reporting it. The mighty, sexy, charismatic Ben Bradlee, who could have done anything in the world, seemed to want nothing more than another great story from the family who worked with him.
Marc Fisher, Post reporter, columnist and editor since 1986:
A great editor is a unique blend of spine, smarts, mystique and mission. Bradlee broke the barometer on all of those qualities.
Jill Abramson, former New York Times editor:
Ben had total joie de journalism. It oozed from every pore. No one had more fun chasing a big story and no editor made the chase more fun.
[For full remarks from Abramson,click here.]
Walter Pincus, Post staff writer since 1966:
Ben created what my generation in The Post newsroom looks back on as our golden age of journalism. He was the greatest motivator and cheerleader a reporter could ask for. I once went in to ask for a raise and his reply was, “You ought to be paying me for all the fun you are having.” He was right.
Michael Getler, former Post correspondent, editor and ombudsman:
The paper’s reach and what it and Ben Bradlee stood for came across to me personally in the late 1970s when, as a correspondent, I traveled through then-Communist Eastern Europe and interviewed many political dissidents who told me, in different ways, that the Post and its role in Watergate had restored their faith in America after Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. They were courageous people and Ben would have loved them.
Elizabeth Becker, former Post reporter:
What’s missing from the tributes is how Ben opened up the newsroom to women and minorities. He hired us women in the mid-1970s, sent the first woman foreign correspondent overseas, hired African-American men and women. In 1976 I covered Prince George’s County with Hal Logan, Karen DeYoung and Courtland Milloy. Not one of us was a white male.
Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Post:
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.
Milton Coleman, former Post reporter and editor:
We made a mistake [identifying the wrong man in a front-page story], and before I could tell Ben about it, he found out about it and was chagrined that he had been blindsided. So he came to the city editors desk, which was in the middle of the newsroom, and he chewed me out. As always with Ben, he led with his heart instead of his head.
Later, he called me into his office and said, “I apologize. I should not have done that and will never do it again.” And then he said, “Let me tell you two things. No. 1, if you make a mistake, tell me about it right away … and No. 2, you’re running in the fast lane now. You just fell flat on your face. Do you know what that means?” I said no. He said, “Get the [expletive] up and run.”
Bob Woodward, Post reporter and editor since 1971:
I remember going with him to a [speech] at UNLV about 10 or 12 years ago and he was talking about the [Watergate] burglary. And he said, ‘They were wearing business suits, and they had all this sophisticated electronic equipment, and they were wearing masks.’ And he spread his fingers across his eyes like a mask. And I said, ‘Masks? They weren’t wearing masks, Ben.’ And then we realized, in every Herblock cartoon, that’s how the burglars were drawn. He’d remembered it the way Herblock had drawn it!
Martin Weil, Post reporter since the 1960s:
Before computers, The Post’s archives consisted of stories clipped from the newspaper, and one that got passed around many times carried Ben Bradlee’s byline. It was based on the day in 1949 when he crawled out on a narrow ledge that ran around the Willard Hotel, high above the street. A young man was threatening to jump and Ben Bradlee needed to see how the police would save him. It was an amazing exploit, and it helped us all realize that while we might be good, our boss was the best.
David Von Drehle, Time magazine editor-at-large, former Post reporter and editor:
Ordinary news hacks — even the best of them — do not pal around, as Bradlee did, with John F. Kennedy and Lauren Bacall. They do not, as Bradlee did, arrange the sale of Newsweek by the Astors to the Grahams. They do not, as Bradlee did, have a sister-in-law whose mysterious death prompts a clandestine visit from the CIA’s top spymaster, desperate to retrieve her diary. They do not, as Bradlee did, live in a mansion that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln’s son.
Yet Ben wore all this with impossible ease, just as he wore his handmade shirts from Savile Row as casually as a mortal wears Land’s End. God, those shirts—as beautiful and numerous as Gatsby’s, but minus the stain of anxiety. Only three types of men wore shirts like that: toffs, posers, and Ben.
Joel Chaseman, former Post-Newsweek Stations chairman:
Early in the game, Ben invited me to lunch at the Madison Hotel, told me there was a girl in his newsroom who was trying to make it on CBS’s morning show, said she was clueless about TV, and asked me if I could help. I gave him some elementary pointers and then called the CBS exec to help. Didn’t work. So he married her.
Tom Wilkinson, former Post editor:
When I was a relatively new editor on Metro, one of my reporters wrote a story about a local congressman that made said congressman unhappy. So he wrote a letter to Ben, who came and asked me if the story was right. I assured him that it was and led him through the reporting. He was satisfied, and shortly thereafter Ben sent me a copy of the congressman’s letter with this note at the top: “Write a non -apology, non-pissed off note to the congressman that you wouldn’t mind seeing reprinted in the Congressional Record.”
It was that mindset — and his infectious joy in journalism — that produced an indelible journey for us under his truly invigorating leadership.
David Remnick, New Yorker editor and former Post reporter:
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.
Ward Just, novelist and a former reporter under Bradlee at Newsweek and The Post:
His support was almost paternal. As a result, you’d do anything for him. He was one of the few people in life where, if you got something wrong, you felt embarrassed, not for yourself, but for him, and through him, for the paper. And as a result, you felt really rotten about yourself.
Mary Hadar, Post editor since 1977:
Ben loved a good yarn but he worried that readers would be turned off by a gray page full of type. He and I battled constantly over the length of stories for the Style section and I had to get his approval for any story longer than 60 inches.
Once I brought him a 100-inch story and he agreed it was worth the space, but said it should run in two parts. “But it’s beautifully crafted,” I objected. “The story has an arc. It builds to a climax. You can’t just cut it in two.”
“Yes, you can,” Ben said, and he ripped the printout in half. “Part one,” he said, flashing his trademark grin and handing one piece back to me. “And part two.”
Mark Leibovich, New York Times staff writer, author of “This Town,” former Post reporter:
What was great about Ben was that he embodied a much more confident time in American journalism — before everyone was so terrified of offending readers, not giving them what they wanted, being accused of bias, not being sufficiently solicitous of the staff’s feelings or constituency complaints or whatever grievance was trending on “social media.” So he was a throwback in many ways.
David Maraniss, Post reporter and editor since 1977:
One moment late in his life haunted me. He was upstairs doing crossword puzzles and hoping someone would see him. He’d go to the cafeteria and eat. I joined him one day — this was about three years ago — and right near us there was a table of about 20 young people all talking and laughing and oblivious to the fact that Ben was there. So I went over to them and said, “Do you realize who that is at that table?” And they didn’t. He was probably the most influential journalist of the 20th century, and they had no idea. It haunted me how much the world had moved on.
Gene Weingarten, Post columnist and editor since 1990:
Few people ever got the best of Ben in a battle of piss and vinegar, because no one had more piss and vinegar than Ben. One day in 2002 he was doing an online chat with Post readers, and I was following along in real time, kind of amused at how deferentially the readers were treating him. (Readers never treat ME deferentially, for some reason.) Finally, near the end, I sent in a question of my own, under my own name. I wanted it to be impertinent. I asked: “By the way, who is Deep Throat?” as though Ben might be gulled, at 80, into revealing the still deeply-held secret.
I assumed he would just ignore it. He didn’t. He chose to make that his last answer. He wrote: “As for you, Weingarten, get a life. If you exercise every day, and get off the sauce, you will learn Deep Throat’s identity, when we want you to know.”
George Solomon, former Post sports editor, now director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland:
When you’d be beaten by another paper (you’d make sure it did not happen often) on a story that interested Ben, he’d tear out the story and, with a red question mark, write: “What’s this?”
Jonathan Epstein, Post reader from Bethesda, Md.:
You may remember eight years ago that Art Buchwald was in hospice care, but then began to feel better.
A friend’s father was also in that hospice facility, and so the friend’s mother was also there a lot. They’d report how Buchwald would have a lot of famous visitors, and he would hold court.
One day, Ben Bradlee showed up again, and was surprised to see Buchwald’s bed empty. He asked my friend’s mother, who said “he checked out.” Bradlee looked shocked and quite upset, and she hastily amended her remarks to, “He left for Martha’s Vineyard!”
Mary Jordan, Post reporter and editor since 1984:
That was the fabulous thing about about Ben. It was fun to work for him. You got in earlier, worked later, and caught the thrill of a win, which to Ben was writing “a talker.”
“People will be talking about that one!”
Richard Cohen, Post reporter and columnist since 1968:
Being Ben Bradlee’s friend was not easy. The rules that applied to others, did not apply to him. For instance, one day he approached me in the newsroom and asked if I was free for dinner. “Quinn’s out of town,” he said referring to his wife, Sally Quinn. “Let’s go back to the house and eat something.”
And so we did. Ben opened the freezer and took out a pint of vanilla ice cream. Then he made himself a double scotch. That was it — his entire dinner. I looked on in awe. He had all the essential WASP food groups. I don’t remember what I ate, or if I ate anything at all, but I knew he would never gain an ounce — he almost never did — or be affected by the drink. You could hate a man like that. Or you could love him. Bradlee gave me no choice. I loved him.
Mike Wise, Post sports columnist since 2004
How many people do you know who reference JFK by saying, “Jack and I?”
Kevin Sullivan, Post reporter and editor since 1991:
There was nothing as fun as busting Ben Bradlee’s chops, although he would never call them “chops.” You knew you had scored a solid shot when Ben’s response required only 10 percent of his finger capacity, delivered with the kind of panache that only Ben possessed.
Nora Pouillon, founder of Restaurant Nora, in which Bradlee was an investor:
Restaurant Nora’s success would not have been possible without Ben’s enthusiastic support. He made Nora’s his home away from home and brought every famous journalist that came into town to have dinner with him and Sally at Nora’s where he repeatedly ordered his favorite food, a big juicy chopped steak.
[This post has been updated. Some quotes have been condensed.]