Ben Bradlee Was the Last of the Newspaper Giants

Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic says his boss, who died Tuesday at 93, justified the description ‘legendary’ a hundred times over.

Even his alliterative name had mythic qualities: Ben Bradlee. That sounds like the name of a dynamic, fearless, big-city newspaper editor as it might have been invented by a Hollywood screenwriter. But even though he was portrayed in one movie and appeared briefly in another with his glamorous writer-wife, Sally Quinn, there was nothing fake about Ben. Nothing had to be invented. The real story was fantastic enough.

When Ben Bradlee died Tuesday, at 93, of complications from Alzheimer’s, the most inescapable adjective in the obituaries was “legendary,” as anyone could have predicted. When I first met him in the early ’70s, having been hired as a cub reporter in the Style section of The Washington Post, both of which he turned into national showpieces, I expected him to be physically legendary—like maybe 7 feet tall. He was, in fact, of average height, but he had an aura like a pope or a head of state. Maybe he was the last giant of the business he loved so much.

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93: His Life in Photos

That stature came so naturally to him that he never seemed conscious of it and in fact appeared a bit embarrassed when it was mentioned to him. But he had everything necessary—and more—to star in the last great act of American journalism, a finale that included the courageous publication of the Pentagon Papers despite threats from Congress and, of course, also included the tragicomic collapse of a presidency. Ben may have expressed doubts along the way, but he pursued the story of Watergate even as other papers, and the TV networks, cowered. Who in his line of work ever walked taller?

Everyone knows the stories about Ben Bradlee that justify the word “legendary” a hundred times over. Even though I was a very minor player at the Post during its most turbulent and triumphant era, eventually becoming TV critic with his support, I got to spend little moments with him that anyone would treasure. As they’d happen, one would think, “I want to remember every second, every detail of this,” even if it was a casual chat in the hallway. Now that he’s gone, one struggles to retrieve every speck and glimmer from a most inadequate memory bank.

Everyone’s heard how Bradlee told Katharine Graham, another revered mythic figure, that he’d give his “left one” to be executive editor of the Post; probably only people who worked in the building in downtown D.C. knew about such less historic but endearing details as the standing order for a “cake alert” should anybody be celebrating a birthday on the fifth floor, where most of the editorial staff were then located. “Ben,” who was hardly ever called “Mr. Bradlee,” always had to be notified when a cake was imminent. He was suddenly the kid you didn’t dare fail to invite to a birthday party, and he’d show up once he got the word.

He was tough and crusty and blunt, just as Jason Robards (who became a good friend of Ben and Sally’s) played him in All the Presidents Men, but he was also known to cry at sad movies, and his threshold was very low. One of the other staff critics in Style was known for not being a favorite of Bradlee or other Post executives; I’ll never forget the anguish in Ben’s voice when he complained to me, once the critic had left the paper, that the guy had never stopped by his office to say hello or to chew, as it used to be called, “the fat.” It was, amazingly to me, Ben’s feelings who were hurt in that relationship. He was the one who felt snubbed.

His feelings were hurt, too, he told me, when Howard Simons, the rough-edged managing editor, grew angry and embittered as the publicity surrounding All the Presidents Men grew deafening and Bradlee became a nationally known figure. Ben couldn’t understand why Howard would feel jealous of Ben—and express it. I remember a wise man saying, “Those giants can suck all the oxygen out of a room,” but Ben wasn’t that way. He seemed anxious to share the luster. He really didn’t want to hoard it, even if he was the most charismatic character any of us knew, or ever would know.

He was also, other than my father, the only great man I ever knew.

Ben invigorated the Post building just by being in it, just by being on the premises. Lots of us swore we could sense the vibration when he was there; his office had a glass wall onto the newsroom so it wasn’t hard to check for yourself if you needed verification. For all the moments of triumph that he shared with the staff, however, another kind of moment stands out now in bitter memory: the afternoon that Ben called us all together to announce that a story about an alleged 8-year-old inner-city addict had been fabricated by a reporter and that the Post was returning the Pulitzer Prize it had won for that piece.

There was no acting, no posturing, as Ben delivered the news. The sense of pain he felt was palpable and transferred to everybody in the crowd. Newspaper people liked to think they could joke about anything, but the unforgettable look on Ben Bradlee’s face kept anyone from joking about this. We all felt the betrayal not so much of the institution as of the man who had noisily and heroically put it on the map. Nobody outside Washington gave squat about the Post until, in the late ’60s, Bradlee took it over and, in the ’70s, when he made it globally renowned.

Justifiably or not, I won the paper one of its first Pulitzers after that traumatic calamity, and what I remember most vividly is Ben jubilantly pouring Champagne over my head when he came back to Style to give me the news. I’d already heard it, but this made it count, this made it real. The sensation of having contributed to Ben’s pride in the paper was just about the best feeling you could have. Not because he stood up to Nixon, not because he’d been a friend of John F. Kennedy’s, not because his and Sally’s annual New Year’s parties were the best of the year, but because you knew who he really was and what he represented.

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He did like hobnobbing with fellow celebrities, but he never dropped a name. I did ask him about playing tennis in his Georgetown back yard with Johnny Carson and remember him saying, with a tinge of awe, “Yeah—he plays to win.” I remember when, thanks to an old friend who worked in television, I was able to show Ben (and Howard) for the first time the closed-circuit video of Nixon chatting with the camera crew in the White House just before resigning the presidency—when Nixon joked about being caught “pickin’ my nose.” It was about as small as a footnote to history can get, but it was mine, and I got to share with Ben something that, incredibly, he didn’t already know.

And I remember once talking amicably in the newsroom about a certain year of the 20th century that we both considered momentous for historic but also personal reasons. “It was the year I graduated from Harvard,” Ben said. “Yeah, and the year I was born,” I said, instantly realizing that was the wrong thing to say. Ben’s smile crinkled. I had found the one and only thing in the entire universe for which Ben Bradlee might envy me: my age. Maybe he didn’t realize how meaningless such statistics really are.

I don’t remember the last time I saw him, no matter how hard I try. But I don’t want to think of there having been a “last time,” anyway. He made me feel something I wasn’t, important—at least important to him, and for years, that mattered more than any other prize one might have his eyes on. Actually what I am thinking of right now is Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dancing “Begin the Beguine,” excerpted in the compilation film Thats Entertainment. Why, on earth, that? Partly because Ben was as naturally and effortlessly impeccable as Astaire or Cary Grant, or any other mythic style-setter. But much more for what Frank Sinatra said in his narration as the two stars danced:

“You know, you can wait around and hope, but I’m here to tell you: You will never see the likes of this again.”