When Ben Bradlee was in the Washington Post newsroom, his presence was palpable even when he seemed to be doing crossword puzzles in his glass office. There was an unmistakable aura about Ben in his long heyday at the Post, from the time he arrived as deputy managing editor in 1965 until he stepped down as executive editor in 1991. I was at the paper for 18 of those years as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor, and was acutely aware of how much Ben meant to the paper’s energy and momentum. Ben had the ultimate in editorial élan. With his sleeves rolled up to his forearms and his voice—a good natured growl—he left an indelible mark on the daily contest for prominent space and play that was the core of the newsroom’s distinctive rhythm. Bradlee died Tuesday in Washington at 93.
For many of my years with the Post I was overseas in Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and London, but even at a distance, knowing that Ben was figuratively looking over my shoulder made me sit a little straighter and run a little faster. The ultimate encomium was a telex from the foreign desk that said a story—with Ben’s backing—made it to page one.
Ben’s authority was complete when he chose to deploy it. But his editorial genius wasn’t about rewriting ledes or changing adjectives. It was his unfailing sense of what made a story stronger. His questions were precise and invariably to the point. His credo for the front page was that stories carry impact, preferably were exclusive, and were written with flair. He had particular admiration for intrepid reporting, especially when it was connected to good writing. If a piece was a dud, Ben would let you know one way or another, but he rarely held a grudge as long you came roaring back with a better version or some breakthrough on a running story.