Ben Bradlee: Everything a Great Editor Should Be

The legendary Washington Post chief, who died on Tuesday at 93, enlivened the newspaper and the nation's capital alike.

Ben Bradlee and Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham leave court on June 21, 1971, after receiving permission to publish the Pentagon Papers. (AP)

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.

Ben was renowned for creating the Post’s Style section, which was the ne plus ultra destination for major profiles and features that changed the character of what readers could expect to find in newspapers. The edgier writing of the kind that had previously been found in magazines like Esquire made the section hugely popular and influential. Style was as closely read in Washington as the front page and leading columnists. It is generally acknowledged now that Style revamped the way celebrities were covered—particularly politicians and the public figures whose reputations depended on their visibility. Ben liked the sassy tone that Style set and the rest of the paper benefited from the readers it attracted.

His loyalty to the newsroom’s best interests was total. He had an exceptionally close relationship with Post Publisher Katharine Graham, whose confidence in him enabled him to make decisions that more than occasionally irritated Mrs. Graham’s friends—especially Henry Kissinger. When Kissinger once wrote a peevish note to Kay about a story of mine, Ben sent it along saying in a cover note that I should put it with pride into my “baby book.” Whatever pressure Ben may have felt from the powers that be in Washington, he made sure his reporters felt secure. As long as a story was solid to the satisfaction of Ben and his editors, he would go with it and accept the consequences. Kay’s support for Ben through scores of tense moments was a definite reason the Post was so formidable in the years of their partnership.

As it happens, I literally owe Ben my life. In 1971, he was making a swing through Asia with a stopover in Saigon. I had made arrangements to join a Vietnamese general on a helicopter foray to firebases near the Cambodian border, but with Ben’s arrival I canceled the trip and accompanied my colleague Peter Jay to pick him up at the airport. When we returned to the office, we were told that the helicopter had exploded on takeoff and everyone aboard was killed. My legs went out from under me as I collapsed in a chair. Although I was badly shaken, we went ahead with Ben’s itinerary. It was not until decades later when he was writing his memoirs that we revisited the episode.

When I founded PublicAffairs in 1997, I asked Ben if I could include a tribute to him in every book and put the initial “B” on the spine, recognition of what he meant to me and to so many others in his bailiwick. I wondered whether he would find the accolade sycophantic. But he agreed, so this is part of the note we include in each book, summarizing the impact of his charismatic leadership: “It was Ben who gave the Post the range and courage to pursue such historic issues as Watergate. He supported his reporters with a tenacity that made them fearless and it is no accident that so many became authors of influential, bestselling books.”

Ben Bradlee’s Washington Post enlivened the stodgy national capital. His newsgathering instincts were superb; his commitment to journalism of excellence was total; and the whole enterprise reflected Bradlee’s inimitable persona and integrity. He was truly everything a great editor should be.