By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
Late Tuesday night, when my fiancé glanced at news on her smartphone and told me that Ben Bradlee had died, she asked me if I knew who he was. Of course I knew, and I responded by saying he had been—among other things—the editor of the Washington Post. Then she asked, “what was his claim to fame?” He was the editor of the Washington Post. Enough said, I assumed. But, she repeated: but, what was his claim to fame?
Bradlee was editor of the Post during the presidency of Richard Nixon, she said. I smiled. In fact, some historians might argue, one could just as easily turn the equation around: Nixon was President during Bradlee’s tenure as the chief newsman at the Post. Arguably, as a direct consequence of Bradlee’s stewardship of the newspaper, Nixon would ultimately resign the Presidency.
Bradlee was the top editor at the Washington Post for more than a quarter of a century, and during that time he took the Post from a second-tier, second-rate status to a point when many could argue that the New York Times had—by the early 1970s—only one genuine rival, and it was in the nation’s capital, not in Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston. Bradlee accomplished that Herculean task by combining old school qualities of relentless hard, gritty work and supervisory finesse in the newsroom, with a tough form of journalism which bordered on aggressive. He was also at times fearless, as in his decision—in consultation with the Post’s then-owner Katherine Graham—to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers in spite of a robust attempt by the Nixon administration to suppress publication. Allied briefly with arch-rival New York Times, the Post successfully argued the case for publication in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Benjamin Bradlee was old school to a fault. He was born Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee in Boston, Massachusetts in 1921, a direct descendant of a handful of the first colonials to arrive in New England in the early 1600s. His family tree is peppered with the sort of lineage which connects verifiably to European princes, duchesses, counts and kings. Born into wealth, he attended the Dexter School and St. Mark’s Academy, then, went on to Harvard where he double-majored in English and Greek. While at Harvard, he joined the Navy ROTC.
He also served in World War II, and because of his communication skills and writing talent, he joined the Office of Naval Intelligence in 1942, serving in the Pacific in communications roles throughout the war. But Bradlee was not always hunkered down in code-rooms and radio shacks—he saw action in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, one of the biggest and most violent battles of the War. He also saw action in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.
Using some family money as the seed, Bradlee was briefly a part-owner of a small newspaper called The New Hampshire Sunday News, which he helped to found in 1946. After getting the fledgling paper up and running, he sold his share to his partners. Weeks later he went to work for the first time as a reporter for the Washington Post. His first stint with the Post lasted until 1952 when he went to work as a writer for the Office of U.S. Information and Educational Exchange (USIE), a bureau with the central purpose of preparing written material, brochures, articles and films for use by the CIA, State Department staff, and other government personnel. Rumors have persisted to this day that Bradlee may have participated in a CIA black operation in his stint as a reporter for Newsweek magazine in 1957, when he interviewed several members of a pro-Algerian rebel group opposed to French colonial authority in Africa. Later, Bradlee would become the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek. Ultimately, Bradlee would be instrumental in the sale of Newsweek—then on the auction block—to the Washington Post in the late 1950s. The $15 million sale would result in Bradlee being paid in stock in both publications, a move that proved profitable for both Bradlee and his employers.
Bradley continued writing and editing, and after proving his mettle as a reporter and editor, he was promoted to the job of managing editor of the Post in 1965, and later executive editor in 1968.
After taking over as editor, Bradlee successfully fused the in-depth feature writing and long-form journalism associated with major magazines, with hard-hitting, unflinching investigative pieces. He also shifted more front page and A-section emphasis to national political stories and the political process. It was in keeping with this dictum that Bradlee found himself and the Washington Post briefly allied with the New York Times. Each of the papers had come into possession of Xerox copies of thousands of pages of a top secret Pentagon report on the Vietnam War—a study which had been commissioned a few years before by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and compiled by a dozen researchers, analysts, and writers. The study was titled innocuously U.S. Decision-Making in Vietnam, 1945-1968. Among the writers and analysts for that massive, 3000-page report was Daniel Ellsberg, a Rand Corporation employee and former Defense Department employee.
Once a strong supporter of the war in Vietnam, Ellsberg had become deeply disillusioned, questioning the morality of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Ellsberg leaked copies of the so-called Pentagon Papers to reporter Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, and later, also to the Washington Post. Despite the fact that the Nixon administration was not implicated in the report (the study covered only the years up to 1968; Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969), President Nixon was outraged by the brazen misuse of secret documents, and may have also worried—unnecessarily, as it turned out—that Ellsberg may have come into possession of later documents purloined during the period when Nixon and Henry Kissinger had secretly developed plans to escalate the war.
Accordingly, the Nixon administration used the considerable resources and power of the executive to stop both the Times and the Post from further publication of the Pentagon Papers. The matter moved rapidly through the courts, and in the end the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers. The ruling was (and remains to this day) one of the most important freedom-of-the-press cases in American history.
Later, and perhaps most famously, Bradlee trusted his instincts and supported the work of two previously unknown young reporters—Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—when the Post stumbled onto the strange story of a burglary at the Watergate hotel and office complex. On the night of June 17, 1972, five Cuban-American men dressed in high-end suits were found plundering around inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee, which in those days leased office space at the tony Watergate. The five burglars were caught with electronic bugging equipment, envelopes with cash, a small notebooks—one of which contained backline phone numbers to the White House. Woodward was sent to the arraignment that weekend. Within a day or two, Woodward was joined by Carl Bernstein.
Their investigation would turn into the biggest political story of the 20th Century, and would ultimately result in the downfall of a president. But were it not for the craggy, profane, irascible Bradlee—whose reporting and editing instincts were at the top of their game—the great investigative story might not have ever got off the ground. Bradlee, like his two young reporters, sensed that the story had more to it than what appeared on the surface. Though he was sometimes tough on the pair, he backed them when things got tough—excoriating them when they made mistakes, demanding that they dig more deeply to get to the truth, shepherding them through the challenges, and, in short, insisting that their reporting reflect the Post’s fiercely competitive standards.
Bradlee also cultivated and expanded the role of an independent press. Patriotic to his core, Bradlee nevertheless felt that without independent journalism and aggressive, non-deferential reporting, that government, appointed officials and elected leaders would stray from their essential roles in a democracy.
Among other things, Bradlee raised the bar for accountability journalism not merely for the Post, but also for most major newspapers in America.
Prior to Bradlee’s stewardship as editor, the Washington Post had won only four Pulitzer Prizes. By the time Bradlee had retired, the paper had won 17 more Pulitzers.
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