I am one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists able to say with satisfaction and no small amount of pride: “I worked for Ben Bradlee.”
Like the vast majority of us alums, I was not one of Ben’s stars. I spent my seven years at the Washington Post basking in the journalistic stardom all around me, learning the value of nuts and bolts journalism from reporters like Ann Devroy, Dan Balz and George Lardner.
Farther up the ladder in the firmament were the truly famous — people like Bob Woodward, who treated the weekend staff to ice cream sundaes whenever he was in charge; or Dave Broder, who never hesitated to share intelligence and inquire after you.
At the top of the pile in those days (I left the Post in 1991) were the yin and yang of American journalism — modest, sweater-wearing Don Graham, who succeeded his mother as publisher and famously knew the name of every single employee in the 15th Street building; and Ben Bradlee, whose barrel-chested bravado preceded him into every room.
I was intimidated by Ben, and mostly kept my head down when he periodically breezed through the newsroom. He was more of a guy’s guy. Plus, I also spent most of my Post career on the metro staff, covering county councils and local elections — stuff Ben really didn’t care about.
To get a job at the Post — which when I arrived was still basking in the afterglow of Watergate as well as recovering from the shame of the Janet Cooke debacle — prospects met with a gauntlet of editors who ran you through the traps before you ever got to the big glass office where Bradlee sat. I called it the “eat with your feet” interview, because by the time you met with him, you’d have to commit some really gauche faux pas not to get hired.
He met me, asked me questions I no longer remembered, and then strode into the newsroom to ask Michel Martin, now of NPR, whether I was as good as she was.
Michel was a good friend, and answered, promptly and with good humor, “Better!”
It occurred to us both that he probably never asked that question about a white male applicant to a white male staffer. But that was part of the deal working in a newsroom where black journalists were, at best, in short supply. We knew we could excel, but first we had to get in the door.
I came to adore Ben Bradlee. He was funny, ribald and affectionate, once he knew you. He protected his troops fiercely. Once, when I was roughed up by a Secret Service agent at a national political convention, he didn’t just call the head of the Secret Service to complain. He called the Treasury Secretary, who at the time was in charge of the Secret Service.
In more recent years, Ben was an unflagging supporter of my television career, greeting me with compliments and bear hugs whenever I saw him. I was honored a few years ago to be asked to deliver the Bradlee lecture at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where I got the chance to talk about the kind of journalism Ben stood for, as he sat in the front row.
He was tough and fair and irreverent about the things that didn’t matter, while remaining reverent about the things that did. In his case, the things that did matter were truth, justice and the American way.
And if you think that made Ben Bradlee Superman … well, for those of us who were fortunate enough to work under his cape … he kind of was.
Rest in peace, Ben.