Remembering Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, a ‘spiritual leader for good journalism’

Read the Full Transcript


    Now, we remember one of the nation's most revered newsmen.

    Ben Bradlee was 93 when he died of natural causes yesterday at his home in Washington. He left his mark as the steward of the principal newspaper in the nation's capital, spanning a tumultuous period in American political life.

    Ben Bradlee's celebrated tenure at The Washington Post helped make it one of the great American newspapers, and the zest he brought to the job never left him, even in later years.


    It changes your life, the pursuit of truth. At least, if you know that you have tried to find the truth and gone past the first apparent truth towards the real truth, it's very — it's very exciting, I find.


    Bradlee was born in 1921 to a prestigious family in Boston, where, as a teenager, he developed polio, but eventually recovered. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he began his journalism career with The New Hampshire Sunday News, before going on to reporting jobs with The Post and "Newsweek" magazine.

    Along the way, he befriended John F. Kennedy, one of his Washington neighbors, and became a close confidant as Kennedy moved to the Senate and, ultimately, the White House. In 1965, Bradlee took over as managing editor of The Post, and, just three years later, executive editor, in what became a famous collaboration with publisher Katharine Graham.

    Together, they defied President Richard Nixon and joined The New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.


    Well, you couldn't get much more hostile than the Nixon administration was. The — there haven't been administrations that liked reporters since — since Kennedy.


    The trove of classified documents exposed the tortured history of America's involvement in Vietnam at a time when public opposition to the war was rising.

    Then, in July 1972, The Post began its pursuit of the burglary of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. Bradlee assigned two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to the story, and, almost alone at first, they followed a money trail that led first to the president's reelection committee, and ultimately to the White House.

    Woodward reflected on that time recently at his home in Washington, and recalled Bradlee's firm guidance.

  • BOB WOODWARD, Associate Editor, The Washington Post:

    He was good not just because of what he published and allowed to go in the paper, but what he kept out. And I can remember times when we would show him drafts of stories. And he's just, you haven't got it. You haven't got it yet.

    That didn't mean, we're not going to run it. It didn't mean, I don't believe it. It meant more work. Go talk to more people.


    Woodward and Bernstein's reporting and the mounting weight of other disclosures triggered a national political crisis and led finally to President Nixon's resignation in 1974.

    Nearly 30 years later, Bradlee looked back in a "NewsHour" interview.


    I think it made politicians more scared of lying, but it sure as hell didn't stop them. And I think it was very good for The Washington Post.


    It also produced a bestselling book, "All the President's Men," in 1974. And two years later, an Oscar-winning film adaptation came out. Jason Robards portrayed Bradlee, winning an Academy Award for best supporting actor.

    Another central figure waited until 2005 to come forward. Mark Felt, former associate director of the FBI, revealed he'd been the source known as Deep Throat.

    Bradlee spoke about keeping the secret in another "NewsHour" interview.


    It offers proof of the fact that anonymous stories — anonymous sources can be handled properly and be useful to society, and that when you — before you throw reporters in jail for keeping their sources anonymous, you had better be careful.


    Long after Watergate, Bradlee continued pushing his brand of journalism, and his stewardship of The Post helped bring the paper 23 Pulitzer Prizes.

  • Again, Bob Woodward:


    Even though, in the '70s and '80s, there was no Internet, there was no 24/7 cycle of news, there was in Ben Bradlee's head. It was 24/7. What do you got? What do you know? Are you sure? We're going to work on that.

    And there was a kind of energy that — you know, a lot of wonderful editors around, but he was unique.


    It was a widely held assessment.

    Jim Lehrer was one of Bradlee's close personal friends.


    He was truly a Peter Pan. You know, he didn't want to grow up, and he didn't. And journalism was all about stories. He wanted stories where something happened, where there were real people doing things. And he wanted the details, and he wanted the — and he wanted the story to be right.


    Bradlee stepped down as The Post's executive editor in 1991, but continued to serve as vice president at large.

    BO JONES, Former Executive and Publisher, Washington Post: People just wanted to come to work and be around Ben that always — you know, he lit up a room when he came into it.


    Bo Jones served as a Washington Post executive and publisher during part of Bradlee's tenure.


    He was completely genuine. He was apolitical, in the sense that he would go after a story wherever it came from, whether it was from a Democrat, a Republican, a liberal or conservative, regardless of what it was. And when he went home, he didn't — there was nothing to reveal. He didn't unload what his true feelings were. It was the same as what he had been saying candidly at the office.


    Last November, Bradlee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. President Obama praised him for opening a new era of investigative journalism, and reminding us that our freedom as a nation rests on our freedom of the press.


    He should be remembered as a spiritual leader for good journalism, spiritual leader for individuals who want to practice journalism, and a spiritual leader for getting that extra fact and working just a little bit harder.

    He stood for and stood behind reporting as, in and of itself, a kind of magic way to have a good time and at the same time do something that really matters. He saw journalism and the reporting part of journalism as really important and that — and he really believed that the public needs to know everything, and the only way they're going to find out is if there's good reporting.


    In his final years, Bradlee's wife, Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn, says he battled Alzheimer's and dementia. Ben Bradlee was 93 years old.

Listen to this Segment