End of a Paper Trail : Newspapers: Washington Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, who'll retire in September, has imprinted his style on American journalism.


What Americans remember most about Benjamin C. Bradlee might be that little shimmy of the hips Jason Robards delivered in "All the President's Men."

It was a half-tango as Robards, playing Bradlee, walked away from Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who had just told him they had another story threatening to topple the President of the United States.

That is one thing movies do--confuse the actor with the role. The shimmy may have been Robards' invention.

But it captured something, friends say, about Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post and the most famous newspaper editor of his generation, who on Friday announced he will retire in September after his 70th birthday. It captured a sense--communicated by a stylish curse, a curling eyebrow, a crashing fist on a desk--of what made Bradlee the editor who helped defeat a President, transform a newspaper, mold a city and change the nature of journalism.

When the pressure is most intense, Bradlee is more likely to do a little jig from excitement than look back and second-guess himself. Put another way, Bradlee led by setting a style, by possessing something intangible, funny, impudent--something macho and magnetic.

It is one reason, friends like columnist Art Buchwald say, that talented reporters rose to follow him, to take risks, to swing for the fences. It led to incredible successes, transforming the Post into a great newspaper, joining in the publishing of the Pentagon papers or uncovering the Watergate scandal. It also led, critics say, to an erratic newspaper that made some spectacular mistakes, such as the notorious Janet Cooke affair, in which a Post reporter won a Pulitzer Prize for a story she had faked.

It is also one reason conservative critics believe Bradlee has run his newspaper with an arrogant liberal agenda. And it is one reason his boss, Katharine Graham, says working with him for 25 years has been "life enhancing."

Tales of Bradlee's elan are countless. The latest, which does not come from Bradlee, happened only a few weeks ago when President Bush summoned the editor to a White House lunch to complain about Post columnist Mary McGrory. Bush thought some of McGrory's columns had been unfair and wanted her off his back.

Bradlee resisted. At the Post, he told Bush, we don't tell the columnists what to write.

The President, however, was undaunted. Suppose I ask her to dinner, Bush suggested, just the two of them, something elegant, maybe with candlelight. Did Bradlee think that would work?

Mr. President, the editor said in mock rebuke, you're both too old for that sort of thing.

It is vintage Bradlee, a sort of glib, jazzy style--one editor called it his "bad-ass" image--that led Bradlee, when phoned at 1 a.m. by a Lyndon Johnson aide trying to pressure against a critical story, to call the aide a "son of a . . . " and slam down the phone.

Many think Bradlee--barrel-chested, handsome and perpetually looking impatient as if late for some elegant party--has come to personify a moment in American history when the media became an aggressive watchdog rather than just a reflective mirror.

"Ben figured out who was reading a paper in the nation's capital . . . and their skepticism about the government and institutions and their skepticism about newspapers," says Bob Woodward, a Post editor and author. "And the theme was ripping down the curtain in the temple, of saying OK, here is what is going on behind the scenes."

There is also sentimentality. Reporters remember the wake on the newspaper's roof terrace for Laurence Stern, a Post editor who, barely 50, had died of a heart attack in 1979. As he ended his toast, Bradlee choked up and said, "Dammit, we'll miss you" and hurled his wine glass against a brick wall.

His staff quickly followed. Today, outside his office, Bradlee has a picture of Stern and the framed caterer's bill: "Charges for broken glassware, 381 highball glasses and 6 pitchers."

There is also Bradlee's sense of old rivalries. On his office wall, next to pictures of the late Post publisher Philip L. Graham and lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, Bradlee has three photographs of Richard Nixon, apparently made up for television, looking sad and alone. "Aren't they fabulous. I found them in the (San Francisco) Bay Guardian," Bradlee says. "He looks like an old gay actor."

Bradlee himself is part of the Establishment--born into Boston's Brahmin upper class in 1921, a fourth-generation Harvard man, classics major, then World War II Navy.

He became a Newsweek foreign correspondent in 1953, moved to Washington in 1957, and in 1961 helped broker a deal by which Post publisher Phil Graham bought the magazine. As a finder's fee, Bradlee got Post stock.

In 1965, two years after Graham committed suicide, his widow, Katharine Graham, hired Bradlee to join the Post. She recalls him as pushing brazenly for the managing editor's job. In 1968, he was promoted to executive editor.

The Post he joined still had advertisements on page one, just three foreign correspondents and decidely small-town front-page stories about the First Family: "Lynda Bird Earns All A's, Luci Gets B's."

Bradlee's charge "wasn't explicit, nor has it ever been, nor did we have a grand design," says Katharine Graham. "It was always, 'How do you make it better?' "

Bradlee's energy transformed the paper. He worked till midnight, dashing notes, rewriting leads, encouraging writing that was different, that had impact.

He also persuaded Graham to spend more. The 1965 newsroom budget of $4 million had doubled by 1968. (It is $60 million today.) And he became part of a generation of editors who showed that newspapers could make money by dramatically improving the quality and independence of their coverage. In the 25 years he has been there, the paper has won 23 Pulitzer Prizes.

A year after becoming editor, Bradlee launched the Style section--now perhaps the most imitated element of the Post--to revolutionize what was once considered the women's pages. The section combined stylish writing with broadened coverage, and profiles that often left the story subject bleeding without knowing he had been cut.

Bill Kovach, former Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, says the Style section recognized Washington for the first time as a "capital city, a court city." That influenced how the media covered Washington and Style was "the envy," he says, of the more-exalted New York Times.

For Bradlee, though, the turning point came in 1971 when, after a wrenching meeting of editors and the publisher at his house, Katharine Graham decided to approve the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a classified government study of the Vietnam War. In doing so she defied a court order imposed on the New York Times and threats by the Nixon Administration to challenge her company's Florida television license.

"Watergate cast a bigger shadow," Bradlee says, "but there was no time in Watergate when we had to tear everything apart and make a single decision that was fraught with such consequence . . . . The Pentagon Papers was the crucible for us that formed our team, and gave everyone confidence in each other."

A year later came Watergate, the break-in at the Democratic headquarters. Kovach, now curator of the Neiman Foundation, says the Post's coverage of Watergate stands out as perhaps the only example of a newspaper sustaining coverage of a controversial national story when most of the rest of the press and the government did not take up the charge.

James Doyle, the special assistant and press spokesman for the Special Watergate Prosecutor and author of a book on the investigation of Watergate, believes that had it not been for the Post, the scandal might have died without the Watergate burglars going to trial or the special prosecutor getting any political support.

While many deserve credit for uncovering Watergate, journalists say it also had something to do with Bradlee's style.

One factor was that sense of a swashbuckler willing to take anyone on--the man doing the jig at the prospect of a good story.

"It's all psychological," says columnist Buchwald. "He's got what you need, which is to inspire the troops"

Another factor was that he left staffers alone much of the time. "There was no way he could be absolutely certain about every (Watergate) story each night during," says Leonard Downie, who will succeed Bradlee as executive editor.

"He had to entrust that to a variety of people and he had an instinct . . . for knowing when he couldn't trust them any more and had to intervene."

Bradlee also had earned the trust of a confident publisher. "There is nobody more skilled in the care and feeding of publishers than Ben," says friend Tom Winship, former editor of the Boston Globe. "I don't say that as a knock. You have to have publishers on your side or you get nowhere."

At times, Bradlee's style backfired.

Bradlee brazenly declared he would rather walk "bare-assed" down Pennsylvania Avenue than apologize to President Jimmy Carter for an embarrassing gossip column item about the Carter Administration. Eventually, the paper did apologize when the item proved false.

On another occasion, Bradlee's wife, reporter Sally Quinn, erroneously reported that Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had unzipped his fly in front of a female reporter. Again the paper had to apologize.

History has recorded the most spectacular mistake as the fabricated story by Janet Cooke that won the Pulitzer. The paper later ran an exhaustive series that detailed the incident.

Some say the Cooke affair revealed an institutional problem under Bradlee. Critics say the Post could be a rough, sometimes unhappy place to work, in part because Bradlee liked to play such a tough guy. One of Bradlee's metro editors said Bradlee liked to engender "creative tension," motivating people by pitting them against each other. The term has stuck.

Bradlee says "creative tension" is nonsense, coined one day after he mistakenly assigned a reporter to a story someone else already was working. But tension was never an end in itself.

"Of course there is some tension in this place," Bradlee says. "People have worked like hell to get here and they want to stay here, they want to be good, so they work hard. Doesn't bother me a damn bit."

Shelby Coffey III, editor of the Los Angeles Times, who worked 17 years at the Post, says Bradlee's wisecracks helped deflate newsroom tensions and made his moments of anger even more powerful.

In profiling Bradlee, the Post itself said he had blind spots: "He displayed little interest in suburban news or incremental science stories," or stories that were too complex. Insiders blame that in part on Bradlee's legendary short attention span. "What's the lead, what'ya got," Woodward mimics Bradlee as saying when talking about stories.

And black journalists privately say the Post has been perceived in the past as insensitive, ignorant and uncaring toward the black community, which makes up 70% of the District of Columbia's population.

Bradlee's legacy will be sorted out for years. Downie credits him with helping make newspapers independent of any political or powerful interests. Donald Graham, the paper's current publisher, cites the impact of the Style section on coverage of lifestyle and society.

A.M. Rosenthal, former executive editor of the New York Times and Bradlee's longtime rival, notes the influence of "Watergate and what flowed from it, mainly that he aroused interest in investigative journalism, so called."

Woodward talks about Bradlee differently: "Graham Greene said a writer's job is to be a bit of grit in the machinery" of government and society. "Ben was frequently a handful of sand, and sometimes a boulder."

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