Ben Bradlee dies at 93; Washington Post editor led Watergate coverage
More than 40 years ago, two young Washington Post reporters began digging into a local burglary that would have roused little interest except for one odd fact: One of the five men arrested at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters worked for the reelection campaign of President Richard Nixon.
The reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, chased every lead, encouraged by the Post’s editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, but they couldn’t make sense of it all.
“We were ... finding what looked like pieces of the puzzle but unable to see where — or even if — these pieces fit,” Bradlee later recalled.
Despite mounting pressure from other Post editors to take the increasingly sensitive story away from the rookies, Bradlee stuck with his “boys.”
Bradlee “didn’t have a foot on the brakes,” Woodward told PBS 30 years later. The Post’s reporting on the bungled 1972 burglary at the Watergate office complex ultimately brought down a president.
Bradlee, who led the Post from 1968 to 1991 and became the best-known newspaper editor of his generation, has died. He was 93.
Bradlee died Tuesday at his home in Washington, the Post reported.
His wife, Sally Quinn, said in an interview with C-SPAN last month that he had been in hospice care suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Under Bradlee’s leadership, the Post won 18 Pulitzer Prizes, including the 1973 public service medal for its reporting on Watergate. His steadfastness in the face of unrelenting White House pressure to drop the Watergate investigation made him a hero of “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 film based on Woodward and Bernstein’s bestselling account of one of the most dramatic chapters in American journalism history. It won four Oscars — including one for Jason Robards as the hard-charging editor — and made Bradlee a household name.
“As executive editor, Ben was the classic leader at whose desk the buck of responsibility stopped. He set the ground rules — pushing, pushing, pushing, not so subtly asking everyone to take one more step, relentlessly pursuing the story in the face of persistent accusations against us and a concerted campaign of intimidation,” Post publisher Katharine Graham wrote in her 1997 memoir, “Personal History.”
Bradlee, a Boston Brahmin with a brash personality, is widely credited with transforming the Post from a locally oriented newspaper into a lively, well-written daily that competed with the New York Times in its national reputation. He hired a slew of talented journalists and rethought the news and feature pages, including creating the Post’s much-copied Style section, which replaced the traditional “soft” women’s section with one that had humor, flash and bite.
“I like a nice rowdy metropolitan paper,” Bradlee once said of the institution that, under his leadership, became one of the two or three top newspapers in the country.
Bradlee viewed Style as his lasting legacy.
“Watergate was a story,” he once said. “This was a way of interpreting society.”
But there were low points. The worst involved Janet Cooke, a reporter who had won a Pulitzer in 1981 for her story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that she later admitted was a fabrication. Bradlee took responsibility for the debacle, and the Pulitzer was returned.
Despite this embarrassment, he remained a revered figure for his contributions to journalism. The White House called him “one of the most respected newsmen of his generation” last year when President Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
In 2005, Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein confirmed the identity of “Deep Throat,” the newspaper’s legendary anonymous source for many of its stories about the Watergate scandal.
By outing himself, the source — W. Mark Felt, the No. 2 official
at the FBI at the time — freed Bradlee and the two reporters to talk publicly about the man who had guided the newspaper to the heart of Watergate. Felt died in 2008.
Bradlee had been executive
editor of the Post for four years when the Watergate break-in occurred on June 17, 1972. One of the suspects was James W. McCord Jr., a retired security agent who was working for Nixon’s reelection committee.
Woodward and Bernstein uncovered evidence that the highest levels of the Nixon administration had covered up a massive use of campaign funds aimed at disrupting the Democratic Party. Their stories drew fierce rebukes from top Nixon aides, including White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, who accused the paper of “shabby journalism.”
But the Post’s investigation — immeasurably aided by Woodward’s highly placed “Deep Throat” — drew Nixon into its net. The president denied knowing about the coverup until tapes of secretly recorded White House conversations were released, confirming all that had been alleged.
On Aug. 8, 1974 — two years and seven weeks after Woodward and Bernstein’s first story on Watergate — Nixon resigned in disgrace. Many others went to prison or were ruined by the scandal.
When Bradlee was asked how the Post withstood constant White House pressure to bury the story, he replied that he knew his reporters were right because they had checked and rechecked their information.
“There aren’t many Bradlees around,” Bernstein said to PBS decades later about the tenacious editor who stuck by his reporters.
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was born Aug. 26, 1921, in Boston, the son of Frederick Josiah Bradlee Jr. and Josephine deGersdorff. Their comfortable lifestyle ended with the Depression, when his father lost his job as an investment banker. Only the charity of relatives kept Bradlee in private school.
In 1936, when he was 14, Bradlee contracted polio and became paralyzed. He learned to walk again but was too weak for sports when he returned to school, so he focused instead on debating and editing. His first job in newspapers was as a copy boy on the Beverly (Mass.) Evening Times.
A long line of Bradlee men dating to the 1700s had gone to Harvard, including Bradlee’s father and grandfather, and in 1939 Bradlee followed their path. On Aug. 8, 1942, he graduated from Harvard at 10 a.m., was commissioned into the Naval Reserve at noon and four hours later married Jean Saltonstall, whose family was even more Boston Brahmin than his. He spent three years on destroyers in the Pacific theater.
Bradlee returned to the States in 1945 and joined in starting a newspaper in Manchester, N.H. When the paper was sold in 1948 he became a reporter at the Post, but he left within a few years for a job as press attache in Paris for the United States Information Service.
He viewed Paris as an adventure, but his wife did not, and the two drifted apart. They divorced after he fell in love with Antoinette Pinchot Pittman, a mother of four who was married to a Washington lawyer. Bradlee gave up Paris for a job in Newsweek’s Washington bureau and married Pittman in
They settled in Georgetown, down the street from a house where Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and his wife, Jacqueline, were soon to move. The couples became close friends.
After Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he fed Bradlee a number of scoops, including one in 1962 concerning the swap of captured CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers for a Russian spy.
Much later, Bradlee’s friendship with Kennedy would put him in a difficult spot. When his flattering memoir of the friendship, “Conversations With Kennedy,” was published in 1975, Bradlee was criticized for not mentioning the assassinated president’s numerous extramarital liaisons. Bradlee said he didn’t know about them.
Bradlee had played another hand well when Newsweek came up for sale. Concerned about its future, Bradlee wrote a memo urging Washington Post publisher Philip Graham to buy the magazine. In 1961, Newsweek became part of the Post company, and Bradlee became Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief.
When Phil Graham committed suicide in 1963, his shy widow, Katharine, became publisher. Although she did not like Bradlee at first, she took him to lunch to see what his career plans might be. With typical bluntness, Bradlee told her, “I’d give my left one to be managing editor of the Post.”
Graham decided that his feverish ambition might be just what the hidebound Post needed. In 1965, she installed Bradlee as a deputy managing editor and, within a few months, made him managing editor.
Thus began one of the newspaper industry’s strongest partnerships.
The Post’s rise to prominence had begun in 1971, before Watergate.
That June, the Post watched helplessly as the New York Times published an exclusive based on the classified Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a former government employee. The 7,000-page history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam — and the government’s efforts to hide the information from the public — helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.
When the government enjoined the New York Times from publishing further articles on the papers, however, the Post obtained a copy from Ellsberg and, despite the grave misgivings of Post attorneys, published its own story within a day. It was one of Bradlee’s proudest moments.
“Watergate cast a bigger shadow,” Bradlee told the Los Angeles Times 20 years later when he announced that he was retiring. “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.”
That confidence would come in handy when the Post was faced with the Watergate story. But Bradlee resisted the idea of himself as a swashbuckling newspaper editor. As he told the American Journalism Review in 1995, “I came along at the right time with the right job and I didn’t screw it up.”
Bradlee, divorced twice, is survived by Quinn, a Washington Post columnist whom he married in 1978; sons Ben Jr., Dino and Quinn; daughter Marina; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
Luther is a former Times staff writer. Times staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.
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