Opinion: Ben Bradlee: A fearless editor with an outsized personality


I had been an intern in the Washington Post’s Style section for barely two weeks when I spotted Ben Bradlee standing in a hallway, reading some notices on a bulletin board at the edge of the newsroom. Flush with excitement at being at the paper and utterly oblivious to the lowliness of my status, I walked up to him.

“Hi -- I’m an intern,” I said.

He turned and looked at me, cocking his head. “I know who you are,” he said in a feisty growl. Whatever else he said or I said after that is forgotten. All I remember is my first brush with the swagger that had made him a fearless editor and an outsized personality.

Over the next 12 years that I worked at the Post I would see that on display constantly. He worked his newsroom like he was a reporter, not the executive editor. He wanted to chat, he wanted to schmooze, he wanted to know what was going on. Which often led to breathless reporters (and a few editors) following after him or popping up in his path, eager to amuse him with some story. But the fawning aside, I came to expect that that’s what good high-ranking editors did -- they got out of their offices and took the pulse of their newsrooms.


He was charming in ways that few editors could get away with now. During a time when I was acting at night in a play, I arrived at a going-away party for a colleague at the house that he shared with his wife, the writer Sally Quinn. I was still wearing much of the heavy makeup I’d had on during the show. When he saw me, he asked how the play was going and then he reached out with the side of his hand and rubbed some of the blush powder off my cheeks and onto his own. “I need this more than you do,” he cracked.

He could be annoying, too. Once at a social event I was covering, he was there as a guest (that wasn’t that unusual -- Ben and Sally were as sought after as any congressional or White House players) and I found myself interviewing then National Security Advisor Colin Powell as he stood with Ben. I was deliberately -- artfully, I thought -- making small talk with Powell, working my way up to whatever zinger I had planned to drop on him when Ben snapped, “Stop romancing him and just ask him the question!”

Ben retired as editor of the Post more than two decades ago, and I’ve worked at the L.A. Times for 21 years. I kind of knew he wouldn’t live forever, but part of me thought he just might.

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