Called one of the last remaining newspapermen, Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, has passed away age 93.
Over the course of his career, he helped uncover some of the most famous stories in US political history, brought down a president and helped build a newspaper into a national institution.
Born in Boston in 1921 into a wealthy family, and a direct descendant of royalty and papacy, you could say he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The stock market crash of 1929 left the family almost penniless, however. Ben attended Harvard and shortly joined the army. He fought in the Pacific theatre in WWII.
Following the war, he held a number of jobs in Europe and the US, before being appointed the Washington Post‚s managing editor in 1965. He was a close personal friend of John Fitzgerald Kennedy whom he had befriended in the 1950s while JFK was still a senator living in Bradlee’s Washington neighbourhood.
While at the helm of the Washington Post, or “the Post” as it was affectionately known, he had ambitions of growing the paper to encompass a national base. “The Post was still looking for a seat at the big table. We weren’t at the big table yet. And we very much wanted to go there,”Bradlee told CNN years later.
His first big break came in 1971 when the Washington Post won a Supreme Court ruling allowing it to publish the notorious Pentagon Papers – leaked documents detailing the failure of the Vietnam war. The Court’s decision was a breakthrough for Bradlee, who always had his readers and his country at heart. “We are free to publish what we were always going to publish – which was material which in our mind the public had a right to know, and which did no damage to the United States,” he told a news conference in 1971.
The coup de grâce against the administration of then-president Richard Nixon came a year later when Bradlee encouraged two young reporters to follow up on a reported break-in at the Democratic National Committee within the Watergate complex. The scandal which ensued brought about Nixon’s stepping down in 1974 – the only resignation in US presidential history to date. IN effect the Watergate Scandal shaped contemporary US history.
Bradlee and his two reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were tipped off by anonymous sources to uncover an extensive network of lies, encompassing not only the White House, but also the FBI and CIA. Bradlee was always suspicious of political lies within Washington power circles. “I just do not believe the first version of events in this city, I just do not believe it.”
The editor’s skills lay in allowing the young reporters to keep on covering the story, rather than delegating it to more experienced journalists. “He had the touch. He had the ability to encourage, stimulate people but not run over them,” Woodward would recall decades after the fact.
As the story unfolded, a lot of negative attention was directed towards the newsroom, especially from some of the country’s most powerful people who had a lot to lose, recalls Bernstein. “The stakes were enormous. Every day, the White House, the leader of the free world, spokesman would get up and attack the Washington Post, attack Ben Bradlee by name, Woodward and myself, and he backed us up,” the journalist told CNN.
Journalism inspired by Benjamin Bradlee went on to win a total of 19 Pulitzer prizes. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. “Since joining the Washington Post more than 65 years ago, he transformed that newspaper into one of the finest in the world,”US President Barack Obama said at the awarding ceremony.