The obituaries for Ben Bradlee, who died this week age 93, invariably described him as "the legendary editor" of The Washington Post. That was careless language. Ben was not "legendary" at all. He was very real, as the Watergate defendants learned to their chagrin and sorrow. His death put finis to a remarkable era now fading into the mists and deepening shadows.
The fawning obsequies, some of them scheduled from the pulpit of the National Cathedral, tell of "the editor who toppled Richard Nixon," recalling the newspaper's glory days of pursuing Watergate secrets, and how Mr. Bradlee and his most famous reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, not only brought down a president, but changed the journalism of the nation's newspapers. Change it they did, and not necessarily for the better. The imagined thrill of bringing down a president encouraged a generation of callow journalists to imagine that bringing down presidents is what a newspaper is all about. Some scandals are only half-baked, and the Internet, which has largely replaced the newspaper in the post-literacy age, is not a reliable bakery.
Ben was a conventional liberal, reflecting his New England origins, but he was not always the rigid ideologue his detractors on the right thought him to be. Like all good newspapermen, he liked a good story for the pleasure and excitement of the telling, and his newspaper, for all its arrogance and infuriating imitation of piety, often reflected the man at the top. "As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness," he once said, "it is not his job to worry about consequences."
That sounds stuffier than he no doubt intended. "Truth" is a theological certainty, beyond the writ of anybody's newsroom. Good newspapers deal in facts, and leave defining truth to the philosophers and theologians. If a newspaper gets its facts right, truth can take care of itself.
He had a newspaperman's swagger that has sadly gone out of fashion as lawyers, accountants, marketing men and other pretenders have taken over the news business. "In a trade peopled with nerds and outsiders," The Economist magazine observed, "Mr. Bradlee's alpha male charisma helped him — his craggy looks, gravelly voice, and obsession with whether male reporters had balls which 'clanked when they walked,' or were sadly silent."
He was a Harvard man, the sometime confidant of snobs and fools, hobnobber with the Georgetown elite, but at heart he was better than that. He always struck me as bereft of the smug pretense of some of the men and women who worked for him. I can't imagine he would say something as fatuous as a threat to "withhold our excellence," as certain of his troops, who walk without clanking, once said in a pout with their publisher.
He was a part of "the greatest generation," a Navy lieutenant in the South Pacific in a time when every man, rich or poor, college boy, farmer or mechanic, took up the colors with neither dawdle nor complaint. No one hid behind "different priorities," as one prominent public man described his reluctance to follow the flag.
He had a newspaperman's contempt for pretenders — some of them, anyway — and the liars, knaves and scoundrels who prosper at politics. He felt a fierce loyalty to his newspaper in a way that has gone out of style, and once, during a strike, he rolled up the sleeves of his London-tailored shirts to take up a messy job in the mailroom.
At The Washington Times, we relished the David-and-Goliath competition with The Post. Needling Ben was great entertainment in a city that had not heard the noise of a newspaper war in decades. When we beat The Post on a story, as we often did, I often dropped an extra copy of the 1 a.m. final on his doorstep in Georgetown. "Seeing a story we should have had on their front page always hurts," he told an interviewer.
He only complained to me once, that we continued to use a photograph of him with a tiny Band-Aid on his cheek. "That makes me look like Sally threw a lamp at me."
"Believe it or not," I told him, "that's the only photograph of you available to us. We'll send a photographer over to take new photographs." He thought about it for a second or two, and declined. "You'll just send it to the art department to put on a fresh Band-Aid."
He knew better, of course, and when The Washington Times celebrated its 25th anniversary, we invited him to be the featured speaker. He declined — "reluctantly," he said — and we were disappointed that he did. He was sui generis.