Ben Bradlee, the last giant standing
One of the great payoffs of having lived a long life arrives on the day the newspapers publish your obituary. By out-lasting your competitors and foes, the storyline naturally bends your way. Time blurs precise recollection in favor of generous feelings, which we tend to bestow upon most famous survivors, no matter what sort of lives they lived.
This principle applies to both heroes, such as Benjamin C. Bradlee, and villains, such as Richard Nixon. By wisely dying in 1994 at the age of 81 instead of the late 1970s or early 1980s, Nixon reaped better death notices than he would have otherwise. The groundwork for Nixon’s first obituaries was first laid in the 1950s when he was vice president, when a plane crash or an assassin’s bullet would have required a comprehensive obituary on deadline, with the immediate circumstances of his death tacked onto the lede. When Nixon died, many preliminary obituaries later, obituary writers did not whitewash Watergate and his other crimes, but decades of distance from those events moved them to paint death notices in a softer hue. Contemplation doth make saps of us all.
Like most journalists, Bradlee fretted about how his obituary would portray him, certain for many years that the shame of 1981’s Janet Cooke scandal would scream from the second paragraph of his. He needn’t have worried. The New York Times first touches the topic in the 26th paragraph in its obituary, the Washington Post in paragraph 18, and the Los Angeles Times in paragraph 15, a sour footnote in an otherwise outstanding life.
Bradlee was all the things his obituarists and essayists claim today. He graduated from Harvard, got married, and was commissioned in the Naval Reserve on the same summer day in 1942. A cultural aristocrat, he knew how to mix with the commoners. He was brave, staring down administration after administration, fighting libel cases to the end. He pulsed with charisma, making women and men faint by merely entering a room, an attribute more common in cult leaders than editors. He rewarded that adulation with his trust. Had he chosen the career of warlord instead of journalist, he would have conquered all of the states from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River by the time he hit 65. He hired well and fired well, once bragging of the plagiarists and fabulists he bounced from the paper for their transgressions. And he put out a pretty good newspaper for more than two decades.
Reading the Bradlee ink today, you’d think he all but invented lively writing, pugnacious editing, newsroom creativity, scoop-gathering, and office panache. But that’s because journalistic history is written mostly by the survivors and their acolytes. In 1979, when Bradlee was still at the height of his powers, the Washington Journalism Review published this about him and James Bellows, the recently departed editor of the Post‘s competitor, the Washington Star:
Years from now, newspaper historians will refer to the mid-1970s era as Washington journalism’s Gilded Age of Bradlee and Bellows. … Not long ago, the Post barely acknowledged the competitive existence of the Star. Now, Bradlee is accused of copying successful features of the afternoon paper, such as Ear, the popular gossip column. Bradlee is aware that the Star’s reclamation and its reborn vitality made it obligatory for the Post to come up with a second act following its dazzling Watergate coverage.
Bellows, who brought journalistic innovation to the New York Herald Tribune in the 1960s, then the Star, and later the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, did his magic on an underdog’s budget. His itinerant ways — and venturing into the TV news business and new media — diluted his profile, if not his many accomplishments. “He was a terrific editor,” Bradlee once told the Washington Journalism Review.
A contemporary of Bradlee’s, Bellows flew F6F Hellcats for the Navy during World War II. He never captained a newspaper that rose to Pentagon Papers- or Watergate-style glory, but he did attract and develop talents every bit as good as those who labored under Bradlee — young journalists such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Clay Felker (who created New York magazine under Bellows while both worked at the Herald-Tribune), Maureen Dowd, and many others. And he promoted women to top positions before it was in political vogue. Bellows might have gotten a bigger send off when he died at the age of 86 in 2009 had Bradlee preceded him in death. But, no, Bradlee was the last giant standing, and according to the rules of the game, he who dies last gets the biggest funeral pyre. Bellows would understand completely.
Because all journalism is a form of autobiography, the accolades falling on Bradlee’s coffin today mourn not just him but a whole era of newspapering. Bradlee embodied the romance of journalism more than any 20th-century reporter or editor you care to name, a subtext to today’s appreciations. It’s unlikely we’ll ever again see a top newspaper editor who was as profane and defiant of authority as Bradlee, and so worshipped. He’s taking more than his bones with him to the grave.
“A great journalist is a lucky good journalist,” Bradlee told the Greensboro News & Record in 2006. “If you’re good long enough, you get lucky.” He was plenty good long enough.
Burn me at the stake for heresy, but I think Leonard Downie, Jr. was a greater editor than Ben Bradlee. Save room to fry David Von Drehle, who agrees. Send tinder to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Watch me burn in my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: Ben Bradlee, a former Washington Post executive editor discusses about the Watergate Hotel burglary and stories for the Post at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California April 18, 2011. REUTERS/Alex Gallardo