There was, by his own admission, a good bit of luck in the life of Ben Bradlee, the famed Washington Post editor who died last Tuesday at 93.
He was born into prominence, educated at Harvard, married into more prominence, was blessed with personal magnetism and rugged good looks and even turned polio to his advantage when rehabilitation forced him to develop strong arms and a thick chest that those who met him would remember.
But Bradlee, a World War II veteran, also had a sailor’s vocabulary and a gutsy attitude toward those in power, though he knew many of them, including President John F. Kennedy, as friends.
So when in 1971 the Nixon White House fought the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Post and The New York Times, Bradlee and his courageous publisher, Katherine Graham, hesitated not a bit and won the right to publish in the Supreme Court. Within the same decade, Bradlee had the courage to back two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in their pursuit of a story that would define journalism at its best for decades. “Watergate” described a story, a president and an era.
In the course of his tenure at the Post, Bradlee elevated the newspaper to national and even international prestige, to the annoyance of the powers-that-be at the New York Times. Long after the Watergate story had ended, “Timesmen” would still dispute whether the Post had beaten the Times on the story, though it was obvious it had.
Bradlee undeniably had almost a movie star-like charisma, but he also possessed a commitment to fearlessly hiring people he believed to be smarter than he was, and he gave them free rein. He spoke his mind and encouraged others to speak theirs. When he retired at 70, he exited the Post newsroom with his fist in the air, to cheers. That doesn’t often happen in any corporation, but for Bradlee it was entirely fitting.