Death of Bradlee is a personal loss for all
WASHINGTON – The death at 93 of the Washington Post’s incomparable editor Benjamin C. Bradlee is both a journalistic and personal loss to all of us who had the opportunity to work for and under his driving and joyous leadership of one of America’s truly great newspapers.
As a middle-aged foot soldier in the Bradlee ranks from 1973 to 1977, I spent my most stimulating four years as a political reporter in the Post newsroom, as the staff basked in the great Watergate story made possible by this superlative leader’s guts, grit and unfailing good humor.
I arrived at the Post seven months after the ill-fated break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters by the burglars who turned out to be henchmen in the hire of the Committee for the Re-election of the President, fittingly known as CREEP. Most of the heavy lifting in establishing the connection had already been done by the paper’s young eager beavers, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, with more great work from them to come.
During those seven months, I had labored at the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau struggling to get even a slice of the story.
At the Post, I was assigned to cover the hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee that tied up the loose ends and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August 1974.
The assignment gave me a small sideline piece of what arguably was and is the greatest story in American journalism history.
The Post in 1973 won the Pulitzer Prize for it, and well-deserved fame and fortune for the Dynamic Duo that tenaciously saw the story through.
A few nights after the prize was announced amid much celebration at the Post, Ben was strolling through the nearly empty newsroom and unexpectedly hopped onto my desk and treated me to conversational pep talk as a relative newcomer.
The prize was good news, he said, but the challenge now was for the Post to keep the winning streak going.
He spoke that night as the architect of a much stronger Washington journalistic institution, and he was determined to give the hallowed New York Times a run for its money.
Indeed, he already had the Great Gray Lady breathing hard to stay in the race covering the Watergate saga owned by Ben Bradlee’s Post.
He was the ideal daring editor holding the reins as the two kids off the paper’s metro staff plunged ahead, while some of the paper’s older and more experienced political reporters groused and had doubts about the wisdom of leaving the story in their hands.
Bradlee held those reins firmly but gave Bob and Carl all the slack they required to tighten the rope around the necks of Nixon and his co-conspirators in the cover-up of the crime that rocked the political world.
With his guidance, they traced the hush money that was a centerpiece of the undoing of the Nixon presidency, and jail time for some of his highest-level White House aides.
Through it all, Bradlee’s joy of the chase, peppered generously with his profanely colorful observations, kept the staff in high spirits from start to finish. After four years at the Post, I left to join my friend Jack Germond in writing a syndicated column at the Washington Star.
There, another great editor, Jim Bellows, kept the city amused by running stories about Ben and his soon-to-be wife, acid-tongued Sally Quinn, as “the fun couple,” adding spice to the rivalry.
When the Star folded and we went to Ben for career advice, with classic Bradlee wit and candor, he told us, “You guys are holding a very small pair.”
However, we hooked on at the Baltimore Sun Washington Bureau. From that rival perch, we continued to admire Ben’s maintenance of the Post as the Times’ fiercest competition in this city, and in the world of political journalism, while enduring his occasional wisecracks and enjoying his friendship.
To this day, working for arguably the greatest American newspaper editor of them all has been my most cherished on-the-job experience in 65 years as an ink-stained wretch.
Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is, “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.