A long list of the famous—Chief Justice John Roberts, Vice President Joe Biden, friends, family and a hosts of journalists — filled the National Cathedral here today to eulogize, praise and say farewell to Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor who led The Washington Post for almost a quarter century.
Bradlee, along with the Post’s publisher, the late Katherine Graham, made newspaper history. He wanted to get the story, get it right and publish it, consequences be dammed. He and Mrs. Graham raised, energized and re-romanticized the newspaper business like nothing since The Front Page hit Broadway in the 1920s.
Woodward. Bernstein. Watergate. The Pentagon Papers. President Nixon’s resignation.
Single nouns or duo reporters’ names excited a whole new generation of young people to go into the media. Bradlee created that momentum. Under him, the paper’s national news stories broke news, unearthed trends, told the nation what was going on; its foreign bureaus mushroomed. The feature Style section, rose, like Venus, shaking off vestiges of its staid women’s page predecessors, to become the smart, witty standard for covering news through the posturings and pecaddilloes of Washington’s political movers and shakers.
Bradlee was an amazing, dynamic character. I don’t know whether they make editors like him any more–maybe they do, maybe they don’t — but I’d say that he was sui generis.
I was fortunate to know Ben Bradlee him in his prime, both in Washington and Beirut, and before and after Watergate. Back in the day, Robert C. Maynard, who would later become the editor-owner of The Oakland Tribune and founder of the Institute for Journalism, tried to recruit me from the New York Post, the progressive tabloid then owned by Dorothy Schiff, saying that The Washington Post “ is where things are happening.”
I came, chatted, but instead of joining the newspaper, met and married its first Middle East bureau correspondent. Bradlee came through Beirut on one of those whirlwind executive editor world tours and we had him to dinner along with some Middle Eastern movers and shakers. After the guests left, I asked about his background and he told me about the Boston Brahmin part, but then, a twinkle in his eye, he said that of all of his ancestors his favorite was a notorious English highwayman.
“I like to think he got away and lived to a ripe old age,” Bradlee said.
I was freelancing and was nervous because I had just started doing radio spots for CBS, Westinghouse and ABC.
“Here’s some advice I got from an old radio guy when I was living in Paris and looking for extra money for trips back to the States,” Bradlee said. “‘Rip off your tie, spit on the floor, and tell the @#$%^world what you know because you’re the @#$%^& expert of the moment.”
I didn’t wear a tie and I never spit on the floor, but my ex-husband later said that my radio spots sounded authorative, like “Karen with balls.”
After the ex and I split, Bradlee hired me to work for the paper later – based on a series of articles I wrote for the magazine and a couple of short features for the Style section.
We were sitting in that glass fishbowl that was his office, the whole newsroom visible, discussing salary.
He gave me an offer. I countered. He gave me another.
“You’ve got highwayman’s blood for sure,” I said. He laughed. “You’re getting me cheap.”
“Not with benefits,” he said.
“Yes, you are, but it’s the only job in town,” I said. And it was.
RIP Mr. Bradlee.
Karen DeWitt has a long distinguished career as a journalist, covering politics, but also has worked on political campaigns. She compares the later to the labor of a Hebrew working for the Pharaoh. She’s covered the White House and the national politics for The New York Times; foreign affairs and the White House for USA TODAY before joining that newspaper’s management as an assistant managing editor. She switched to television as a senior producer for ABC’s Nightline, where she wrote and produced the award-winning, Found Voices about the digitization of 1930s and 1940s interviews with former slaves. She returned to newspapers, as Washington editor for the Examiner newspaper and eventually left to help on local political campaigns. She has several blogs, but contributes mostly to a food blog called “I don’t speak cuisine” at peacecorpsworldwide.org and theroot.com.