19 April 2019
In this 2011 file picture, Ben Bradlee discusses the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Watergate would come to define his legacy. Photo: Reuters
In this 2011 file picture, Ben Bradlee discusses the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Watergate would come to define his legacy. Photo: Reuters

Ben Bradlee, 93, was a gatekeeper of Washington secrets

Ben Bradlee cultivated one president and brought down another. He was gruff and profane but thoughtful and charming.

He loathed the Pulitzer Prize for himself and his newspaper but embraced it for his reporters.

When he died Tuesday, aged 93, the former long-serving Washington Post editor left a personal and professional legacy that affirmed a life lived big in the spotlight.  

“Ben was a true friend and genius leader in journalism,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — the Post duo who broke and pursued the Watergate story that led to the fall of Richard Nixon — said in a statement.

In November, President Barack Obama awarded Bradlee the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to civilians.

Bradlee was, in his way, Washington royalty: friend to John F. Kennedy, overseer of the capital’s most important newspaper, a mover and shaker in a tailored suit.

In one era when politicians and journalists were chummier, he kept the capital’s secrets; in another, he exposed them, CNN reported.

He was descended from Boston Brahmins and easily hobnobbed with the wealthy and eminent.

Still, even as he became one of them, Bradlee always maintained his skepticism of Washington power players. And it only grew stronger over time.

In a 1995 interview with CNN’s Larry King, Bradlee said he had observed “an enormous increase in not telling the truth, lying” during his career covering government.

Asked whether it was Democrats or Republicans who lied more, Bradlee said, “Well, the whole mob.”

It was a pair of scandals that made Bradlee a national figure.

In 1971, the Post and The New York Times decided to publish the Pentagon Papers, leaked classified documents that showed that the war in Vietnam was not going as political leaders and the military brass portrayed it.

Bradlee, publisher Katharine Graham and the Post fought the objections of Richard Nixon’s administration all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the newspapers’ right to publish the documents.

Bradlee was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s “but it became obvious that he had a serious problem about two years ago”, his wife, Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn, told C-SPAN interview Sunday.

Bradlee imagined his own obituary years earlier and found something within it to quibble over, according to AP.

“Bet me that when I die,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir, “there will be something in my obit about how The Washington Post ‘won’ 18 Pulitzer prizes while Bradlee was editor.”

That, he said, would be bunk. The prizes are overrated and suspect, he wrote, and it’s largely reporters, not newspapers or their editors, who deserve the credit.

Yet, the Post’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Watergate scandal is an inextricable part of Bradlee’s legacy and one measure of his success in transforming the Post from a sleepy hometown paper into a great national one, AP said.

When Bradlee retired from the Post newsroom in 1991, then-publisher Donald Graham said: “Thank God the person making decisions in the last 26 years showed us how to do it with verve and with guts and with zest for the big story and for the little story.”

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