Photo Credit: “Benjamin C. Bradlee” by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin – Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
When I heard that legendary Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee had died at 93, I couldn’t believe he was that old—or that I am as old as I am. I was sad on both accounts, but mostly because we have lost one of the best journalists and editors ever—him; I’m still here!
I worked for Mr. Bradlee (the important people called him “Benjie”) as a news aide at the Post when I was just out of college. Handsome, charismatic, dynamic and irreverent, he was a giant presence in the newsroom. Wearing crisp striped, white-collared shirts with the sleeves rolled up, he was as likely to bound into the wire room to chat with the guys monitoring the Telex machines as he was to gather the editorial board in his glass office to hotly debate the day’s issues.
When I arrived, Bradlee already had been at the helm of the Post for several years, working closely with publisher Kay Graham to build what was then a local newspaper into a national player. (She often popped into the newsroom, but not every day.)
In my editorial assistant capacity, I worked along side many of the people mentioned in Bradlee’s Washington Post’s obituary—the great cartoonist Herblock; well-known journalists such as Haynes Johnson, Nicholas Von Hoffman and Dave Broder whom Bradlee had lured from other papers; soon-to-be famous journalists such as Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story with Bob Woodward a month or two after I left for grad school, and Len Downie, who succeeded Bradlee as executive editor. I even got to know Sally Quinn, who later became Bradlee’s third and final wife but was then a greenhorn reporter for the newly launched Style section. Most were just acquaintances I was thrilled to chat with on the elevator. A few of the younger ones became friends whose stellar careers I have followed over the years.
I loved working at the Post and playing a small part in getting stories like “The Pentagon Papers,” “The Kent State Massacre” and “The Chicago 7 Trial” to print, but I left after a year because it was clear that Harvard-educated Bradlee and his mostly male staff of Ivy Leaguers would never send a young woman with a degree from a Midwestern state university up to The Hill to cover Congress or the Supreme Court. It was a good decision.
I don’t think Ben Bradlee ever knew my name, although he kindly pretended he recognized me when I spoke with him maybe 15 years ago at a Pittsburgh lecture series and he autographed his book for me. And I am sure he did not know the positive impact he and his hand-picked staff had on my career. Having seen the great Ben Bradlee in action—interacting amiably with his staff, setting goals that sometimes seemed beyond their grasp, insisting on high ethical standards and refusing to miss out on breaking a good story—has informed and inspired my work as a writer and editor in a much smaller but still very important “newsroom.”
There may never be another editor like him.