I never met Ben Bradlee. Never had the opportunity to work for hm. But he influenced my decision to become a journalist.
Sure, there were other factors and influences. The Louisville Courier-Journal, when the Bingham family owned it. The scrappy little newspaper of my hometown. Lou Grant, both as Mary Tyler Moore’s boss and as a curmudgeonly newspaper editor. (He became my fashion icon as well, to the later chagrin of my wife and coworkers.)
But I grew up in the era of Watergate. It really was the first political issue I paid much attention to. By the time of Nixon’s resignation, I was entertaining the idea of becoming a journalist. Bradlee, as the editor of the Washington Post, and reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had me hooked on the idea.
By the time I got to college, The Post had become a daily reading requirement for me in the library. Under Bradlee’s leadership, it was bold, fearless, everything I always expected a newspaper to be. Better yet, he was a larger-than-life figure, a swashbuckler, a raconteur, a scion of Washington.
In short, he made the gritty business of newsgathering glamorous. He was journalism’s James Bond.
But that’s selling short his massive accomplishments. Bradlee took a backwater metro and remade it into a powerful force for truth, a news source to rival the mighty New York Times. When he and publisher Katharine Graham took on the federal government to win the Supreme Court’s approval to print the Pentagon Papers, it set a precedent crucial to journalists to this day.
And of course, Watergate. Bradlee’s willingness to support a couple of green reporters breaking the biggest stories of their careers, information that helped bring about the only resignation of a U.S. president in history, can’t be undersold.
There were other triumphs as well. He introduced the Style section to the post, a provocative new way of looking at pop culture — and high culture. He went out of his way to seek diversity in the newsroom. By all accounts, he was beloved by those who worked for him.
And now he’s gone at the age of 93. He lived life to the fullest.
As the digital age progresses, there aren’t likely to be more lions of print journalism like him. When any citizen with an internet connection can break news, there’s less need for a strong leader, with an equally powerful institution behind them. And that’s unfortunate, for I fear we’re losing something in the more impersonal era.
But for Bradlee, and for those fortunate enough to have read the Post when he was in charge, what a time it was.
It took a few more years than I anticipated, but I eventually was able to become a full-time journalist. It’s a title I wear with honor, because people like Ben Bradlee made it honorable.