WASHINGTON -- Benjamin C. Bradlee, the editor who transformed the Washington Post into one of the nation's best papers and guided it through Watergate, is retiring as executive editor.
He will be succeeded by Managing Editor Leonard Downie, who rose through the editing ranks of the paper after a career as an investigative reporter.
Bradlee's retirement is effective Sept. 2, one week after his 70th birthday.
Bradlee will become a vice president of the Post and a director of the Washington Post Co., which owns Newsweek magazine, television stations and other newspaper properties.
"Bradlee is the second most powerful man in this town after the president of the United States," said Joseph Laitin, the former Post ombudsman who was deputy White House spokesman under President Johnson and assistant secretary of the Treasury and state in other administrations.
At the least, Bradlee is perhaps the most famous newspaper editor in America, in large part because he was portrayed by actor Jason Robards in the movie "All the President's Men." But journalists say he was also one of the best editors in America and one of the most influential.
Bill Kovach, curator of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard, said Bradlee personified a moment in American journalism when the press became more sophisticated and more aggressive, reaching to cover more of society and often taking risks.
"I think he is responsible here for the gradual buildup in the quality of the paper over more than 25 years," said Katharine Graham, the chairman of the Washington Post Co., who brought Bradlee to the paper in 1965. "During that time, he has led the paper with his personality and his involvement and the excitement he engenders about the news process."
"Ben has a powerful zest for innovation, aggressive reporting and fine writing," said Shelby Coffey III, editor of the Los Angeles Times, who spent 17 years at the Washington Post. "He brought that to the Post, and his leadership in transforming the paper will be a beacon for American journalism."
Colleagues said Bradlee led largely by setting a tone rather than by wielding a pen. And the tone was a charismatic mix of a Boston Brahmin educated at Harvard and the swagger and vocabulary of a sailor.
"The essence of Bradlee's character, which he magically conveyed to reporters, is a combination of very sophisticated, elite breeding and a kind of up-yours, street-level disdain of people who regard themselves as prestigious and powerful," said William Greider, the Washington editor of Rolling Stone magazine and a former assistant managing editor at the Post. "It was that mix that authorized reporters to do things with a bit of imagination and personality and to kick into subjects that were not, quote, 'news' and to challenge authority."
Downie, the new editor, was the choice of Donald Graham, Katharine's son, who is the paper's publisher and since May the parent company's president and chief executive officer.