He transformed Washington Post from local voice to national influence


June 30, 1991|By Thomas B. Rosenstiel | Thomas B. Rosenstiel,Los Angeles Times

Washington -- What Americans remember most about Benjamin C. Bradlee might be that little shimmy of the hips

Jason Robards delivered in "All the President's Men."

It was a half-tango as Mr. Robards, playing Mr. Bradlee, walked away from Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who had just told him they had another story threatening to topple the president of the United States.

That is one thing movies do -- confuse the actor with the role. The shimmy may have been Mr. Robards' invention.

But it captured something, friends say, about Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post and the most famous newspaper editor of his generation, who recently announced he will retire in September after his 70th birthday. It captured a sense -- communicated by a stylish curse, a curling eyebrow, a crashing fist on a desk -- of what made Mr. Bradlee the editor who helped defeat a president, transform a newspaper, mold a city and change the nature of journalism.

When the pressure is most intense, Mr. Bradlee is more likely to do a little jig from excitement than look back and second-guess himself. Put another way, Mr. Bradlee led by setting a style, by possessing something intangible, funny, impudent -- something macho and magnetic.

It is one reason, friends such as columnist Art Buchwald say, that talented reporters rose to follow him and to take risks. It led to incredible successes, transforming the Post into a great newspaper, joining in the publishing of the Pentagon papers or uncovering the Watergate scandal. It also led, critics say, to an erratic newspaper that made some spectacular mistakes, such as the notorious Janet Cooke affair, in which a Post reporter won a Pulitzer Prize for a story she had faked.

It is also one reason conservative critics believe Mr. Bradlee has run his newspaper with an arrogant liberal agenda. And it is one reason his boss, Katharine Graham, says working with him for 25 years has been "life-enhancing."

Tales of Mr. Bradlee's elan are countless. The latest, which does not come from Mr. Bradlee, happened only a few weeks ago when President Bush summoned the editor to a White House lunch to complain about Post columnist Mary McGrory. Mr. Bush thought some of Ms. McGrory's columns had been unfair and wanted her off his back.

Mr. Bradlee resisted. At the Post, he told Mr. Bush, we don't tell the columnists what to write.

The president, however, was undaunted. Suppose I ask her to dinner, Mr. Bush suggested, just the two of them, something elegant, maybe with candlelight. Did Mr. Bradlee think that would work?

Mr. President, the editor said in mock rebuke, you're both too old for that sort of thing.

It is vintage Bradlee, a sort of glib, jazzy style -- one editor called it his "bad-ass" image -- that led Mr. Bradlee, when phoned at 1 a.m. by a Lyndon Johnson aide trying to pressure against a critical story, to call the aide a "son of a . . ." and slam down the phone.

Many think Mr. Bradlee -- barrel-chested, handsome and perpetually looking impatient as if late for some elegant party -- has come to personify a moment in American history when the media became an aggressive watchdog rather than just a reflective mirror.

"Ben figured out who was reading a paper in the nation's capital . . . and their skepticism about the government and institutions and their skepticism about newspapers," says Bob Woodward, a Post editor and author. "And the theme was ripping down the curtain in the temple, of saying OK, here is what is going on behind the scenes."

Mr. Bradlee himself is part of the Establishment -- born into Boston's Brahmin upper class in 1921, a fourth-generation Harvard man, classics major, then World War II Navy man.

He became a Newsweek foreign correspondent in 1953, moved to Washington for the magazine in 1957, and in 1961 helped broker a deal by which Post publisher Phil Graham bought the magazine. As a finder's fee, Mr. Bradlee got Post stock.

In 1965, two years after Graham committed suicide, his widow, Katharine Graham, hired Mr. Bradlee to join the Post. She recalls him as pushing brazenly for the managing editor's job. In 1968, he was promoted to executive editor.

The Post he joined still had advertisements on page 1, just three foreign correspondents and decidedly small-town front-page stories about the first family: "Lynda Bird Earns All A's, Luci Gets B's."

Bradlee's charge "wasn't explicit, nor has it ever been, nor did we have a grand design," says Ms. Graham. "It was always, 'How do you make it better?' "

Mr. Bradlee's energy transformed the paper. He worked till midnight, --ing notes, rewriting leads, encouraging writing that was different, that had impact.

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