Ben Bradlee was the editor of the Washington Post during the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the breaking of the Watergate Scandal.
Who Was Ben Bradlee?
Ben Bradlee (August 26, 1921 to October 21, 2014) served as managing editor, then executive editor, of the Washington Post from 1965 to 1991. He was in charge when the paper's investigation of the Watergate break-in ended up bringing down the Nixon administration, and when the Post defied the United States government to publish the classified Pentagon Papers. With his third wife, writer Sally Quinn, Bradlee also became a fixture in Washington society. President Barack Obama awarded Bradlee the Medal of Freedom in 2013.
Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post
Publisher Katharine Graham hired Ben Bradlee to be deputy managing editor of the Washington Post in 1965; later that year he was named managing editor and in 1968 he became executive editor. In these positions, Bradlee helped transform the Post from a middling paper into one with a national reputation for outstanding journalism.
It had been unexpected for Graham to select Bradlee. Though he'd worked briefly at the Post as a young reporter, he was then at Newsweek, a newsmagazine owned by The Washington Post Company. But when Graham had asked Bradlee about his career goals, he'd surprised her by saying, "I’d give my left one to be managing editor of the Post." She decided to take a chance on him, and the two ended up with a close and productive working relationship.
In his new position, Bradlee went on a hiring spree, bringing talent to the newsroom and increasing foreign coverage; he also got rid of subpar staff members. On January 6, 1969, his Style section, a less reverent and more provocative take on the former For and About Women section, made its first appearance. It turned out to be so popular that other papers would create their own versions.
Bradlee remained executive editor until 1991. After stepping down, he was named vice president at large and continued to maintain an office in the Post newsroom.
In 1971, Bradlee wanted the Washington Post to publish information from the Pentagon Papers, classified documents that detailed the murky, deception-filled history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Printing was risky because a court injunction had already ordered the New York Times (which had scooped the Post by getting the documents first) to cease publication. The Post could have faced criminal charges for defying this order, thus imperiling the future of the paper.
Contrary to the legal advice she was getting, Katharine Graham sided with Bradlee, to the editor's delight, and the Post printed its first story on June 18, 1971. At the end of the month, the Supreme Court ruled that publishing the Pentagon Papers didn't threaten national security and the government couldn't prevent the information from being shared, a decision that supported freedom of the press.
A look at the Washington Post's decision to print the Pentagon Papers is brought to the big screen in the film The Post (2017). Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star in the film as Bradlee and Graham.
Bradlee led the Washington Post newsroom during Watergate, when journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's investigation into a June 17, 1972, burglary at Democratic National Committee Headquarters ended up revealing a trail of corruption linked to Richard Nixon's White House. By the time Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, the Post had gained an international reputation and arrived in the upper echelon of news organizations.
The process of uncovering the Watergate story was a long and difficult one — between the initial burglary and the president's departure, the Post was often the only paper on the story. Woodward and Bernstein were able to carry on in large part because Bradlee protected them from outside pressure: Bradlee would reassure Katharine Graham about the quality of the investigation, while also coping with the fact that the Nixon administration was trying to undermine the paper.
Woodward and Bernstein told the tale of their investigation in the book All the President's Men (1974), which became a film of the same name in 1976. In the movie, Bradlee was portrayed by Jason Robards. The role included some actions that were actually done by managing editor Howard Simons, but did a good job of capturing Bradlee's style in the newsroom. Robards won an Academy Award for playing Bradlee.
Bradlee's career as editor was tarnished when Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke was revealed to have fabricated a 1980 story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Though a few members of the newsroom had had doubts about the story, it was submitted for a Pulitzer Prize. It was only after the story was awarded the Pulitzer in 1981 that the truth came out — "Jimmy" the young addict didn't exist, and Cooke's resumé was filled with falsehoods. The prize had to be returned.
Bradlee asked the paper's ombudsman — a position meant to represent readers' interests — to investigate the matter, and the report detailed missed opportunities to bring the truth to light. However, publisher Don Graham (who'd stepped into the role after his mother, Katharine) stood by Bradlee.
Marriages and Children
Bradlee's first wife was Jean Saltonstall. The two wed in 1942, on the same day he received his naval commission, and were separated for most of World War II. Son Ben Jr. was born in 1948. They divorced in 1955.
While still married to Jean, Bradlee fell in love with Antoinette "Tony" Pinchot. They married in 1956 and had two children together: Dominic in 1958 and Marina in 1960. But the marriage ran into difficulties, and in 1973 Bradlee began living with Sally Quinn.
Quinn had joined the Washington Post as a reporter for the Style section; she and Bradlee developed feelings while working together. Bradlee had once said he'd marry Quinn when there was a Polish pope: they wed in 1978, after Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland became pontiff.
With Sally Quinn, Bradlee had another son, named Quinn, in 1982.
Friendship With JFK
A friendship developed between then Senator John F. Kennedy and Bradlee in 1957, when their families ended up living close to each other in Georgetown. Kennedy became a useful source for Bradlee, even after ascending to the Oval Office.
Bradlee shared details about their relationship in Conversations With Kennedy (1975) and in his memoir, A Good Life (1995). One anecdote related that Bradlee accompanied Kennedy to see a pornographic film on the same day as the West Virginia primary in 1960. However, Bradlee insisted he had never known about Kennedy's extramarital dalliances, even though one of Kennedy's paramours was the sister of his second wife.
When and Where Was Ben Bradlee Born?
Bradlee was born Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee on August 26, 1921, in Boston.
When and How Did Ben Bradlee Die?
Bradlee, who had Alzheimer’s disease, entered hospice care in September 2014. On October 21, 2014, he died at his home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 93.
Growing up in Boston, Bradlee's family had connections to the highest echelons of society. He lived with wealth for the first years of his life, but his family lost its money during the Great Depression.
Well-off relatives made it possible for Bradlee to attend private school. While at St. Mark's School, he contracted polio at age 14. The disease paralyzed Bradlee, who had to work hard to regain the ability to walk.
Bradlee followed in his male ancestors' footsteps to attend Harvard University. There, he was selected for the Grant Study, which involved social workers and psychologists tracking his life. Bradlee started his service in World War II right after leaving Harvard. He would spend three years on a destroyer in the Pacific.
Career as a Journalist
After World War II ended, Bradlee and a friend started the New Hampshire Sunday News, but Bradlee needed a new job when the publication was sold. Armed with introductions to the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post, he headed south in the fall of 1948. Rain made him decide not to get off the train in Baltimore, so he went to the Post and got hired as a cub reporter.
In 1951, Bradlee opted to leave D.C. to work as a press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. He then became a foreign correspondent for Newsweek in 1954. In 1957, he returned to D.C. as a Washington correspondent for the magazine.
When Newsweek was in danger of being sold, Bradlee contacted Post publisher Phil Graham and advised him to purchase the publication. Graham did so in 1961, and Bradlee became Washington bureau chief for the magazine (he also was awarded a finder's fee of company stock for telling Graham of the opportunity).
While in his 80s, Bradlee was diagnosed with dementia. Though forgetful, he continued to go to the Post offices, where he was welcomed by colleagues.
Bradlee's funeral was held at the Washington National Cathedral on October 29, 2014.
Bradlee admitted he was a lucky man, and luck is evident in his career — he landed at the Washington Post when there were funds available to double the newsroom in size and pursue ground-breaking stories, all while circulation shot up.
However, in addition to luck, Bradlee had a commitment to great journalism and the First Amendment — it's no surprise the Post won 18 Pulitzer Prizes during his editorial tenure. He was fortunate to have had his opportunities, but also the right man at the right time for the Post.