Ben Bradlee, Editor Who Led Watergate and Pentagon Papers Coverage, Dies at 93
Legendary former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who oversaw reporting on the Watergate scandal that brought down US president Richard Nixon, died Tuesday. He was 93.
Bradlee, who died of natural causes at his Washington home, leaves a lasting legacy at the Post and in the wider media, and has been hailed as a genius and for having "the courage of an army." He was also a friend to John F. Kennedy.
President Barack Obama, who awarded Bradlee the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, led the tributes, saying that for the newspaper man, "journalism was more than a profession -- it was a public good vital to our democracy."
During Bradlee's leadership of the Post from 1968 to 1991, he inspired reporters who "told stories that needed to be told -- stories that helped us understand our world and one another a little bit better," the president added.
His wife, former Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn, revealed last month Bradlee had been diagnosed with dementia.
Donald E. Graham, who served as publisher of the Post and was Bradlee's boss, said: "Ben Bradlee was the best American newspaper editor of his time and had the greatest impact on his newspaper of any modern editor."
It was Graham's mother, Katharine Graham, who was publisher of the Post when Bradlee charged young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with investigating the Watergate burglary.
The reporting uncovered a vast scheme of surveillance and dirty tricks, and the resulting coverage led to the impeachment and resignation of Nixon in 1974, and the prosecution of dozens of administration officials.
"Ben was a true friend and genius leader in journalism," Bernstein and Woodward said in a joint statement on the Post website as news of his death emerged.
"His one unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of that pursuit. He had the courage of an army."
Bradlee's reign as editor saw the Post win the Pulitzer Prize for its Watergate stories, and the respected newspaper also played a role in the successful legal challenge to the publication of the Pentagon Papers revealing the political maneuvers leading up to the Vietnam War.
New era of transparency
The Watergate coverage transformed the notion of political investigative journalism, and became the topic of a best-selling book, and later a film, "All the President's Men."
"If you had to pick a single figure to represent the pivot from the old relationship of journalists to politicians to the current relationship of journalists and politicians, it would have to be Ben Bradlee," said Alan Mutter, a former editor at the Chicago Daily News and Sun-Times, and now a media consultant.
"The game for the press and politicians changed dramatically with Watergate, when the discretion and mutual professional courtesies long enjoyed by press and politicians gave way to a searing investigation of not only the Watergate break-in but all the wrongdoing that preceded and followed it."
The result, said Mutter, was "a new era of greater transparency than ever before."
Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said Bradlee and a handful of others "represented the apex of the editor as a colorful, swashbuckling personality" and helped transform the Post into a nationally significant newspaper.
Descendant of French king
Bradlee was born in 1921 to a Boston family which traced its history to the early Massachusetts settlers of the 1600s.
On his maternal side, his grandfather was the artist and writer Frederic Crowninshield, a descendant of King John II of France of the House of Valois.
After graduating from Harvard University, Bradlee served as a communications officer for the US Navy during World War II.
He worked as a Washington Post reporter before taking a position at the US embassy in Paris, and later became a correspondent for Newsweek, starting in France.
As a reporter, Bradlee became a friend and confidant of John F. Kennedy, covering his successful 1960 presidential campaign.
When the Washington Post Co. bought Newsweek in 1965, Bradlee became the newspaper's managing editor and three years later its executive editor. A decade later, he married Quinn, his third wife.
Bradlee retired from his editorial job in 1991, but maintained the title of "vice president at large" and until recently would frequently visit his former colleagues at the daily.
In his autobiography, Bradlee acknowledged the unusual turn of events that led to his notoriety.
"It would be ungrateful of me not to pause here and acknowledge the role of Richard Milhous Nixon in furthering my career," he wrote.
"It is wonderfully ironical that a man who so disliked -- and never understood -- the press did so much to further the reputation of the press, and particularly the Washington Post. In his darkest hour, he gave the press its finest hour."