News & Politics

Longtime Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee Dies at 93

Bradlee, who led the Post through the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, died at his home Tuesday.

Bradlee in 2010. Photograph by Flickr user Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin.

Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor who led the newspaper from 1968 to 1991 and guided it through the Watergate scandal, died Tuesday at his Georgetown home, the newspaper announced. He was 93.

The scion of two elite Massachusetts families, Bradlee came to the Post as a reporter in the 1950s and in 1968 was named its executive editor, a position that made him one of Washington’s most visible citizens. Celebrated for overseeing the Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers and the investigation that led to the downfall Nixon administration, Bradlee’s personal life was also the subject of widespread public interest, especially following his third marriage, to former Post writer and socialite Sally Quinn.

“The story of the modern Washington Post starts the day Kay Graham made Ben Bradlee the editor of the paper,” the Post‘s former publisher and owner, Donald Graham, said in a statement released by the paper.

Under Bradlee, the Post collected 17 Pulitzer Prizes and saw its circulation double. Bradlee was also responsible for the creation of the Post’s Style section.

Even people well beyond Washington had a strong impression of Bradlee from Jason Robards’s portrayal of the gruff newspaperman in the 1976 adaptation of Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men.

“Ben was a true friend and genius leader in journalism,” Woodward and Bernstein said in a joint statement. “He forever altered our business. His one unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of that pursuit. He had the courage of an army. Ben had an intuitive understanding of the history of our profession, its formative impact on him and all of us. But he was utterly liberated from that. He was an original who charted his own course. We loved him deeply, and he will never be forgotten or replaced in our lives.”

Bradlee was a fixture in Washingtonian’s pages during and after his Post heyday, appearing as the subject of many features over the years. Writing on former editor Jack Limpert’s website, Norman Sherman recalls reporting out a 1974 Bradlee profile, down to his impeccable, though sometimes questionable, fashion sense:

His style showed his background but it also could be bizarre. One noon, a K Street lawyer, a polished friend of President Kennedy, was on his way to lunch with a couple of clients. He spotted Bradlee. dressed in a loud glen plaid suit, and they stopped to talk.

When the lawyer rejoined his companions, one asked, “Who was that?” The answer was, “He’s the editor of the Post.” The response: “Jesus, I thought he was your bookie.”

Among Bradlee’s other unmistakable qualities was his irascible newsroom demeanor. As New Yorker editor David Remnick remembers his time as a young Post staffer, Bradlee encouraged his journalists in his own brusque way:

“Well, I’ve been reporting a lot and calling … ” And blah, blah—in my nervousness I went on, explaining the intricacies of reporting to Ben Bradlee for three or four minutes. And to Bradlee, who had the attention span of a gnat, this was three-quarters of eternity. Finally, I ended the ill-advised aria with the most ill-advised words of all: “… and so don’t worry.”

The soles of his shoes parted. He sat up in his chair. I could see his face, and he was, for a moment, a threatening sight. And then he smiled, fantastically, and said, “What! Me? Worry? I am a dangerous man.” He led me back to the door. “So get the fuck outta here,” he said. “And get back to work.”

The White House, occupants of which were not always Bradlee’s biggest fans, also paused Tuesday night to remember the newspaperman.

“For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession—it was a public good vital to our democracy,” President Barack Obama said. “The standard he set—a standard for honest, objective, meticulous reporting—encouraged so many others to enter the profession. And that standard is why, last year, I was proud to honor Ben with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

In May 1987, former Postie Rudy Maxa interviewed his former boss as Bradlee, then 66, started contemplating retirement, though he was as energetic as ever then, driving his beige Subaru to work every day and managing to fit a lot of tennis into his personal schedule. While Maxa’s article features Bradlee doing plenty of career reflection, it’s obvious the man also bristled at being asked to imagine the Post after his departure, telling Maxa:

“The thing that Post watchers have to understand is that it’s going to be different. It’s just a waste of time to think about it. You know, people really want it both ways. They say the trouble with the Post is that we shoot from the hip. And then they say if Bradlee leaves, it’ll be boring.”

Bradlee was back in the feature well in July 2003. Then 81, he still reported daily for his job as the Post’s vice president at-large, though it was more of a ceremonial position with an easier schedule. Speaking with American University journalism professor Iris Krasnow, Bradlee appeared satisfied with the throes of retirement:

“I’d like to think, even at 81, that I’m continuously growing, yet I like that things have slowed some. I don’t have to be listening to the television and suddenly hear something that makes me fly out of the house and go down to the newspaper at 10 PM and start on a story. I know who I am. Let’s put it this way: I know enough about who I am, and maybe I don’t want to know any more than this. Perhaps I have a sign somewhere still inside of me that says: ‘Don’t go there.’ But I don’t think so. I’m really quite open in a way that surprises people. I don’t feel I have a hell of a lot to hide.”

Quinn, whom Bradlee married in 1978, disclosed last month that Bradlee had been suffering from dementia and was under hospice care. Bradlee is survived by Quinn and their son Quinn Bradlee; a son from his first marriage, Benjamin C. Bradlee, Jr.; two children from his second marriage, Dominic Bradlee and Marina Murdock; ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.