The Words People Are Using to Describe Ben Bradlee

As the tributes pour in, a look at the language Bradlee's admirers are using.
The Words People Are Using to Describe Ben Bradlee
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Few high-profile passings inspire florid tributes as well as those of a widely admired journalist, and in death, longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee may be the best example yet. Since Bradlee’s death Tuesday evening at age 93, other journalists—regardless of whether they ever worked for him—have been churning out the glowing post-mortems celebrating a figure who shaped the Post for nearly three decades and guided it through its greatest achievements and some of its deepest failures.

The Bradlee encomia is sure to continue for weeks, but even through the first batch of appraisals, the hagiography is building a familiar lexicon, as seen in the word cloud above.

To build the cloud, we scoured remembrances written by former Posties David Remnick, Martha Sherrill, Tom Shales, and Rem Rieder, along with the Post’s 15-years-in-the-making obituary. We also included quotes some of the black reporters who worked for Bradlee gave to the Maynard Institute. Terms like “Washington” and “Post” loom largest, obviously. So does “Graham”—as in both Philip, who hired Bradlee when he bought Newsweek in 1961, and his wife, Katharine, who succeeded him as publisher and is credited, along with Bradlee, in turning a middling regional newspaper into a national publication and Pulitzer juggernaut. Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, Bradlee’s two biggest successes, pop up a lot, too.

But so does “Cooke.” That’d be Janet Cooke, who fabricated a Pulitzer-winning story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Bradlee’s role in the “Jimmy’s World” fiasco is omitted from most of the personal postscripts, but Remnick writes that Bradlee’s survival of the episode hinged on his relationship with the Grahams almost as much as his own professional reputation:

A certain post-Watergate overconfidence also seemed to help fuel a scandal, in 1981, when a young staff writer named Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for “Jimmy’s World,” a fabricated story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Bradlee was able to survive a scandal of that scale, as others would not have been, because he set a standard for immediate and investigative correction of Cooke’s confabulation—and because he had the long-standing affection of the owner and everyone in the newsroom.

The other boldface names dominating the cloud are who’d you expect from Bradlee’s life: (Sally) Quinn, Kennedy, and Nixon. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, oddly, did not make it, but David Broder—the late columnist whose hiring away from the New York Times was a coup for Bradlee—did.

If the word cloud reads dull and full of nouns, though, it’s not for lack of trying. Every Bradlee piece is littered with more colorful passages about his famously gruff demeanor and, as Sherrill notes, preference for “lusty greetings, exotic epithets, and obsolete profanities.” The kicker of Remnick’s article contains one of the strongest examples of Bradlee’s foul-mouthed bravado:

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.”

As much as everyone is quick to venerate Bradlee, some of the memories are as illustrative of the man’s era as they are of himself. Sherrill recalls him calling her “Legs” because “I’m tall and because he didn’t know my name.” Bradlee’s newsroom patter about his underlings’ personal lives was even more raw. Even as she writes with utmost praise, some of the lines Sherrill recalls would rightly be untolerated in a contemporary workplace:

A lesbian friend from his postwar Paris days wasn’t just “gay,” she was “gay as a goose.” A newly divorced editor with a revived sex life was “finally getting his ashes hauled.” The primal motive driving Jackie Kennedy Onassis was “she needs a lot of dough.”

Men were divided into two camps: those whose private parts “clanked when they walked” and those whose, alas, didn’t. Women were judged differently. The only ones Bradlee didn’t seem to appreciate were humorless. “A prude,” he’d say, as though nothing were more distasteful.

Still, it’s hard not to find Bradlee’s mannerisms endearing. After all, this is a guy who opened a letter from an upset reader who questioned his patriotism with the unforgettable salutation “Dear Asshole.” Bradlee’s rough, patrician ways might not fly in a modern newsroom, but they make for great stories. More of them will undoubtedly be passed around next Wednesday when Bradlee’s mourners pack the Washington National Cathedral for his funeral.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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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.