News & Politics

Boldfaced Washington Pays Tribute to Ben Bradlee at National Cathedral

The famed Washington Post editor got a sendoff worthy of his high-profile life and career.

Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

Ben Bradlee is dead. But the cathedral was alive.

The Washington National Cathedral filled up with more boldfaced names than This Town scribe Mark Leibovich’s most insider-y scene or Mike Allen’s most overstuffed Playbook to send off the legendary Washington Post editor, who died last week at age 93.

It took a few moments for someone who never met Bradlee or worked in the newsroom he shepherded for 26 years to appreciate the atmosphere: There’s Representative Steny Hoyer ahead in the security line and Hardball host Chris Matthews is about ten spots back. Charlie Rose is holding court in the driveway. The Secret Service is in charge of security because Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry will get here eventually. The list of pall bearers includes Bob Barnett, Norman Lear, Jim Lehrer, Jon Meacham, David Remnick, and Katharine Weymouth. That scrawny bald guy bounding across the entrance of the nave—was that Jeff Bezos? (Turns out it was Jeff Bezos.)

As much as Bradlee’s funeral was straight out of the kind of Washington tome that people snigger about publicly but browse for their names privately, the person who might have loved it the most was the man in the cloth-draped casket. “He loved being a celebrity,” Ben Bradlee, Jr. said in his eulogy. That was just one of many endearing, often effacing lines delivered by the elder Bradlee’s mourners at the two-hour service.

On putting this town in its place: “This is Washington, the city of big reputations. Some of those reputations get punctured, and Ben was responsible for more than a few of those punctures. This is a very large building, but everyone in it knows people whose very large reputations are undeserved.” —Don Graham

On newsroom management: “I once went into Ben’s office to ask for a raise. He looked up from the crossword puzzle he was always doing, and said in his best, gruff, WASP tone, ‘You oughta be paying me for all the fun you’re having.’ He was right.” —Walter Pincus

On editing: “At Ben’s retirement party his secretary approached him, as she was typing one of Ben’s letters, with a copyedting question: ‘Is dickhead one word or two?'” —David Ignatius

On words that don’t get uttered at funerals, even though “dickhead” did: “I called Ben at home. Woodward and I did not much observe the chain of command. Ben interrogated me. Had Mitchell been drinking? I couldn’t tell. Did I properly identify myself? Yes. Did I have good notes? Yes. ‘OK,’ Ben said, ‘put in all of [former Attorney General John] Mitchell’s comments in the paper, but leave out Mrs. Graham’s [taps chest].'” —Carl Bernstein

On the passage of time: “Ben’s passing marks the end of the 20th Century, we are diminished and the world is smaller.” —Bob Woodward

On Bradlee’s reputed virility: “I took Greta down to Washington for a visit along with my wife at the time, Martha Raddatz, Greta’s mother who’s with me here today. Dad wanted to take Martha on a personal tour of the monuments, so they ventured out with the baby and Ben wanted to push the stroller. At one point people looked over and smiled, and Dad turned to Martha, who was then in her late 20s, and said, ‘Ha! You know what they’re thinking. That I’m the father of the baby and a dirty old man.’ But he stared right back at them with a big smile of his own, quite content to leave the impression that he was perfectly capable of fathering that child, thank you very much.” —Ben Bradlee, Jr.

On Bradlee as a father: “My father was the most courageous man I ever met. Just being there for your kids might not be hugely courageous but especially at the beginning of my life, it was a courageous act. He could have said no, I cannot do this. But my dad always loved an underdog. He was always rooting for me, in part because he saw that I struggled more than most people to get by every day.” —Quinn Bradlee

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.