The great man just passed on at the ripe old age of 93. And having lived a long life, I would not be surprised if many ask “So who was he? What was the big deal?” The questions are normal, as Ben Bradlee came from a different era.
What was so different? Bradlee was born wealthy but believed in work. Not owning businesses, but working in the news business. He started at age 15. He loved being an editor, and he was perhaps the greatest news editor of his day (famous for his handling of Woodward and Bernstein breaking the Watergate story). How many rich kids dream of this kind of life today? Who chooses truth over celebrity?
Times also were different because in Bradlee’s day, newspapers had more relevance than they do today. More depended on their “fighting the good fight”. The best way to get a feel for that may be to watch a movie. Not about Ben Bradlee (though he makes an appearance in “All the President’s Men” played ably by Jason Robards). But a 1940 film called “His Girl Friday“, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It is a hoot to watch. The film also gives you the flavor of why independent news reporting was so important.
Ben Bradlee believed in the importance of news and he lived it. You might say that he was a major player in a great and ongoing historic game — speaking truth to power. I love this comment from an interview that he did that he made about how he learned his craft.
I was taught by some wonderful people. I had an editor, Ralph Blagden, at a little newspaper I worked on in New Hampshire who went so far out of his way to help me that his name is enshrined in my mind. I also had Ken Crawford, a bureau chief at Newsweek. He just did everything, going over stories and turning them back and saying “Why?” And then when I got to the Post, I had Russ Wiggins, who would just bust his you-know-what for me.
Ben was up front about his debts to prior craftsmen and that he had to pay his dues before he took a leadership role. And he nurtured great talent as well. Sadly, I feel we may have lost that continuity. Here is Ben at work back in the glory days