Ben Bradlee, who oversaw the Washington Post‘s reporting on the Watergate scandal that brought down US president Richard Nixon, has died at the age of 93.
Bradlee, who died of natural causes at his Washington DC home on Tuesday, leaves a lasting legacy at the Washington Post and in the wider media, and has been hailed as a genius and for having “the courage of an army”.
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 Washington 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 Washington 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.”
President Barack Obama, who awarded Bradlee the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, said 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 Washington 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”, Obama said.
Bradlee’s reign as editor saw the Washington 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 manoeuvres leading up to the Vietnam War.
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.
Actor Jason Robards turned Bradlee into a box-office hit with his Oscar-winning portrayal of the editor in the film.
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 magazine, starting in France.
Friend of Kennedy
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.
Bradlee’s marriage in 1978 to former Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn – his third – added more glamour to his image.
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.
Quinn revealed last month that Bradlee had been diagnosed with dementia.
In his autobiography, Bradlee acknowledged the unusual turn of events that led to his notoriety.
“It is wonderfully ironical that a man [Nixon] 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.”
Bradlee was one of the few to know the identity early on of the celebrated Watergate source dubbed Deep Throat, finally revealed publicly in 2005 as W Mark Felt, an FBI official.