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What it was like to meet Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee, left, with Bob Woodward, at the premiere of "All The President's Men".
Ben Bradlee, left, with Bob Woodward, at the premiere of "All The President's Men".
Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

By the time I got to the Washington Post, in 2009, Ben Bradlee had retired. But he hadn't left.

You would see Bradlee in the cafeteria, eating lunch with Walter Pincus. You would see him stalking the halls. You would see him in the elevator, headed to a higher floor than you were. He was in his 90s, but he still looked like Ben Bradlee. He still sounded like Ben Bradlee. He reminded you that you were in a house built by your betters, that this was a place where real journalism got done, where legends still roamed. It made you feel like you were part of something, and you had better damn live up to it.

Bradlee made a lot of people feel like they were part of something. In 1969, a Harvard psychiatrist named George Vaillant sat down to interview Bradlee as part of the Grant Study, which followed 268 Harvard students throughout their lives in order to assemble a guide to "intelligent living." By the time Vaillant met him, Bradlee was 47 years old, and had been executive editor of the Washington Post for a year. Vaillant's notes from the encounter, as recorded in Jeffrey Himmelman's biography of Bradlee, "Yours In Truth", are remarkable, and worth quoting at length:

At first, Vaillant records what Ben says without adding much commentary of his own. Gradually, though, as the report progresses, Vaillant begins to include some of his own observations. He notes parenthetically that Ben speaks in a "charming and urbane way," then later that Ben is "dressed in a dapper fashion." When the conversation veers into the relationship with Kennedy, Ben gives Vaillant a copy of "That Special Grace," the prose poem he filed for Newsweek the day after Kennedy was killed. "I had the feeling not of an artist pushing his wares," Vaillant writes, "but of someone giving me a profound gift."

In the final section of the report, entitled "Description of the Man," Vaillant tries to summon a more clinical assessment of how being around Ben has made him feel:

"[I]n walking over to the office there was a contagious quality about him that made me feel bigger than life just to be with him. It stemmed partly from his being completely generous with his own feelings, combined with a social gracefulness that must have been largely habit....[H]is facial expression conveyed both tenderness and seriousness while making me laugh. He said many things that were funny, but never at his own expense and never to lead me off the track from something that was emotionally relevant to him....

He also possessed a contagious enthusiasm and constantly saw the positive aspects, not because he defended against them but because there were many things that he really enjoyed. I could easily understand why a President would have picked him as his closest companion during the Presidency.

By the time Vaillant got to the end of his report, he was completely besotted:

This was a man with a great capacity to focus his attention. He was a man who cared about things only as they related to people. Thus he gave up golf when he stopped playing it with Jack Kennedy. What he admired most about the latter was Kennedy's ability to love and his gracefulness. I left the interview feeling that I had greater capacity as a human being just from having known him.

Bradlee had thateffect on a lot of people. It's how he hired the best journalists of his era away from bigger, more prestigious competitors. It's how he turned the Washington Post from a local paper to a national force. But it was more than just Bradlee's magnetism at work. Most men with that kind of charisma are crippled by it. They so love to be liked that they cannot stand to be hated. But Bradlee could. The decision to run the Pentagon Papers could have destroyed the Washington Post. The decision to keep pursuing President Richard Nixon could have done much worse than that.

Ben bradlee

Ben Bradlee receives the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2013. (Win McNamee/Getty)

Bradlee was better than virtually anyone else from his generation at being liked, but he built his legend — and his paper — because he was willing to be hated in service of journalism. "As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness, it is not his job to worry about consequences." he wrote in 1973. "The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run. I truly believe the truth sets men free." A lot of editors write things like that. But Bradlee really believed it, and he proved it, again and again. He took all his magnetism and all his enthusiasm and all his genius for people and turned it to inspiring journalists to do the best work of their lives, and he protected them while they did it, even when the risks were overwhelming.

It seems obvious, now, that an editor would sooner die than give up on the kind of stories Bradlee got, but that's because Bradlee got those stories, fought through to their end, and became a legend for it. It could have gone another way, and under a lesser editor, it would have. But now, for most editors, it would be unthinkable to blink, and that's in part because Bradlee so established the idea of what a great editor should do under pressure.

A rival publisher once called Bradlee arrogant. "Editors do run the risk of appearing arrogant if they choose to disagree with anybody who calls them arrogant," he replied. "You sound like one of those publishers who aims to please his pals in the community and give them what they want. No one will call you arrogant that way. No one will call you newspaperman, either."

Bradlee was a newspaperman. He will be missed.

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