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Ben Bradlee Could Teach Us All a Thing or Two About Real Disruption

In his universe, nothing seemed off limits.

Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin/Flickr

When he died this week at 93 years old, the kudos for and remembrances of former Washington Post editor extraordinaire Ben Bradlee flooded across the Internet in a blast-from-the-past exudation.

Bradlee would have liked that word, since he seemed to like using unusual words a lot — look up “retromingent,” which the barrel-chested journalist had once aimed brilliantly at the hack media watchdog Reed Irvine, writing to him: “You have revealed yourself as a miserable, carping, retromingent vigilante, and I for one am sick of wasting my time communicating with you.”

I wish I had written that the moment I read it, of course. Which is what I thought a lot when I watched from once near and then far how he conducted his marvelous life and times, exuding everything from boundless charm to pithy bromides to entertaining rages to the constant show that was the business of being Ben Bradlee.

I said “near,” but it was really not that near for me — only in awe from a seat in the far corner of the newsroom starting out as a very young reporter at the Washington Post in what was then the backwater of the business section. He was on the tail end of his legendary tenure there, having become the most famous editor in the world, with all apologies to Horace Greeley.

But I’ll admit to always watching for Bradlee to walk briskly on through the space in a way that caused everyone to simply stop and stare as he moved about. He had an unusual gait — apparently from a bout with polio — but he even made that work for him in a kind of cock-of-the-walk manner that never seemed arrogant and always telegraphed that he was having a lot more fun than anyone else.

Fun is an unusual way to think about an editor who was key to many very serious journalistic endeavors, from the Pentagon Papers to, of course, Watergate. So it was more than that, really, more of a delight in upsetting applecarts that needed it, in afflicting the too-comfortable with glee and generally making trouble for troublemakers. He was — if I can use this often abused word applied to great tech leaders — completely disruptive.

 A news zipper honoring Bradlee at the Post this week.
A news zipper honoring Bradlee at the Post this week.
Kara Swisher

This is the characteristic Silicon Valley so often celebrates — being the grand disruptor. That includes the ability to be bold in the face of fear; the willingness to push through problems with a reality distortion field of hope and hype; the proclivity for believing in yourself when others do not; and the embracing of failure as just another step in a longer process.

While a lot of these are myths that tech believes in, despite an often pre-stacked game for those on the inside, the heart of the idea of true disruption is much more pure when it was practiced by someone like Bradlee. Although well known for Watergate and other high-profile media moments, he also innovated relentlessly at the Post, including creating one of the first and best Style sections in newspapers, encouraging cutting-edge writing and pushing for reporters to be stars in their own right.

At the time, this was rare and this was important, because it inspired a whole range of journalists to copy that swagger and tone to be just like Bradlee. In his universe, nothing seemed off limits, if the reporting was solid, with his finest characteristic as a leader being someone who gave you permission to cause a ruckus if that is what you needed to do.

I recounted one such time when I was working at the Post that had a profound effect on how I developed my own ability to charge ahead:

I actually learned that skill when I was a really young reporter at the Washington Post, when the legendary Ben Bradlee still held sway over the newsroom. He was every single fantastic thing people think of him as: Tough, smart, profane, funny, difficult and, yes, often very pushy.

He hardly knew who I was, of course, but one time when I was working in the business section covering the rapidly declining retail landscape in the Washington area, the lifeblood of the Post’s business, he did me a solid I have never forgotten. A major mogul who paid for a lot of the bills for the newspaper was haranguing me — via phone and via peckish lawyers — for being too hard on him in my coverage of the spectacular meltdown of his family business.

It was a mess through and through, and I had not backed off so far, but I had to admit I was scared when the heat from the mogul got a little stifling. Bradlee — who loved my stories of this retail version of “Dallas” and now and then came over and asked, “Whatcha got today, kid?” (he actually said “kid”) — was there when such a call came through and could see I was distressed.

After I explained the situation, he took only one second to give me a piece of advice that I have been following since: “If your reporting is right, tell them to f#*k off.”

And I have been doing that ever since, a priceless gift from one of the most enjoyable figures it has been my privilege to encounter. I last saw Bradlee at the Post just over a year ago, when I was visiting its publisher Don Graham. While walking to his office, we ran into Bradlee, who worked now on the executive floor and apparently often came in. He had most definitely aged since the last time I saw him when I left the Post in 1996, but damned if he was still not the most attractive, charismatic and magnetic creature in a large group of men.

The brief meeting made me think of another I had with him two decades before, which is how I will always think of him. I was leaving the Post late one night, having worked yet another evening away on a story that I have long forgotten. I did that a lot back then, and it seemed right to me as I was desperately ambitious and wanted very much to rise high and go very far in my chosen profession.

It was about midnight, and I was walking out the side entrance to the Post in 15th Street NW when I ran smack into Bradlee, who was wearing tux with his bow tie rakishly undone. And with him, entering the door as I was leaving? Why, Lauren Bacall, of course. It was, shall we say, a riveting picture.

Bradlee was coming in to get a copy of the first edition, which was printed then right there — you could hear the massive presses rumbling nightly and smell the ink in the air everywhere as they did. There were still-warm stacks of them put out and he grabbed one and headed up the stairs with the still stunning Bacall in tow as he passed me.

“Working late?” he barked at me, with that marvelous twinkle he always seemed to have in his eye. “Maybe you should get out of here and have some fun.” And then around the corner he turned, headed to the newsroom on the fifth floor and now roaring about something that Bacall had said to him.

I could hear Bradlee’s deep-throated laughter until the elevator doors closed, a moment as close to perfect as it could be and one I shall never, ever forget. Because of all the things you could say about Ben Bradlee, and there are so many, the man certainly knew how to make an entrance and an exit.

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