Looking back at the life of Ben Bradlee

Looking back at the life of Ben Bradlee

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, the most charismatic and consequential newspaper editor of postwar America, died at the age of ninety-three on Tuesday. Among his many bequests to the Republic was a catalogue of swaggering anecdotes rich enough to float a week of testimonial dinners. Bradlee stories almost always relate to his glittering surface qualities, which combined the Brahmin and the profane. Let’s get at least one good one out of the way:

During his reign, from 1968 to 1991, as the executive editor of the WashingtonPost, Bradlee took time periodically to dictate correspondence into a recorder. His letters in no way resembled those of Emily Dickinson. He was given neither to self-doubt nor to self-restraint. In his era, there may have been demands by isolated readers for greater transparency, for correction or explanation, but there was no Internet, no Twitter, to amplify them. Bradlee was, by today’s standards, unchallengeable, and he was expert in the art of florid dismissal. His secretary, Debbie Regan, was, in turn, careful to reflect precisely his language when transcribing his dictation. One day, Regan approached the house grammarian, an editor named Tom Lippman, and admitted that she was perplexed. “Look, I have to ask you something,” she said. “Is ‘dickhead’ one word or two?”

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