James Naughtie tribute to Watergate editor Ben Bradlee

Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee pictured in Paris in 1973. Picture: Getty
Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee pictured in Paris in 1973. Picture: Getty
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BEN Bradlee was a lion among journalists, a prowling and majestic figure who was feared, respected, and loved.

Executive editor of the Washington Post for 23 years from 1968, his name will always be linked to Watergate, the scandal that his paper exposed and followed to its extraordinary climax, when some of his most trusted colleagues doubted his judgement, and the fearsome power of the Nixon White House was turned to the destruction of him and his newspaper. He deserved the heroic status that it earned him.

Picture: Getty

Picture: Getty

The episode is one of the great stories of modern politics, and Bradlee was the general in the field who decided to march his troops to the sound of gunfire, while siren voices were urging him to hold back. He was ebullient and brave, and when he threw his weight behind Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1972 he was, unknowlingly at first, helping to revitalise the whole world of journalism, bringing back a sense of purpose to the business and reminding everyone why it was important to challenge the powerful to account for themselves.

That reminder is necessary, and it always takes courage. Bradlee was in charge at the Post when it was required. Two generations of journalists have grown up with that example before them, and there is none finer.

For those of us privileged to know him and spend time in his inimitable company, he was a rough and gorgeous inspiration. Handsome and effortlessly graceful, he was also a streetfighter who feared no one, and a storyteller of mesmerising power. Whether he was talking about his friend JFK, or Johnson or Nixon, or worrying about the European culture that he loved, or passing on gossip about some errant senator – there was always gossip - he was a man who made life seem better, every time.

As a reporter on this newspaper, I went to work for him in Washington. I was one of the early Laurence Stern Fellows, on a programme established in memory of his colleague and soulmate Larry Stern, and I treasure the telegram – the telegram! – that arrived after the interview with him in 1981 that said simply, ‘Welcome to The Washington Post – Bradlee’. His spirit infected the place and everyone who worked with him.

James Naughtie.  Picture:  Ian Rutherford

James Naughtie. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Character matters. Bradlee was no policy wonk, but when it came to stories – the simple telling of a tale – he had a brilliance that enlivened journalism across the world. He cared about the truth, and about everybody who went with him on the great adventure. A father figure to all the journalists he knew, a man of generosity and boundless loyalty, he inspired not only admiration but love too.