Legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee died Tuesday at the age of 93.

Bradlee is best known for leading the Post’s coverage of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. That story, reported by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, would go on to bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency and be immortalized in the film All The President’s Men.

“No one compares,” Woodward told Politico on Tuesday night. “He was the editor of the 20th century. His passing, in a way, marks the end of the 20th century.”

But Bradlee made his mark on journalism in other ways as well. His nearly three-decade tenure leading the Post, from 1965 until 1991, saw it become a leading national newspaper. He was especially keen to establish the paper as an authoritative source of Washington political reporting. That began not with Watergate, but the Pentagon Papers. As the Post notes in its obituary of Bradlee:

But Mr. Bradlee’s most important decision, made with Katharine Graham, The Post’s publisher, may have been to print stories based on the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration went to court to try to quash those stories, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision of the New York Times and The Post to publish them.

Bradlee also created the paper’s Style section in the 1960s. It was considered innovative at the time but eventually caught on, becoming a staple of daily newspapers across the country.

“Ben Bradlee was the best American newspaper editor of his time and had the greatest impact on his newspaper of any modern editor,” Donald Graham told the Post. Graham served as the paper’s publisher after his mother retired.


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Bradlee was also a regular on the Washington social scene. He had a notable friendship with President John F. Kennedy and a reputation for being a charismatic character.

Former Post reporter David Von Drehle touched on that aspect of the iconic editor in an essay for Time:

Which made him an odd fit, in a way, for the newspaper business. Set aside, for the moment, the improbable heroics of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, which would never have happened as they did without the peculiar protagonist Richard M. Nixon. The overwhelming bulk of the newspaper life is forgettable stories cranked out in mediocre fashion, the latest snowstorm, ballgame, traffic accident, charity dinner, Senate election, drought, chicken recipe. Having Bradlee sit down at your table in The Post’s lunchroom, where he often dined with the troops amid the plastic trays and sad salads, was like having Sinatra plop down beside you at a Trailways bus station. Great stuff, but you couldn’t help thinking that something was being squandered, that he really ought to be elsewhere, bedding Grace Kelly at the Hotel Hermitage in Monaco, or stealing the Mona Lisa, or outwitting Dr. No.

Bradlee had an optimistic view of journalism and considered a free press vital to society.

“I mean, it changes your life, the pursuit of truth,” he told Jim Lehrer on PBS NewsHour in 2006. “And at least, if you know that you have tried to find the truth and gone past the first apparent truth towards the real truth, it’s very exciting, I find.”

After the news broke Tuesday, several journalists tweeted their respects to the iconic newsman.

Ben Bradlee’s health took a turn for the worse in September, when he began hospice care at the Washington home he shared with his wife of 36 years, Post reporter Sally Quinn.

[photo credit: Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin]