Ben Bradlee, Famed Editor of The Washington Post, Dies at 93

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His legend as a journalist grew after he was portrayed in 'All the President’s Men' by Jason Robards

Ben Bradlee, the trailblazing executive editor of The Washington Post who was immortalized in the 1976 classic film All the President’s Men, has died. He was 93.

Bradlee, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for the past several years, died Tuesday at his home in Washington of natural causes. He began receiving hospice care at the home he shared with his wife, journalist Sally Quinn, in mid-September. The Washington Post announced the news Tuesday evening.

Bradlee guided the Post as executive editor from 1968 until his retirement in September 1991. His decision to defy the Nixon administration and publish the Pentagon Papers, and his newspaper’s unrelenting coverage of the Watergate scandal, led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August 1974.

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In November 2013, Bradlee received the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama.

In All the President’s Men, a down-on-his-luck Jason Robards agreed to the reported meager sum of $50,000 to play the hard-driving Bradlee opposite Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (as Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively) in the Watergate drama directed by Alan J. Pakula.

Robards received the best supporting actor Oscar for that performance and followed by winning the same trophy the next year for his work in Julia.

During his first Oscar acceptance speech, Robards thanked Bradlee “for being alive so that he would let me come out and play with him.”

In the 2012 book Conversations at the American Film Institute With the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation, Pakula said he was grateful that Bradlee let him hang out in his newsroom during preparations for the movie.

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“What the hell, if you’re going to make this film anyway, you might as well know what the truth is,” Bradlee told him.

But he fretted about who would play him in the movie. “You’re [Pakula] going to go on to make other films, Bob [Redford] will be riding off into the sunset in his next film, and meanwhile I’m going to be stuck for life as being to the American public whoever is playing me in All the President’s Men,” he says in the book.

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Robards, however, did him justice, and Bradlee’s reputation grew immeasurably after the film’s release.

Says the actor as Bradlee in All the President’s Men: “You know the results of the latest Gallup poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up ... 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear.

“We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys f— up again, I’m going to get mad. Good night.”

And here’s another Bradlee-Robards connection: When actress Lauren Bacall died in August, Quinn wrote on Twitter that she “almost lost Ben to her, the only acceptable person. As he would say, she was a spectacular dame.” Robards and Bacall were married from 1961 until their 1969 divorce.

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Bradlee also was portrayed by Henderson Forsythe in the romantic comedy Chances Are (1989) and by G.D. Spradlin in the 1999 Watergate spoof Dick.

A native of Boston, Bradlee studied journalism at Harvard and served with the Navy during World War II before joining The New Hampshire Sunday News in 1946 as an investigative reporter. Two years later, he departed for an $80 a week job to work the police beat for the Post. He left for a job with the State Department in Paris in 1951, then moved to Newsweek as a European correspondent.

Bradlee returned to D.C. in 1957, covered the Nixon and John F. Kennedy campaigns of 1960 and rejoined the Post as managing editor in 1965 under publisher Katharine Graham. Soon, the Post would begin a transition to becoming to one of the world’s leading papers.

Once asked for his definition of a newspaper, Bradlee said, “If you aren’t scared of being lynched, you would tell these readers of these newspapers that this isn’t the truth, it’s the beginning of the truth, it’s the first bite.”

Twitter: @mikebarnes4