Wilkinson: Ben Bradlee Legacy

Nov 9, 2014

It's been a while, now, since the funeral of that indelible newspaperman Ben Bradlee. As with all old news, the coverage has ended. And I fear that with his death, so too will pass the standard he set for journalism.

I did not understand as a child what was happening in the newsroom at The Washington Post. When my sisters and I would go into work with my father, Tom Wilkinson, it was lots of click-clacking on keyboards and tremendously messy desks. We knew the reporters were writing stories for the newspaper that arrived at our house in the wee hours of the morning; we knew when Dad, Ben, and the other Senior Editors went into their story conferences that they were determining what appeared on the front page; we saw the presses run; we heard the chatter; but nothing was more exciting in my elementary school brain than the vending machines and wheely swivel chairs.

Dad started working at the Post in 1969, pre-Watergate. He was hired as a political reporter, then moved up the ranks to Assistant Managing Editor. There he contentedly remained until his official retirement in 2009. When Dad began at the paper Katharine Graham was Publisher, Ben Bradlee was Executive Editor.

Katharine Graham was a notable force. Women didn’t run companies, tell men what to do. But this didn’t faze Ben and their teamwork made newspapers change. Bradlee, with Graham’s blessing, sought truth and wouldn’t stop until he got it.

I tagged along when my father spoke at Dartmouth, his alma mater, for their newspaper banquet several years ago. Though Dad doesn’t volunteer much about himself, I understood what he believed about reporting and risk-taking and honesty because I grew up with the guy. But I was amazed and enraptured by the speech. Never before had I heard such a charge to strive to be the best, to find truth, to tell the story. What a job a reporter has! Ben showed the world how to do that. He was the best. He found the truth, he told the story. He was sensational in the true sense of the word.

I’ve had many questions for Dad about his colleague and good friend Ben. What was it about him, I asked. “Zest,” he replied. “A zest for life for sure, but a real zest for journalism and storytelling, a real zest for finding the truth, however difficult that might be. That was an absolute commitment for him. And everyone in the newsroom realized that.”

The news of Ben’s death brought out a surprising melancholy in me. I’m sad for the loss that his family and friends feel. I’m sad for my father. But I also mourn the possible disappearance of what Ben represents - the daring, thoughtful, and complete fact-finding journalism of my father’s era. What I wouldn’t give now to be back in that swivel chair, watching Ben inspire so many.