THE BLOG
11/04/2014 11:08 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Ben Bradlee and His Creation of 'Style'

Ben Bradlee, who died last week at the age of 93, did not so much edit the Washington Post as lead it.

Where other editors of the times would rewrite headlines, cajole reporters and senior editors, and try to put their imprint on everything that they could in the newspaper, that was not Bradlee's way. His way was to hire the best and leave them to it.

Bradlee often left the building before the first edition "came up," but it was still his Washington Post: a big, successful, hugely influential newspaper with the imprimatur of one man.

Bradlee looked, as some wag said, like an international jewel thief; someone you would expect to see in one of those movies set in the south of France that showed off the beauty of the Mediterranean and beauties in bikinis while the hero planned a great jewel heist.

I worked for Bradlee for four years and we all, to some degree, venerated our leader. He had real charisma; we not only wanted to please him, but also we wanted to be liked by him.

Bradlee was accessible without losing authority; he was all over the newsroom, calling people by their first names and sometimes by their nicknames, without surrendering any of the power of his office. He was an editor who worked more like a movie director rather than the traditionally detached editors I had known in New York and London.

The irritation at the paper -- and there always is some -- was not so much that Bradlee was a different kind of editor, but that he had a habit, in his endless search for talent, of hiring new people and forgetting, or not knowing, the amazing talent already on the payroll. The Post was a magnet for gifted journalists, but there were only so many plum jobs for them to do. People who expected great things of their time at the paper were frustrated when relegated to a suburban bureau, or obliged to write obituaries for obscure people.

Yet we knew we were putting out a very good paper and, in some ways, the best paper in the United States.

Much has been made of Bradlee's fortitude, along with that of the publisher, Katherine Graham, in standing strong throughout the Watergate investigation, which led to President Nixon's resignation. But there was another monumental achievement in the swashbuckling Bradlee years: the creation of the Style section of the newspaper.

When Style first appeared, sweeping away the old women's pages, it went off like a bomb in Washington. It was vibrant, rude and brought a kind of writing, most notably by Nicholas von Hoffman, that had never been seen in a major newspaper: pungent, acerbic and choking on invective. Soon it was imitated in every paper in America.

The man who created Style was David Laventhol, who came down from New York to fashion something new in journalism. Laventhol was a newspaper mechanic without equal, but Bradlee was the genius who hired him.

When I worked at the Post, I interacted a lot with Bradlee -- partly because we enjoyed it, and partly because it was the nature of the work. I knew a lot about newspaper production in the days of hot type and he affected not to. That gave Bradlee the opportunity to exercise one of his most winning traits: disarming candor. "I don't know what's going on here," he said one frantic election night in the composing room.

But when it came to big decisions, Bradlee knew his own mind to the exclusion of the rest of the staff. The nerve center of a newspaper is its editorial conferences -- usually, there are two every day. The first conference is to plan the paper; the second is a reality check on what is new, and how the day is shaping up.

At these conferences, Bradlee would listen from behind his desk. But when he disagreed with the nine assistant managing editors, and others who needed to be there, he would put his feet on the desk, utter an expletive and cut through fuzzy conversation like a scimitar into soft tissue. As we might say nowadays, he had street smarts. They were invaluable to his editorship and to his charm.