10/22/2014 11:14 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

Two Gladiators in the Arena of Words: Ben Bradlee and Abe Rosenthal


There are many ways to describe Benjamin Bradlee, who died Tuesday night in Washington at the age of 93: Brave; great editor; mentor to scores of journalists; social gadfly; and, of course, very smart.

But to me, Bradlee was always a gladiator, a man who fought for words and wordsmiths.

As executive editor of the Washington Post, he fought on behalf of his reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to unravel the political mysteries of then President Richard M. Nixon, the so-called "Watergate" scandal that eventually led to the resignation of the only American president in history. Their coverage made Woodward and Bernstein into stars, and it won the Post a coveted Pulitzer Prize.

Earlier, Bradlee fought the Nixon administration over the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The documents were part of a secret study the government had commissioned to examine the causes and conduct of the Vietnam War. The administration went to the United States Supreme Court to stop both the Post and the New York Times from publishing those documents, which the newspapers had obtained from Daniel Ellsberg, one of the authors. The Supreme Court allowed the papers to publish the papers.

Bradlee always fought for his reporters when he believed they had done their homework diligently and had enough evidence to support their investigative stories. He believed that words were sacrosanct, and that abusing them through incomplete reporting was sloppy and, worse, traitorous to the craft of journalism.

This belief sometimes unsettled or angered some reporters who were eager to rush their articles into print. But Bradlee had the unerring judgment of a man who'd done his time in journalism -- at Newsweek, and then at the Post since 1965. It was a belief that helped shape the careers of scores of young men and women who later flourished as writers after they'd left the Post for greener pastures in publishing and Hollywood script writing.

That belief won the Post and its reporters 18 Pulitzer Prizes during Bradlee's tenure, which ended with his retirement in 1991.

But it wasn't just words and wordsmiths that Bradlee fought for. He was in continuous combat with his archrival, A.M. Rosenthal, the executive editor of the New York Times. They were both hugely talented men with larger-than-life personalities, and with enormous egos. They were men who led internationally prominent newspapers. And they were men who despised each other.

Bradlee's despising of Rosenthal flowed from the fact that The Times had more reporters and resources to pursue stories, that The Times won more Pulitzers -- the highest awards in American journalism -- under Rosenthal than the Post did under Bradlee.

Rosenthal's utter dislike of Bradlee was more atavistic. He thought that Bradlee was a showoff, a social doyen who lavished as much attention on Washington's power Establishment as he did on his own journalists -- perhaps even more. Rosenthal felt that, while at Newsweek, Bradlee's deep friendship with President John F. Kennedy came in the way of exposing Kennedy's sexual misadventures.

Most of all, Rosenthal resented the media coverage that Bradlee got in various social columns. He was often photographed with his wife -- and employee -- the glamorous Sally Quinn, an acclaimed columnist and author in her own right. Rosenthal never received the sort of media acclaim that Bradlee did, even though his personal journalistic achievements were much more extensive, including a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

That could well be because of a difference in personalities. Bradlee was outgoing, gregarious, full of social energy; always ready to have a good time at parties he went to almost daily, and ones he and his wife frequently gave at their home in one of Washington's toniest neighborhoods. Bradlee often used salty language, telling naughty jokes even in the company of the political elite.

Rosenthal was a much more reserved man. He rarely smiled, let alone guffawed as Bradlee did. He did not tell risqué stories. He was totally consumed by his passion for The Times, and was seized by the romance of journalism. Like Bradlee, he too helped shape the careers of many journalists. But Rosenthal always felt that the recognition that was due him was seldom forthcoming, quite possibly on account of his prickly personality.

Who was the greater editor of the two men? My vote goes for Abe Rosenthal. My vote goes with him for personal reasons: He hired me while I was still at college, and mentored me throughout my journalistic career until his death in 2006 at the age of 84.

He remained a friend long after I'd left The Times to write books, and long after he left The Times under unseemly pressure from a new and young publisher, the son of the man, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger with whom Rosenthal literally saved The Times from extinction in the 1970s when suburban papers and urban magazines were snatching away advertising revenues and circulation. Sulzberger and Rosenthal saved The Times by, among other things, introducing lavishly illustrated and deeply reported specialty sections in the daily papers, which attracted readers and advertisers; the move was to be replicated widely by other papers in America and around the world.

My vote goes for Abe Rosenthal because he injected in me an abiding addiction for story telling, a respect for words, and a discipline for listening to people. He was utterly without prejudice and social bias, in my view, and he always liked to think that he "kept the paper straight" -- which was to become the epitaph on his gravestone in New York.

That's not to say that Bradlee was any less of a man or editor. But I never worked for him, and I was never engaged with his style.

In his declining years, Ben Bradlee suffered from Alzheimer's Disease. Now that he has gone, I wonder whether in that fading time of his life he even remembered the rivalry with Abe Rosenthal.

But Rosenthal's memory was sharp until his death of a stroke. In one of my last conversations with him, Abe said, "That damn Bradlee -- he gets to have all the fun."