Like all charming and physically imposing persons, Ben Bradlee had an enormous head.
There. I said it: the last original observation not already to be found in the three billion words of tribute that poured forth after the death last week of Bradlee, the great editor of the Washington Post and an essential figure in the late-20th-century American establishment. And it’s true, when you met Bradlee and spoke to him, the thing that really overwhelmed you, more than the face-famous good looks and the booming voice inflected with Beacon Hill lockjaw, was the sheer scale of that melon rising up from the stiff white collar of his Savile Row shirt. No one failed to walk away impressed. I still haven’t got over it. Obviously.
So it goes when a famous person dies these days: The tributes were equally about the newly dead and the people paying him homage. There was the goopy exaggeration that always comes with graveyard prose—and always perfectly appropriate, too, under the principle De mortuis nil nisi bonum (“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”) and its modern corollary: “If you say something nice, overdo it.”
“Ben Bradlee was someone in a newspaper office that the country needed at a very dark time for democracy,” overwrote one Esquire blogger earnestly. An old Bradlee protégé—there are scores of these, and last week it was all hands on deck—closed his tribute like so: “I for one often imagine Ben as a kind of journalistic King Arthur and we, his Knights of the Round Table. He was not only my gruff guardian angel, but the nation’s as well.” That’s a lot of metaphor for two little sentences, but grief can do that to a protégé. Here’s another one: “His passing, in a way, marks the end of the 20th century.” About time.
Many of the tributes were of the I’ll-never-forget-the-day-Ben-first-met-me variety, recollections of young reporters cowering before the great man and his massive desk as he bestowed his famous f-bombs upon them like papal blessings. (Bradlee was revered for his profanity.) They were more like pocket memoirs than obituaries, and the upshot seemed to be that Bradlee’s true greatness rested in his hiring of the memoirist and others just like him.
Twitter is particularly useful in getting this kind of daisy chain going. Michele Norris, the former NPR news reader, tweeted a tweet that read (my translation from the twitterese): “Careers shaped by Bradlee: John Harris, Peter Baker, Gwen Ifill, Mike Wilbon, Michel McQueen Martin”—all of whom are famous among themselves for being famous journalists. One of those mentioned, Peter Baker of the New York Times, instantly retweeted Michele’s tweet with this modification: “And Michele Norris!”
Indeed, Bradlee’s death may cement Twitter as the indispensable tool of the self-referential obituarist. You can do so many things with Twitter when someone dies. Consider this multitasking tweet from yet another no-longer-young protégé: “Last time I saw Ben Bradlee [who suffered dementia], he said, ‘I can’t remember who the f— you are, but it’s great to see you.’ Loved that guy.”
So much is going on here, all subtly serving to lift the tweeter into the circle of Bradlee’s supernal light. First, he gets to drop a personalized Bradlee “f—,” which titillates Bradlee’s admirers more than an ordinary “f—” would. Second, “Last time I saw him . . .” implies that such occasions were not infrequent and always informal. Third, “Loved that guy” is the kind of thing you’d say about a fellow towel-snapper at the country club locker room, establishing intimacy. There’s more, but that’s at least three tweets in one.
With so many words pouring out, there was bound to be some repetition. Bradlee, the New Yorker affectionately recalled, “had the attention span of a gnat.” Also, said the New York Times, “he had the attention span of a gnat.” Many writers noted that Bradlee would express his admiration for colleagues by noting—this is a metaphor, I’m sure—their brass testicles. Bradlee himself, the Times told us, “clanked when he walked.”
“Men were divided into two camps,” said a Post writer: “those whose private parts ‘clanked when they walked’ and those whose, alas, didn’t.” Bradlee of course was a member of the first camp. You could look it up in the Times. He must have sounded like a trolley car.