Washington Post Education Columnist Recalls Ben Bradlee’s Influence

By Mark Walsh — October 22, 2014 3 min read
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Benjamin C. Bradlee, the legendary longtime editor of The Washington Post, who died Tuesday at age 93, was not necessarily known for being deeply interested in how his newspaper covered education policy.

After all, he had grown up a Boston Brahmin, living a relatively privileged life of private boarding schools and Harvard College (though not without personal hardships brought on by the Great Depression and a bout with polio).

“Half a century later boarding schools like St. Mark’s [which Bradlee attended] seem hard to explain, especially the single-sex boarding schools,” Bradlee wrote in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life. “Parents feel guilty about sending little Johnny away for the better part of such important years. And little Johnny is in no hurry to swap the permissive attitudes of today’s culture for the isolated discipline of a boarding school. The education provided was top of the line, but the education not provided—about race, poverty, anti-Semitism, crime, anything remotely counter-cultural—was extensive.”

Jay Mathews, the Post‘s veteran education columnist, recalled on Wednesday that Bradlee, as managing editor and executive editor from 1965 until 1991, made several contributions to how the paper covered the topic at the local and national level.

“I think the biggest contribution that Ben made to our education reporting was to see clearly and early that we had to expand it deep into the suburbs,” Mathews said in an email to me. “When I arrived at the Post in 1971, my first job was reporting night school board and county council meetings in the Virginia suburbs. He pushed us to establish bureaus in each of the suburbs, rather than sit in the small press rooms of the county or city administration buildings, and get deep into local school issues as far away as Loudoun, Prince William, Frederick and St. Mary’s Counties.” Those are outlying counties in the Washington metropolitan area.

Soon enough, California native Mathews would become the Post‘s correspondent in China and later its Los Angeles bureau chief and its financial reporter in New York City. While holding those posts, Mathews maintained an interest in writing about education. He wrote his acclaimed book about the educator Jaime Escalante (which led to the film “Stand and Deliver”) while reporting from Los Angeles, and he wrote Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) with America’s Best Public High Schools, while in the New York City posting.

Bradlee “departed from the standard newspaper practice of being restrictive about what reporters wanted to do beyond daily journalism,” Mathews told me. “Those of us who wanted to write books were encouraged to do so, rather than get warnings that we better not neglect our newspaper duties or scoop the paper. This remarkable openness to personal enterprise allowed me to start being an education reporter long before that was my assignment at the Post.”

Mathews said the Escalante and Class Struggle book projects “helped me to realize that newspaper education reporters would do better to break out of obligations to cover school board meetings and get inside classrooms. That is what the Post let me do, in the spirit of Ben’s culture of letting reporters follow their instincts, when I finally became a Post local education reporter in 1997, at age 52.”

“I am proud, like many others, to say he hired me,” Mathews said. “But it was his impatience with old rules that really made the paper go.”

My colleague Lesli Maxwell, whose husband, J. Freedom du Lac, writes for the Post, points out that few American youngsters will ever know a newspaper editor as well as most everyone in the country knew Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post during the Watergate era. (Sadly, few American youngsters will probably ever be as familiar with a daily newspaper as well as earlier generations.)

When I moved to Washington in 1988, I lived in Georgetown with other young professionals in what is known locally as a “group house"—a nice rowhouse none of us could afford on our own.

I would see Ben Bradlee and his wife, Post Style section writer Sally Quinn, walking the streets around their home, just a couple of blocks from mine. Post Publisher Katharine Graham and legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward lived in the neighborhood, too. It was remarkable to see these figures who were so prominent in an important chapter of American history going about their daily lives just a block or two from my door.

Knowing his reputation for being gruff, I never bothered Bradlee when I saw him walking in the neighborhood. But it was nice to be able to come home and tell your roommates you nodded “hello” to the last of the great American newspaper editors.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.