WASHINGTON — Benjamin C. Bradlee, the legendary editor who transformed the Washington Post into one of the nation's best papers and guided it through Watergate, is retiring as executive editor, the Post is announcing today.
He will be succeeded by Managing Editor Leonard Downie Jr., 49, who rose through the editing ranks of the paper after a career as an investigative reporter. Robert G. Kaiser, 48, will become managing editor.
The changes are effective Sept. 1, one week after Bradlee's 70th birthday.
"Bradlee is the second most powerful man in this town after the President of the United States," said Joseph Laitin, the former Post ombudsman who was deputy White House spokesman under President Johnson and assistant secretary of treasury and state in other Administrations.
At the least, Bradlee is perhaps the most famous newspaper editor in America, in large part because he was portrayed by actor Jason Robards in the movie "All the President's Men." But journalists say he was also one of the best editors in America and most influential.
Bill Kovach, curator of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard, said Bradlee personified a moment in American journalism when the press became more sophisticated and more aggressive, reaching to cover more of society and often taking risks.
"I think he is responsible here for the gradual buildup in the quality of the paper over more than 25 years," said Katharine Graham, the chairman of the Washington Post Co. who brought Bradlee to the paper in 1965 and made him executive editor in 1968. "During that time, he has led the paper with his personality and his involvement and the excitement he engenders about the news process."
"Ben has a powerful zest for innovation, aggressive reporting and fine writing," said Shelby Coffey III, editor of the Los Angeles Times, who spent 17 years at the Washington Post. "He brought that to the Post, and his leadership in transforming the paper will be a beacon for American journalism."
Colleagues said Bradlee led largely by setting a tone rather than by wielding a pen. And the tone was a charismatic mix of a Boston Brahmin educated at Harvard with the swagger and vocabulary of a sailor.
"The essence of Bradlee's character, which he magically conveyed to reporters, is a combination of very sophisticated, elite breeding and a kind of up-yours, street-level disdain of people who regard themselves as prestigious and powerful," said William Greider, the Washington editor of Rolling Stone magazine and a former assistant managing editor at the Post. "It was that mix that authorized reporters to do things with a bit of imagination and personality and to kick into subjects that were not, quote, news and to challenge authority."
That spirit reached its apogee in Watergate, journalists say, when the Post led the pursuit of the story of the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in 1972.
From the time of the break-in until Watergate defendant James McCord wrote a letter to Judge John J. Sirica saying he wanted to talk about the case, "American journalism went to sleep, except for the Post," said James Doyle, the spokesman and special assistant to the Watergate special prosecutor's office and author of "Not Above the Law: Battles of Watergate Prosecutors Cox and Jaworski."
Bradlee also made a permanent mark on journalism with the development of the Post's Style section. With its often acid-dipped profiles, literary writing and sharp point of view behind many of its stories, the Style section has become perhaps the most imitated element of the Post, though sometimes with mixed results, said former New York Times Executive Editor A. M. Rosenthal.
The Post said Bradlee will become a vice president of the paper and a director of the Washington Post Co. Bradlee also plans to write a book about newspapers, as well as his memoirs.
Downie, the new editor, was the choice of Donald Graham, Katharine's son, who is the paper's publisher and since May the parent company's chief executive.
"Len Downie is totally different from Ben and equally wonderful in his abilities, but they are different abilities," Katharine Graham said.
Downie, managing editor since 1984, has already been running the paper day-to-day for some time. Alongside Donald Graham, he has focused the paper more toward local news and improved the editing, insiders said.
Announcing his plans to the Post staff Thursday, Bradlee put a note on a newsroom bulletin board that read, "This is a cause for nothing but optimism and excitement about how productively time marches on."