My hero died last week.
Long before I became executive editor of the Star-Telegram, Ben Bradlee was the guy I wanted to be like.
Bradlee, longtime executive editor of The Washington Post, died Oct. 21 at age 93.
He was self-confident, debonair, creative, sometimes profane, a friend of Jack Kennedy when he was just a junior senator, spoke fluent French and stood up to powerful people upset about stories in his newspaper.
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Most of all, I admired him for his role in Watergate, when stories in The Washington Post helped bring down a president and proved once again why a free press is so important for our country.
I was a journalism major at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos in 1972 when Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward started writing about the “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate building.
The Post was under intense pressure because it was virtually the only media outlet writing about Watergate, and Bradlee had to constantly defend the stories his reporters were producing under withering attacks by Attorney General John Mitchell and the White House PR machine.
Lucky for them, Richard Nixon recorded every conversation in his office and the tapes ultimately were the smoking gun that proved the Post’s stories accurate.
I’ve met both Woodward and Bernstein, and although I never met Bradlee I saw him portrayed by Jason Robards in the movie All the President’s Men, based on their book, and they say Robards got it right (and he won an Oscar for it).
Over the years, I’ve had to defend Star-Telegram reporters from powerful people who were upset by stories in the paper, and of course the most important thing when you’re doing that is to have truth on your side.
The most vivid incident for me involved Texas Motor Speedway. Owner Bruton Smith was upset that our reporter, John Sturbin, wrote a story right before the race in 1998 saying drivers were concerned the track might not be safe because problems with drainage were making the asphalt slick and could possibly lead to cancellation of the race.
In a meeting with me at TMS, Smith slammed the story as untrue and demanded that I take Sturbin off the beat.
Even though he was 71, Smith was an intimidating man with forearms as big as Popeye’s. He started in stock car racing when it was a dirt-track sport and many of the drivers got their experience behind the wheel running moonshine. He was tough, and he was used to getting his way.
My knees were shaking, but I declined, and by the time I got back to the office, our sister paper in Charlotte, N.C., was on the phone to our publisher, Wes Turner. Smith owned Sonic Automotive, which ran several car dealerships in the state, and he hinted he might pull his advertising if they didn’t convince us to reconsider.
Lucky for me, when the drivers began running timed laps at the track later that day to qualify for the race, NASCAR abruptly canceled the session shortly after it started. It seems water was seeping up from the track and cars were crashing into the wall on Turn 1.
Although the races ran without serious incident that weekend, when they were over TMS tore up the track and repaved it.
I never told Sturbin what happened because I didn’t want it to affect his reporting going forward. He stayed on the motor sports beat for us for many more years and had a good relationship with TMS.
Maybe it wasn’t as brave as staring down a sitting president of the United States, but in a small way I knew a little bit about how Bradlee must have felt.