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Gary Younge

Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward at the All the President’s Men premiere in 1976.
Photograph: Ron Galella/WireImage
Stern fellows remember Ben Bradlee: 'Like everyone else, I was in awe of him'

Of the many legacies of the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, perhaps none has had so great an impact on British journalism as the Laurence Stern fellowship. The fellowship, which welcomes a young British journalist for an internship at the Post each summer, was established following the death in 1979 of its namesake editor, a top newsroom talent and one of Bradlee’s closest friends. Stern “had a fascination with all things English”, according to the National Press Foundation, which manages the award.

The Guardian has asked former Stern fellows – many of them now senior Guardian journalists – to share their memories of their time at the Post, and of the man himself.

I was summoned by that gravel voice across the famous post-Watergate Washington Post newsroom, to Ben Bradlee’s glass-walled office.

“I want you to find out who killed Kennedy!” he said.

I blinked a bit, not sure how much he was joking. (I think, looking back, the answer was “partly”, or possibly “mostly”.) It was 1980, and I was the very first Stern fellow, appointed by Bradlee in a tribute to his friend and colleague Larry Stern, who had died, and who apparently liked the Brits. It was a touching idea, and as it turned out, an absolutely brilliant one.

Bradlee would come over to London every year. With the help of British literary agent Felicity Bryan and other Stern devotees, he would pick a young reporter to come back to the Post, work on the national desk for three months, and have another month to go travelling. I was exhilarated when he chose me, obviously for my extreme brilliance as a Guardian writer. I was deflated later, when he used to say, roaring with laughter, that I got the gig because I looked just like Larry. (I had a beaky nose). And I duly went off on the Kennedy story. An English author called Tony Summers had just published a book claiming the CIA were behind the president’s assassination. I travelled around, went to New York, to Florida, chewed the fat with elderly spooks. I returned to Bradlee and said: “I’ve found out who killed Kennedy. It was Lee Harvey Oswald.”

He took it well. And he kept the fellowship going. It went on after my unexciting start to become a must-have for the absolute cream of British journalism. They’re still begging to come to the Post 35 years later, although it’s a shame they can no longer get to work with that tough, stylish, and iconic newspaperman. He was a lodestar for investigative journalism, and my hero.

Entering the newsroom of the Washington Post in 1983 – halfway though Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House – really did feel like being on a film set. Except that Ben Bradlee was better-looking than Jason Robards, who’d played him in All the President’s Men.

He had oodles of charm but exuded a slightly menacing authority too. And he maintained his affection for the late Larry Stern by giving an extraordinary welcome to the lucky recipients of the fellowship commemorating him.

Working at the Post was much more than a CV-enhancing internship. It was daunting but hugely rewarding. The stint I did covering the State Department in the dog days of August was enlivened by a crisis involving Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and not-so-covert US support for the rebels fighting him in Chad. Ben laughed for years afterwards about this young Brit who’d led the paper with a leak about a faraway country few had ever heard of before. To someone more familiar with the labyrinthine and nervous ways of Whitehall, the Post’s access to the highest levels of the US government felt awesome. Ben was a significant part of that.

Ben and his wife Sally Quinn were the ultimate Washington power couple, but there were plenty of personal kindnesses and encouragement too, even when I screwed up by failing to ask some Beltway bigwig for a quote. “You play the hand life deals you kid,” was his distilled advice. He certainly did that in a grand and unforgettable style.

I was a very early Stern fellow, in the days when the Post hadn’t really got its head round what it wanted us to do. So I was left pretty much to my own devices. Ben was wonderfully encouraging. Although I felt like the lowliest minion in the newsroom, he was happy to talk to me, have me into his glass-fronted, book-lined office and generally give me a chance. Like everyone else, I was in awe of him and bowled over by his charisma, his charm and the mischievous twinkle in his eye. Most of all, though, what we all loved was that he exuded fun. He knew journalism was meant to be fun, and I’ve never met anyone less po-faced in their approach to life and work.

Later in life, when I was being tapped up as a possible editor of the Independent – and he was on the paper’s board – we had lunch in London to discuss it. It was a time of cost-cutting and redundancies (nothing much changes) and Ben’s view was there was no point being editor if it wasn’t going to be fun. He certainly had a wonderful time as editor in the glory days of journalism – and the glory days of the Post. In fact, he helped to bring those days about. Those of us who were lucky enough to come, however glancingly, into his orbit will be grateful that he gave us an opportunity to experience them too.

I was a Stern fellow in 1986, about a decade after Watergate, but the Post and Bradlee still retained the aura of being one of the best papers in the world – maybe the best. Bernstein had gone but Woodward was still there as head of the investigative team, and Bradlee, always the showman and already immortalised by Hollywood, could be seen striding round the newsroom, stopping for a chat and a joke with reporters and copy editors.

As a Stern fellow, I was totally spoiled: had lunch with him, was invited to his home and sent back and forward across the US on stories, and we stayed in touch, meeting in London or Washington, up until the last few years.

He believed the Post was the best paper in the world in the 1970s and 1980s, but was always happy to hear confirmation of the fact. Over lunch in 1986, he was pleased when I told him that such was the reputation of the Post in the UK, working there would help me with any future career moves back home.

The last time I saw him was at a White House correspondents’ dinner. His memory was going and I thought he would not remember me, but as I approached him across the crowded room he broke into a terrible, croaky imitation of a Scottish accent.

It was an honour to have worked under him, and always fun.

In the spring of 1992, as a 25-year-old candidate for that year’s Stern fellowship on the Washington Post, I was ushered into a small holding room in central London and there he was: aged 71, the handshake muscled, the voice like sandpaper and radiating 20,000 kilowatts of charisma. What a novice footballer would feel on meeting Bill Shankly, what a child reared on Harry Potter would feel on meeting Albus Dumbledore, I felt on meeting Ben Bradlee.

Of course, I was expecting him to be like Jason Robards in All the President’s Men, the movie that raised a generation of journalists. He did not disappoint. Once he latched on to something he found interesting – in my case, a piece I had written about a sect of ultra-orthodox Jews convinced their leader was the messiah – he peppered me with questions. He didn’t say, “Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record on this story?” – as the on-screen Bradlee had done – but if he had, it would have sounded just right. Best of all, those sparkling eyes conveyed enthusiasm and curiosity, encouraging me to go deeper into the story, to offer up one more detail. In a small way, I’d seen the quality that made Bradlee a great inspirer of journalists, motivating them to do their very best – just for him.

My interview with dearly departed Ben Bradlee in 1996 would have passed few equal opportunities criteria today or probably even then. Intrigued by the very fact of me – a black British journalist – he set about quite candidly working out how I came to be.

“You strike me as a middle-class black guy,” he said. “I can see you becoming a lawyer, or a doctor, or something like that. But I wouldn’t have you down as a journalist. What does your dad do?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “My dad left when I was one.”

“Well what does your mum do?”

“She was a teacher,” I said, burying the tense in the back of my throat.

He fished it out.

“Well, what does she do now?”

“She’s dead.”

“When did she die?”

“When I was 19.”

“So from 19 you were on your own, right?” he said.

Having spent the weekend boning up to answer questions on American politics, I suddenly felt that I was auditioning for the part of Oliver Twist.

After I got to know him a little bit better during my fellowship I realised this was his way. Generally with everybody, not specifically with me. Big picture, gut instinct, broad brush – the very qualities that made for a tricky, but successful, interview for me was what made him a great editor.

Thirteen years ago, I arrived in Washington for the most extraordinary four months of my life, thanks to Ben Bradlee. It was a summer that began with a memorial service for the Post’s publisher Katherine Graham, and ended with piles of mail stacked up in the Penn Station post office, New York, that would never be delivered.

I arrived at the Post as an unusual Laurence Stern fellow – I was then a feature writer at the Daily Mail, who had submitted a portfolio including a piece about a talking horse. While Post purists were shocked, the editor who had overseen Watergate was amused – and willing to take a chance on me.

Like other Stern fellows I was sent round the country covering a variety of news and features. But my time in Washington will always be defined by a sunny morning in September when reports came in of a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. Soon after that I was in the office; Ben himself there too, sleeves rolled up, marching down to the newsdesk, as if he’d never retired. Even in the middle of that dreadful day, his encouragement of Stern fellows remained. He stopped by my desk and asked me if I was going to New York. By dawn the next day, I was there and privileged to be part of the biggest story of our age, thanks to one man’s generosity.

Ben Bradlee was hanging around the Washington Post newsroom when I worked there as a Stern fellow in 2007. He occasionally took visitors to a room in the basement for a private viewing of All The President’s Men. One day he invited me for dinner at his Georgetown home with his wife, Sally, and son, Quinn. That was daunting enough, but when I arrived I discovered that I was just one guest among a slew of Washington VIPs.

I was 25 at the time and out of my depth. We ate on the veranda and I stayed mostly silent, zoning out of the conversation and watching the fireflies. When dinner was almost over, Bradlee stood up, thanked his esteemed guests for coming and asked me to join him for a private chat in his study. He poured me a drink and regaled me with tales about John F Kennedy, the Watergate tapes and his encounter with Nelson Mandela.

Then he asked me what big scoops I had landed. I told him about the handful of front pages I’d written in my 18-month career as a Guardian trainee. Bradlee didn’t look overly impressed. He paused for a second before telling me: “Focus on the big stories. No one will remember the small ones.”

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