TIME remembrance

Ben Bradlee’s Electric Glow

Ben Bradlee on Oct. 1, 1995.
Ben Bradlee on Oct. 1, 1995. Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte—Corbis

A former Washington Post reporter remembers a legendary newspaperman who lived off gossip, palled around with the Kennedys and was the most celebrated editor of his time

Charisma is a word, like thunderstorm or orgasm, which sits pretty flat on the page or the screen compared with the actual experience it tries to name. I don’t recall exactly when I first looked it up in the dictionary and read that charisma is a “personal magic of leadership,” a “special magnetic charm.” But I remember exactly when I first felt the full impact of the thing itself.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was gliding through the newsroom of the Washington Post, pushing a sort of force field ahead of him like the bow wave of a vintage Chris-Craft motor yacht. All across the vast expanse of identical desks, faces turned toward him — were pulled in his direction — much as a field of flowers turns toward the sun. We were powerless to look away.

This was after his storied career as editor of the Post had ended. I was the first reporter hired at the paper after Bradlee retired in 1991 to a ceremonial office on the corporate floor upstairs. For that reason, I never saw him clothed in the garb of authority. He no longer held the keys to the front page and the pay scales, so his force didn’t spring from those sources. Nor did it derive from his good looks, his elegance or his many millions worth of company stock.

I realized I was face to face with charisma, a quality I had wrongly believed I understood until Bradlee reached the desk where I was sitting and the bow wave pushed me back in my chair. It is pointless for me to try to describe this essence, because in that moment I realized that it cannot be observed or critiqued. Charisma can only be felt. It is a palpable something-more-ness — magical, magnetic — as rare as the South China tiger. I’ve met famous writers, directors, actors, athletes, billionaires, five Presidents of the United States, and none of them had it like Bradlee.

Which made him an odd fit, in a way, for the newspaper business. Set aside, for the moment, the improbable heroics of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, which would never have happened as they did without the peculiar protagonist Richard M. Nixon. The overwhelming bulk of the newspaper life is forgettable stories cranked out in mediocre fashion, the latest snowstorm, ballgame, traffic accident, charity dinner, Senate election, drought, chicken recipe. Having Bradlee sit down at your table in the Post’s lunchroom, where he often dined with the troops amid the plastic trays and sad salads, was like having Sinatra plop down beside you at a Trailways bus station. Great stuff, but you couldn’t help thinking that something was being squandered, that he really ought to be elsewhere, bedding Grace Kelly at the Hotel Hermitage in Monaco, or stealing the Mona Lisa, or outwitting Dr. No.

Ordinary news hacks — even the best of them — do not pal around, as Bradlee did, with John F. Kennedy and Lauren Bacall. They do not, as Bradlee did, arrange the sale of Newsweek by the Astors to the Grahams. They do not, as Bradlee did, have a sister-in-law whose mysterious death prompts a clandestine visit from the CIA’s top spymaster, desperate to retrieve her diary. They do not, as Bradlee did, live in a mansion that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln’s son.

Yet Ben wore all this with impossible ease, just as he wore his handmade shirts from London’s Jermyn Street as casually as a mortal wears Land’s End. God, those shirts — as beautiful and numerous as Gatsby’s, but minus the stain of anxiety. Only three types of men wore shirts like that: toffs, posers and Ben.

Anyway: impossible ease. He sized people up in an instant (of one failed job applicant he growled simply, “nothing clanks when he walks”) and met them as they were. He was the same fellow chatting with a movie star as he was with my father-in-law, a retired electrician with whom he swapped stories of card games in the Navy. When I introduced him to my nephew, another Benjamin, he bent to look the boy in the eye and said in a brotherly tone, “They can call you Ben, and they can call you Benjamin — but don’t ever let ’em call you Benjie!”

What made Bradlee a great newspaperman was that he had exactly the right blend of intelligence and impatience, plus an infectious hunger to be in the know. Feeding Ben a good bit of gossip was like turning over the last card of an ace-high straight, with his wide-eyed smile as the payout. He also had a restless attention span, so his reporters vied relentlessly to find stories sexy and important enough to catch and hold his interest. Whole sections of the Post went almost entirely unnoticed by him — his response to news that the paper’s dance critic had won the Pulitzer Prize was “Who the hell nominated him?” But the parts of the paper that Bradlee cared about were bright, bewitching and boffo.

(Ben had a thing about ballet coverage. He once summed up his animus toward the New York Times by noting, “it’s a paper with four f-cking dance critics!”)

As Shakespeare would appreciate, these gifts had a downside, and when it was revealed Bradlee experienced the low point of his career. A reporter named Janet Cooke decided to dazzle the editor with an invented story, because she couldn’t find a real one hot enough to do the trick. Plenty of people, inside and outside the newsroom, were skeptical of Cooke’s tall tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict with no last name and rather stilted diction. They noticed that the story was untethered by geography, dates and on-the-record sources. But Bradlee believed in it, and he was all that mattered, bigger than all the skeptics, bigger than the fail-safes, bigger even than the Pulitzer committee that awarded Cooke a prize for feature writing. The prize had to be returned when the lies unraveled.

It was around that time, 1981, that young Don Graham, successor-in-waiting to his remarkable mother, Post publisher Katharine Graham, clearly realized that there would never be — could never be — another Bradlee. Plenty of wannabes stalked the newsroom, wearing bespoke shirts and trying to copy Ben’s way of snarling out cuss words while grinning incandescently. When it came time to anoint Bradlee’s successor, however, Graham passed over all of them in favor of an unglamorous Midwesterner. Len Downie did not push out a bow wave. He was, in some ways, the anti-Ben. But if there was a better all-around newspaper editor, I don’t know who it was.

Ben sailed on as the one and only. In his later years, he groused amiably that he was just a museum piece, his office merely another “stop on the tour” of the Post. As newspaper circulation and profits sank year after year, Bradlee never indulged in second-guessing or armchair quarterbacking — petty pastimes that would have been beneath him. Though he was the most celebrated newspaper editor of his lifetime, perhaps the most celebrated of all time, he pronounced himself baffled by the competitive pressures of the digital age, and thankful that his era was the era of expansion and wealth.

I’m thankful too. For only the adrenaline charge of those go-go years, the generation after World War II, could have drawn such a man to the newspaper game. And the fact that Ben Bradlee was a part of it, never mind the prizes and the books and the movies — just the fact of Bradlee, the force, the charisma, threw an electric glow over the whole business and made it a joy to go to work. Though his ship passed over the horizon, he left a luminous trail dancing in his wake.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the location of the London shirtmaker where Bradlee ordered his dress shirts. It was Turnbull & Asser on Jermyn Street.

Read next: Jill Abramson: Ben Bradlee Was Luminescent

TIME 2014 Election

How a Kansas Republican Is Trying to Win By Losing

A rising conservative star tries to stop Democrats from throwing in the towel in a key Senate race

At first blush, it might seem strange that the Republican Secretary of State in Kansas is going to the mattresses in a seemingly hopeless fight to force Democrats to put a candidate on the ballot for the U.S. Senate.

But Kris Kobach is no ordinary secretary of state. Whip-smart (degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale), movie-star handsome (and a national champion rower), he is a darling of the far-right wing of the GOP, best known as the legal mastermind of the anti-illegal immigration movement.

No one doubts that Kobach, 48, has ambitions far beyond Topeka. He is a frequent speaker at conservative gatherings around the country, and racks up further frequent flyer miles as a consultant to state lawmakers who want help in writing tough restrictions on undocumented workers. His 2004 bid for Congress ended in defeat at the hands of then-incumbent Rep. Dennis Moore—but losing your first campaign says nothing about future prospects. Ask Barack Obama.

The question in Kansas is whether Kobach is helping or hurting himself with his crusade, which started when the Democratic nominee for Senate, Chad Taylor, announced that he was dropping out of the race against incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.

Taylor’s decision—encouraged by Democratic Party leaders in Kansas and around the country—was a calculated move to boost the chances of independent candidate Greg Orman. Polls have indicated that Roberts is vulnerable. But to beat him, the anti-Roberts voters would have to unite behind one candidate, for Kansas has elected only Republicans to the U.S. Senate since 1932.

Kobach answered by refusing to drop Taylor’s name from the ballot. Then, after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Taylor has met the requirements to leave the race, Kobach doubled down. He has ordered Kansas Democrats to nominate another candidate—an order that the Democrats are almost certainly going to ignore.

Some keen observers of Kansas politics are perplexed by Kobach’s increasingly quixotic stand. “In a lot of ways it doesn’t make any sense,” says University of Kansas political science professor Burdett “Bird” Loomis. “He’s very ambitious, yet the more he carries on here, the more likely he is to lose his own re-election bid, given the perception of his partisanship in an office that’s historically been nonpartisan.”

Perhaps Kobach has squeezed everything he hoped to get out of the office of secretary of state. The tough voter ID law that he championed sailed through the conservative Kansas legislature and survived a challenge in federal district court. In August, Kobach defended the law before a panel of appeals court judges.

By risking his reelection chances in defense of an embattled Republican—with control of the Senate potentially at stake—Kobach furthers marks himself as a stalwart lone ranger in the mold of the filibustering senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Like them, Kobach “really likes to get into it,” Loomis says, “and may believe that any publicity, long-term, is good publicity” for a politician seeking a higher national profile. At a time when much of the GOP base—and much of the conservative media—puts a higher value on combat than on victory, it pays to be pugnacious.

In other words, Kobach may be trying to win by losing.

TIME Aging

Life Lessons From One of the World’s Oldest Men

Charlie White
Charlie White, photographed in 2008 at age 103. Doug Dalgleish

Charlie White, who died at 109, was able to separate the things he could control from the things that he could not

Correction appended: Sept. 5, 2014.

One sunny Sunday morning seven years ago, shortly after we moved into our new home in suburban Kansas City, I noticed that my neighbor across the street was busy in his driveway. Wearing only a pair of shorts, his barrel chest rippling, he was using a sponge and a garden hose to wash his girlfriend’s purple PT Cruiser. Did I feel a twinge of envy at all that this scene implied—the Saturday night romance; the love-interest perhaps dozing languorously inside as her man basked and flexed? No comment. With a glance at my own battered minivan, with its sticky cup holders and booster seats smelling faintly of baby puke, I went inside.

What made the scene especially memorable was that my neighbor was 102.

When you meet a man who is 102, you don’t expect to know him very long. Yet my friendship with Dr. Charles White—Charlie—wound up lasting seven years. Charlie died on Aug. 17, about an hour after he turned 109. That was long enough for him to leave a powerful mark on me.

Talking to Charlie was like falling into a history book. He was born in 1905, during the second Theodore Roosevelt administration. Buffalo Bill Cody and Chief Geronimo were still alive; John F. Kennedy and Laurence Olivier were not yet born. The Wright Brothers had made their first flight not 20 months earlier. Henry Ford had not yet started to mass-produce cars. Among the names the world did not yet know: Lenin, Mao, Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Temple, Peter Pan.

As I mentioned, he was quite a physical specimen. In our first conversation, he bemoaned the fact that he had recently been compelled to give up golf, at 101. (It was several years before he surrendered his plans to resume the sport.) Even more amazing, though, was Charlie’s brain. He salted his conversations with details plucked effortlessly from yesterday’s newspaper and events of a century ago.

I asked him once if he could recall the old Newman Theater, where young Walt Disney premiered his first Laugh-O-Gram animations in 1921 before moving to Hollywood. Charlie answered with a vivid tour of every movie house in the city circa 1921—not just the Newman, but the place around the corner where his sister played the organ to accompany silent reels, and another place a few blocks from that, and the vacant lot where films were screened on hot summer nights before air conditioning. Then he painted a word-picture of Electric Park out south of town, at the end of the streetcar line. That was the place where Disney watched in awe as the nightly tableaux of human actors rose from fountains on hydraulic lifts each evening. With its manicured landscaping, nightly fireworks, and miniature train puffing around the perimeter, the amusement park of Charlie’s youth fed the imagination that would eventually create Disneyland.

The first doctor in Kansas City to specialize in anesthesiology, Charlie could discourse at length on the invention of modern medicine. He could tell you what it was like to be a general practitioner making house calls in the Depression, removing tonsils with picture wire. It was a hard life, making ends meet on late payments and barter—no health insurance back then. When science advanced beyond ether and brandy for surgery patients, he leapt at the chance to learn anesthesia at the Mayo Clinic. That was 1944. He later learned that his specialty had side benefits; Charlie confided to me that he rendered his kids unconscious for long drives across Kansas on their way to vacations in Colorado.

Charlie had a lot of laughs over the decades. He loved to tell about the time that he and his boyhood friend—later the controversial journalist Edgar Snow, friend of Mao—set off cross-country on dirt roads in a rattletrap 1919 automobile. When the car and their money gave out in California, the lads picked fruit to buy food and hopped freight trains to get home. He worked his way through medical school blowing the saxophone in a dance band. He heard a promising young Kansas City jazzman named Charlie Parker in a local club.

Another local guy, Harry S. Truman, once sent Charlie to South America to assist in a surgery on the president of Peru. Diplomatic immunity suited Charlie. He smuggled a pet monkey on the return trip, which lived in his home for years.

But his was a real life, which means that it wasn’t all laughs. Charlie knew grief from boyhood. His father, a minister of the Disciples of Christ, was killed in a freak elevator accident when Charlie was only eight. His mother took in boarders to pay the bills; some of them were doctors—that’s how Charlie found his future. Later, his first marriage was a trial of mental illness that ended in his wife’s suicide. As the decades passed, Charlie outlived his friends, his associates, even one of his children.

What this rich life taught him was a kind of inner peace, an equanimity reflecting the robust wisdom known as Stoicism. Charlie was able to separate the things he could control from the things that he could not, and he didn’t fret about matters beyond his power. One of his daughters told us once that she was complaining about an insufferable certain someone we all knew when her father told her to stop. You can’t change people like that, Charlie schooled her. If I let such people irritate me, I would have been dead a long time ago.

He taught me something even more useful in the last months of his life. By then, his superhuman body was finally wearing out. Charlie was nearly blind and mostly deaf, though his mind never faded. More and more of his charming and straightforward conversation has to do with his readiness for death. He wasn’t depressed about the oncoming end. Even less was he angry or fearful. He didn’t pine for days past nor pick scabs of regret and resentment.

Instead, it was as if Charlie had reached the end of a long day at the amusement park. The moments of delight and surprise, along with the moments of pain and fear, along with the moments of exhaustion and exhilaration, along with the moments of wonder and love—all culminated in the hazy afterglow of the closing fireworks and the dimming lights.

It was time to leave.

Charlie White lived the dream of countless men and women in my generation, the insufferable Baby Boomers. Hale and hearty well past 100, forever handsome with his rakish moustache and abundant hair, Charlie was prosperous, comfortable, ageless. And that dream led him to a graceful acceptance that … it ends.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favor of long and healthy lives. But there is something unseemly in the modern notion that science should aim to cure us of death. Charlie came closer than anyone else I’ve known to that vision of endless life. Close enough to decide that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. He saved me a good deal of fretting. Thanks, Charlie.

When I heard that he was gone, I thought of Emily Dickinson, for some reason: “Because I could not stop for Death—He kindly stopped for me.” I smiled to know that Charlie was glad to see him.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated who was president when White born. It was Theodore Roosevelt.

 

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