Long-time Washington Post editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, who became famous for his leadership of the newspaper during its breaking coverage of the Watergate scandal, discussed his personal path to the top tiers of American journalism in Gaston Hall on May 3. Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor from 1968-1991 and now an at-large vice president, was presented an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters during the campus ceremony.

University President John J. DeGioia conferred the honorary degree upon Bradlee, praising his pursuit of the truth and saying he had earned the respect of both reporters and readers. DeGioia also commended Bradlee for his close relationship with Georgetown’s students and faculty as a former adjunct professor of journalism.

“We … are grateful for Ben Bradlee’s generous friendship, which has spanned many years,” DeGioia said. “He has helped to strengthen the teaching of journalism at Georgetown College, in part through his own teaching, and has readily shared with our students his professional perspective, his sense of ethics and his inspirational devotion to that elusive but cherished journalistic objective: the truth.”

While editor of the Post, Bradlee challenged the federal government in 1971 over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers and oversaw the investigation of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the Watergate cover-up, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. Under Bradlee’s leadership, the Post won 18 Pulitzer Prizes and emerged as one of the nation’s most influential daily newspapers.

In acceptance of his honor, Bradlee said it felt good to be honored by friends after being around the Georgetown campus for nearly 40 years. He recounted his own history as an undergraduate at Harvard University and as a Naval officer in the Pacific during World War II. Bradlee described his experiences searching for a job after returning from the war and spoke about the tough decisions he faced as he considered a variety of careers, including teaching, business, law and fiction writing.

Bradlee said he then decided to try his hand at journalism, first getting a job as a reporter for the New Hampshire Sunday News. He then moved to the Post as a city reporter for two years, before spending some time in France as a press attache at the French Embassy and as foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief for Newsweek agazine. After Bradlee made a name for himself in the journalism profession, then-Post Publisher Katherine Graham convinced him to come back to the Post as its managing editor in 1965.

“Mrs. Graham has been the key figure in my life,” Bradlee said, adding that he admired Graham for her resilience as a female publisher in the face of opposition and criticism from the Washington, D.C., political community during the late 1960s.

Bradlee discussed his commitment to building a strong team at the Post after he became the paper’s executive editor in 1968. He stressed the importance of having owners and editors willing to stand up to powerful figures such as presidents and police chiefs.

“Good owners make good editors and therefore, good journalism,” Bradlee said.

In her reading of the degree citation, university Journalism Coordinator Barbara Feinman Todd said that Bradlee’s tenure at the Post had heralded the arrival of a more assertive kind of reporting, willing to confront authority.

“With this honorary degree, Georgetown University honors a man whose committed search for truth has forever changed our understanding of the world,” she said.

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