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Ben Bradlee, legendary Washington Post Executive Editor, dead at 93

Journalism lost a giant today. Former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee has died. He was 93. Bradlee stood up to the U.S. government, pursued the story which brought down a president, and shaped a generation of journalists.

"I just do not believe the first version of events in this city," he once said. "I don't believe it."

As Executive Editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee brought skepticism to the paper's daily reporting.

Ben Bradlee

"People don't tell the truth. They don't tell the truth a hundred different ways," he said on "60 Minutes" in 1995. "And it's become so easy to lie."

Bradlee was born August 26, 1921 in Boston, Massachusetts, a member of the well-heeled Crowninshield family. He attended college at Harvard University, and he married his first wife, Jean Saltonstall, while he was there.

He joined the Navy shortly after graduating. As part of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Bradlee served as a communications officer in the Pacific during World War II.

In 1951, Bradlee became a press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. After several years, he made the jump to Newsweek, remaining in Paris as a European correspondent for the magazine. There he became friendly with a neighbor, Sen. John F. Kennedy.

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Journalist Ben Bradlee speaks at the question and answer session of the screening of "All The President's Men" the Tribeca Cinemas on July 19, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images) Brad Barket, Getty Images

Bradlee divorced Saltonstall while he was in Paris and married Antoinette Pinchot in 1955. He was divorced from Pinchot roughly two decades later. Bradlee married his third wife, Washington Post writer Sally Quinn, in 1978, and the two remained married for the rest of his life.

Bradlee joined the Post in 1965. Under his leadership, the paper published a classified government study of the war in Indochina known as the Pentagon Papers in 1971, despite a court injunction barring the material's publication. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the media's right to publish material from the papers.

But it was the Post's coverage of the Watergate scandal that led to President Nixon's resignation that made Bradlee a public figure. He was portrayed by Jason Robards in the movie "All the President's Men."

"I can't do the reporting for my reporters which means I have to trust them," said Robards, portraying Bradlee in the film. "And I hate trusting anybody."

Bradlee kept two rookie reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, on the Watergate story rather than replace them with more experienced staffers.

Bob Woodward: Ben Bradlee likely "greatest editor" of 20th century

"He had the touch," said Woodward. "He had the ability to encourage people, stimulate people but not run over people."

Bradlee was one of the few who knew their main source, known for years only as "Deep Throat," was FBI associate director Mark Felt.

"There was always the Bradlee interrogation when you had a story that was high risk," said Woodward. "It was never hostile. It was, 'Hey look, we're on the same team, I'm just trying to check and make sure you've done enough.'"

Woodward said Bradlee was "truly a great editor, probably the greatest editor of the 20th century."

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"He created an atmosphere in the newsroom of the Washington Post of... 'There are mysteries out there. There are things we don't know about. We're not getting to the bottom of it. Human behavior is hidden from us and so we have to keep digging at it,'" Woodward said.

Despite one major embarrassment -- when the Post had to retract a reporter's false story about a heroin-addicted child and return a Pulitzer Prize -- Bradlee's tenure was marked by accolades for the paper, including 19 Pulitzer Prizes. Last year President Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

At the ceremony at the White House, the president said Bradlee transformed the Washington Post into "one of the finest" newspapers in the world.

"With Ben in charge, the Post published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate, unleashed a new era of investigative journalism, holding America's leaders accountable and reminding us that our freedom as a nation rests on our freedom of the press," Mr. Obama said.

And through it all, Ben Bradlee had the last word in Washington.

"It isn't all straight-laced and serious," he said in 2005. "It isn't all legislation and the brink of war. It's just a town where people get along or don't get along. They're dealing with interesting problems but they're dealing with them in the same old way."

Ben Bradlee, an icon of American journalism, is survived by his children Ben, Marina, Dominic, and Quinn, and by his wife Sally Quinn.