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Like a death in the family

To a lifelong newspaperman, the abrupt sale of an iconic publication like The Washington Post seems akin to a personal loss, a death in the family, although the prospective new owner vows to keep it afloat.

The Graham family brought a particular dedication and zest to holding the powerful in the nation's capital to account that meant more to laborers in the vineyards of The Post than a weekly paycheck, which in any event was never astronomical.

The four years I toiled there, during the heyday of publisher Katherine Graham and unsurpassable editor Ben Bradlee in the early 1970s, were literally right out of arguably the best newspaper movie ever made, "All the President's Men," based on the nonpareil reporting of the Watergate scandal by youngsters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that won the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. It was only one of many garnered under the Graham/Bradlee stewardship in the years to follow.

I was not at the Post yet when that mammoth story broke and led to the first resignation of a president. But I arrived in time to have a small piece in its conclusion and the departure of Richard Nixon in August 1974. Assigned to write "color" at the Senate investigation hearings on Watergate in 1973, I was there the day White House aide Alexander Butterfield spilled the beans about the tape-recording system in the Oval Office that in the end was Nixon's undoing.

As the saying went in those days, I wallowed in Watergate by writing profiles of the fallen mighty, like re-election campaign manager John Mitchell. He was one of several who did jail time for their criminal hijinks, as Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein continued to unravel more incriminating details of the saga.

Throughout, editor Bradlee and associates drove them on, establishing the Post beyond question as the nation's prime producer of political reporting. One early evening after the Pulitzers had been announced to a celebrating newsroom, I well remember as a bit player in the drama when Mr. Bradlee perched himself on my desk and delivered a personal pep talk about the future.

Now that the Post had reached this pinnacle, he said, the challenge for everyone in the newsroom was to make sure the paper stayed there, ever with an eye on The New York Times, which had for once played second banana on the greatest political scandal ever to hit the Post's home town.

It was clear that for Mr. Bradlee it was not the glory of the moment that counted for him, but his zest for continuing the chase after further governmental wrongdoing and corruption on his watch. By personality, he was a journalistic gunslinger of the highest order, a man with a mission, a nose for news and for exposing culprits in high places that was contagious.

His only boss, Kay Graham, was a model of personal decorum but as susceptible to the Bradlee virus as the rest of us in the newsroom. She periodically appeared there from her lofty office floors above to breathe the atmosphere of the hard-charging news-gathering machine he had assembled and sustained.

As one who had been a reporter in Washington for lesser newspapers for more than a decade before Mr. Bradlee was installed as editor of the Post, I recognized the swift transformation he achieved, and when I had the chance to become part of it as only one of a growing political team, I seized it.

In the course of Nixon's downfall, I was also assigned a sort of political death watch, traveling with then Vice President Gerald Ford and covering his patient wait for the presidency to be passed to him. Throughout, Mr. Ford conducted himself with admirable restraint, declining to turn his back on Nixon until his inevitable resignation, and then jeopardizing his own brief presidency by pardoning the man in the first weeks after succeeding him.

Having had this front seat at the Post for the greatest political story of my lifetime makes me lament the passing of the Graham family ownership, and hope that the change augurs well for the paper's continued prominence in American political journalism.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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