My son, who is dabbling in high school journalism, wonders why all of the geezers like his parents make such a big deal about Ed Bradley’s death.
Child, let me tell you: He was a big deal because he was so good at what he did. In an age of big-personality journalism and ranting-for-rent demagogues, Mr. Bradley never shouted. He didn’t have to. He let the story speak for itself. He was a reporter’s reporter. He followed his curiosity. He wanted the facts. Even more, he wanted the truth.
Whether he was interviewing Timothy McVeigh, George Burns, Muhammad Ali or the various parties in the incendiary Duke lacrosse case, he always showed the same unwavering persistence in his questions and a straight-down-the-middle truth-seeking objectivity. He never revealed a hint of his own opinion about the newsmaker, even if you did see something that looked like love in his twinkling eyes during his Lena Horne interview. (Who could blame him? She is amazing.)
As one of the first black journalists featured prominently on network television, Edward Rudolph Bradley Jr. immediately became important in black American households. That he was still prominently on the air almost up to the day he died last week of leukemia at age 65, is a measure of how important he had become in all of America’s households.
He came into the business as a radio reporter in his hometown of Philadelphia and then at New York’s WCBS in the late 1960s. Mainstream newsrooms were opening up to black journalists under an unusual affirmative action program called “urban riots.” But, as Mr. Bradley said in later interviews, he quickly let his assignment editor know he was not there to cover only the “black stories.” To his credit, he was too restless for that and we, his audience, are the richer for it.
In 1971, Mr. Bradley joined CBS News as a stringer in its Paris bureau. He covered the last days of the Vietnam War. He was wounded by mortar fire in Cambodia. He won just about every award a broadcast journalist can win, including 19 Emmys.
But it also says a lot about Mr. Bradley that, according to the New York Times, his close friends at his death bed included fellow black journalism pioneer Charlayne Hunter-Gault of National Public Radio and musical artist Jimmy Buffett of Margaritaville.
Mr. Bradley met Mr. Buffett through the late gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, a friend and Colorado neighbor Mr. Bradley had met in Vietnam. Small world, journalism. Stay in it long enough and you’ll meet every other inhabitant.
Senior correspondent Bill Neikirk of the Chicago Tribune “sensed a powerful restlessness in this tall, thin reporter” when the two of them covered the White House during President Jimmy Carter’s years, he recalled. Mr. Bradley made no secret of his dislike for the White House beat, which should surprise no one who is familiar with it or with Mr. Bradley.
Contrary to its glamorous sound, the White House beat is an exhausting and confining “bubble,” as its inmates call it. The bubble herds you from one place to another following the president. It’s an important beat but it doesn’t allow much room for enterprise. Mr. Bradley had too much “powerful restlessness” for that.
To me, Mr. Bradley was important because role models are important. You don’t really appreciate the importance of role models until you’re old enough to look back and re-examine the pivotal moments in your life and who had the biggest influence on you at the time. Role models matter.
“As a young black man watching him,” a reader named “Greg” posted on the Chicago Tribune Web site: “I came to believe it was possible to be a successful black man without denying one’s self.” So did I. That’s a powerful legacy Mr. Bradley leaves behind. When he was growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, his folks told him he could be anything he wanted to be. He took them up on it.
Even in those days before the doors of opportunity were fully opened to black Americans, Mr. Bradley challenged the system. He worked hard and prepared himself. He opened himself to the world and dared the world to turn him away. He wanted to be a lot and he succeeded. Thanks to examples like his, the rest of us know that we can succeed, too.
Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.