Newsmen aren’t supposed to be cool. As a rule, we prefer them to be grandfatherly stentorians like Walter Cronkite or attack dogs à la Mike Wallace. But Ed Bradley, who passed away on Nov. 9 in Manhattan from leukemia at the age of 65, was always cool. He never strained for it or let it overshadow his role as a journalist; cool just rested on him easily.
During the nearly 500 segments he reported over the past 25 years for CBS’ 60 Minutes, Bradley always seemed the same person on camera as he was off: elegant, empathetic, decent, and fun. With his salt-and-pepper beard, thousand-watt grin, and earring in his left ear, Bradley brought a personality and panache to reporting that compelled viewers to return each week. And he had 20 Emmy awards to prove it. He could be both a hard-nosed interrogator, unafraid to speak truth to power, and a giddy fan; a globe-trotting war correspondent and, every once in a while, a big softie.
When Bradley famously interviewed singer Lena Horne in 1981, he came across as smitten as a schoolboy nursing his first case of puppy love. Never mind that Horne was more than 20 years his senior — Bradley looked like he wanted to whisk her off to Vegas, and make her Mrs. Ed Bradley. ”Women loved him,” says his CBS colleague Bob Schieffer. ”He could really connect with the people he interviewed. That’s why he was good. Different people have different ways: Mike Wallace grabs them by the throat; Bradley just put people at ease and connected” with them.
Born June 22, 1941, in Philadelphia, Bradley started his professional life as an elementary school teacher. At night, he moonlighted as a jazz radio DJ under the name ”Little Jazz-Bo.” Soon he was hired as a reporter for WCBS radio in New York. In 1971, CBS News tapped Bradley to become an on-air stringer based in Paris. A year later, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was transferred to the network’s Saigon bureau. One of Bradley’s most famous dispatches during his three years covering the war was when he was hit by mortar shrapnel in Cambodia. The camera captured him lying on a stretcher wincing, a tear streaming down his cheek. Bradley was one of the last Americans to leave Saigon before it spiraled into chaos and Communist hands.
In 1976, Bradley became CBS News’ White House correspondent — the first African American to hold that prestigious position for the network. But it was 60 Minutes, which he joined in 1981, that gave him his ideal stage to inform, entertain, and display what his colleague Steve Kroft calls Ed’s ”star power.” There, Bradley interviewed Mafia hitmen and rock & roll legends, 9/11 widows and sports icons. His last report, an exposé of a Texas oil refinery explosion that aired on Oct. 29, was Bradley at his best. Without a fuss, when he was done taping the segment, he checked into the hospital. ”He went in to work to do that interview,” says Kroft. ”He was so weak that people pretty much had to hold him up.”
Bradley was once asked about his legacy and what accomplishment he was proudest of and replied: ”If I arrived at the pearly gates and Saint Peter said, ‘What have you done to deserve entry?’ I’d just say, ‘Have you seen my Lena Horne story?”’ It’s hard to imagine a cooler comeback.