It seems impossible to eulogize Ed Bradley, whose life and career will be celebrated tonight on a special edition of 60 Minutes, (7 p.m. ET, CBS), without using the word “cool.” Longtime CBS anchor Bob Schieffer described him as “the coolest guy I have ever known.” Washington Post writer Wil Hagood opened his Friday appreciation, “Ed Bradley had cool like a vault has money.” The Los Angeles Times obituary was headlined, “Ed Bradley, 65; 60 Minutes veteran known for cool, calm style won 20 Emmy Awards.” Such descriptions usually go on to mention Bradley’s inquisitive and seemingly unflappable screen presence, his uncanny bullshit detector, his love of jazz and gospel (he started out as a DJ and was a major supporter of Newark-based jazz station WBGO), and of course, his earring.
But the adjective doesn’t do Bradley justice. It’s not that it’s inaccurate; Bradley, best known as a 60 Minutes contributor, was certainly cool by any standard. But when you look at the full arc of Bradley’s career, it seems inadequate. For one thing, the word implies aloofness, and Bradley wasn’t that. He was a fully engaged reporter—empathetic, bemused, skeptical or appalled, depending on the story. More importantly, when “cool” used to summarize Bradley, it seems reductive and strangely evasive, almost like a euphemism—which, in a sense, it is. When we describe Ed Bradley as “cool,” it means he was his own man in a business that demands a certain measure of conformity. (The Post’s straight obit by Patricia Sullivan described him in the first sentence as “a suave and streetwise reporter.”) More specifically, though, “cool” means Bradley was black in a mostly white business in a mostly white country, yet somehow he was able to foreground his identity as an African-American man—with every part of that phrase carrying equal weight—in a matter-of-fact way that left the viewer, and the TV news industry, no option but to accept him on his own terms.
During the first half of his CBS stint, while making inroads in a mostly Caucasian, clean-shaven, ready-for-the-Kiwanis-club branch of broadcasting, Bradley sported a plush beard and wore an Afro—but vocally, except for the platter-spinning bass undertone, he sounded pretty much like any other on-camera reporter. When interviewing African-American newsmakers, he could slip into vernacular to make the subjects more comfortable, but without ever seeming to pander. He was at once industry standard and brazenly unique. His vivid, at times culturally provocative screen persona was not manufactured. It was simply who he was, onscreen and off—an illustration of the phrase, “What you see is what you get.”
That’s not to say Bradley consciously fashioned his career as an agenda-setting statement by a race pioneer—far from it. From the beginning of his stretch at CBS News in 1967, the Philadelphia native and former radio reporter demonstrated dazzling breadth of interest and talent. You could plug him into any situation and he’d always be Ed Bradley—authoritative, at times steely and unforgiving, but also capable of self-deprecation. (His 60 Minutes piece on Muhammad Ali contained a great moment where Ali, a devious prankster, faked falling asleep at a lunch table and began punching the air, at one point jabbing at Bradley and making him flinch; Bradley was fooled for a second, then burst out laughing.) For nearly 40 years, Bradley avoided being typecast as a the go-to correspondent for “black” issues—as if the range of topics that typically fall under that heading, such as civil rights, weren’t simply issues. Bradley was a reporter first; though he was proud of his trailblazing status, being an emblem of such-and-such ranked fairly low on his list of things to do.
Bradley’s national breakthrough came in 1972-73, when he covered the waning months of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia for CBS, and at one point was wounded by shrapnel; later, he covered the fall of Saigon and the plight of the Cambodian refugees. At 60 Minutes, where he became the first African-American reporter in 1981, Bradley interviewed Bob Dylan, Bono and Liza Minnelli as well as Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and—one of the finest profiles in the broadcast’s history—Lena Horne. (That last one was a high water mark of Bradley the biographical sketch artist, and he knew it. “If I arrived at the pearly gates,” he said on a 60 Minutes anniversary special, “and Saint Peter said, ’What have you done to deserve entry?’, I’d just say, “Did you see my Lena Horne story?’”) He did stand-alone, long-form specials on subjects that either wouldn’t have gotten such extended treatment—or that perhaps would not have been approached with such urgency—if they hadn’t been reported on-camera by a black man: for instance, his award winning 1979 report on the lingering effects of racism and segregation, titled, “Blacks in America: With All Deliberate Speed?”, and his 2000 special on AIDS in Africa, and his 60 Minutes piece on Emmett Till, the Mississippi teen who was killed in 1955 for whistling at a white woman (the piece which reopened the investigation into Till’s murder). But he also profiled Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and killer-turned-novelist Jack Henry Abbott, did stories on classical music and the underground sale of Russian nuclear warheads, and interviewed Kathleen Willey, who accused then-president Clinton of sexual harassment and assault. (The moment where Bradley asked her, “Was he aroused?” was recycled endlessly by David Letterman; the look on Bradley’s face suggested that he couldn’t believe he was asking the question, either.) All of which is to say that Bradley’s pioneering career was a career first and pioneering second, and that he made statements without seeming to make statements—a feat that was only possible because Bradley was, in and of himself, a statement.
For an example of what I mean, watch Bradley’s April 30, 1975 report on the evacuation of Saigon, filed live from a studio in the Phillippines for CBS’ morning newscast. Rhythmically, his delivery is indistinguishable from any white TV journalist from the mid-20th century—brisk, confident, forceful without being unduly dramatic, uninflected in that Middle American manner that remains the industry standard. But Bradley himself is anything but standard; in fact, he’s revolutionary. He’s a young black man with an afro, leaning casually on the desk beside his microphone like a radio DJ in a booth. He’s wearing a purple, subtly paisley shirt that’s a bit too small for him, emphasizing his strong shoulders and arms, and it’s unbuttoned to his solar plexus, revealing a broad chest and a visible neck chain. He could not be more unlike the anchor introducing his report, CBS Morning News frontman Hughes Rudd, an embodiment of the TV norms Bradley flouted: a 54-year old, slightly nasally white man with pomaded hair, large spectacles and a regulation-issue 1970s anchor uniform (brown suit jacket, brown tie, white shirt). You could say Bradley’s face doesn’t match his voice, but that would only reveal one’s imaginative limitations, limitations Bradley himself refused to accept. It’s more accurate to say that the juxtaposition of that image and that voice—not just in the Saigon story, but throughout Bradley’s career—made simple categorizations impossible, and helped, in some small way, to annihilate received wisdom about what it meant to be a professional journalist, a black man and an American. Bradley’s appearance and demeanor were revolutionary not simply by virtue of what they were, but because Bradley framed them as no big deal. His introductory phrase during the weekly 60 Minutes credits sequence summed it up: “...and I’m Ed Bradley.”