KATHARINE Graham, not Bob Woodward and not Carl Bern- stein, was the patron saint of a generation of women journalists.
For those of us who entered this male-dominated field in the early 1970s, the publisher of The Washington Post, not the scruffy police reporters and not their cuff-shooting boss, Ben Bradlee, was the role model, the one worthy of emulation.
It was Mrs. Graham, who died yesterday at the age of 84, who gave the order to defy the courts and print the Pentagon Papers, the secret chronicle of the Vietnam War.
And it was her unwavering support for her editors and reporters that allowed them to pursue a "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate hotel to the highest reaches of government.
President Nixon resigned in disgrace; The Post won the Pulitzer Prize and became the country's eminent newspaper; investigative journalism was born and its practitioners became celebrities; a movie was made; journalism schools were flooded with idealistic new applications, and no government secret was ever safe again.
That was almost 30 years ago. Yet none of us who believed Mrs. Graham was the power behind the men truly appreciated the depth of her courage until the publication of her autobiography, Personal History, four years ago.
The book described a life of self-discovery forced on her by the constrictions of her social position and the calamities of her life. She was a shy, sheltered child doted on by a wealthy, ambitious father and ignored by an aloof, critical mother.
She abandoned a first-rate education and the beginnings of a career to take her place behind the dynamic Phil Graham, raising babies and giving parties while he trod the corridors of power and ran her father's newspaper.
When Phil Graham shot himself in their beloved weekend home in 1963 -- an act that changed her suddenly from dutiful wife into newspaper owner -- she reluctantly took command of a struggling paper in order to preserve it for her children.
Personal History chronicled her success as a publisher and businesswoman but throughout it, Mrs. Graham maintained the self-deprecating, self-effacing tone of voice that cannot help but strike a painful chord of recognition in any woman who reads it.
She suffered from the classic "imposter's syndrome" that afflicts so many of us. Certain she would be found out as a fraud and an incompetent at any moment, she describes herself muddling through personal and business crises with only luck on her side.
The sum of her life -- the financial empire, the journalistic legacy, her place as Washington's most powerful political hostess -- belies that, of course. But not even those great successes could diminish the painful insecurity at her core.
I heard Katharine Graham speak shortly after Personal History was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, and she dismissed a standing ovation with an embarrassed wave of her hand, muttering that it must have been a bad year for books.
Despite the praise the book garnered, she seemed surprised anyone would buy it, or take the time to read it.
At a recent event, I saw her take a place near the back wall of a reception room, unwilling to steal the spotlight from those who were being honored. As I watched her, I thought of the nuns who were instructed to demonstrate their humility by walking close to the wall.
At yet another reception, I watched her take a seat next to Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Clearly the women were friends from the same social circuit and Mrs. Graham bent toward them with a confidential whisper.
"Do I look all right?" Mrs. Graham asked. "Am I overdressed? I never know what to wear."
I felt my eyes sting with tears for this great and powerful woman. She had done amazing things in a lifetime illuminated by nearly every world drama of the last century. But like the most common woman, she never left the house confident that she was dressed appropriately.
Katharine Graham made a place for herself at the tables of power in journalism and in business decades before women would be regulars there. And she did so not out of personal ambition, but out of personal courage.
I have often thought that Personal Courage, not Personal History, should have been the title for her book.
But Katharine Graham would never have agreed. "That is for someone else to say," she would have said.