The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The single trait that made Ben Bradlee so great

Ben Bradlee's life will be celebrated at a memorial service in Washington today. Given that, I am re-publishing what I wrote about Ben when he passed away last week.

Ben Bradlee, who died Tuesday night at 93, had swagger.

That trait, some might say, is overrated -- particularly in an era when the term is so overused that there's a deodorant scent named after it. But, true swagger -- a supreme confidence in your own abilities and the knowledge that, well, you've got this -- is actually a very rare thing. And rarer still are people who don't just think they possess it, but actually do.

That was Ben. When you were in a room with him, you knew it. He was the center of gravity. He was the loudest, the most profane, the one with the best stories. I know that from the slimmest of personal experience --  I was introduced to him maybe four times over the past decade  -- and from the literally dozens of people who knew him far better and who related "Ben" stories to me with a sense of amazement, awe and reverence.

His confidence -- in himself and his reporters -- was what made him (and the Washington Post he built) so incredibly great. His willingness to push Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during Watergate to nail down and button up every amazing scoop they produced was only trumped by his dogged defense of the two men in the face of the Nixon Administration's repeated attempts to discredit them and their reporting.

As someone who has spent my entire professional life reporting on politics -- although nothing, obviously, as momentous as Watergate -- it's hard to overemphasize how much it means to know the big boss has your back.  That he or she trusts you, your reporting, your sources and your judgement. That he or she would fight like hell for your right to report what is really happening no matter how uncomfortable it makes the comfortable.

Ben's willingness to do just that not only empowered the great reporters and editors whose lives he directly touched -- Bob and Carl, Len Downie, Bob Kaiser and about a million more -- but also people like me who he didn't know and who never had the chance to work with him.  What Ben stood for -- and stands for -- is the belief that if you have the truth of a story, nothing else matters.  That no matter what people say about you online or off -- Ben, probably for everyone's good, wasn't a Twitter guy (although he faked it pretty well) -- it was all a sideshow if you had the story right. And if you had the story right, then everyone else could go to hell.

That's swagger. The good kind. And Ben Bradlee had as much of it as anyone who's ever walked through a newsroom -- or ever will.