Peter David, Washington bureau chief of the Economist, dies

In his prescient survey of the Arab world in 2009, journalist Peter David catalogued a “fever under the surface” that could spark into revolution at any moment.

Erudite, supple and understated, his analysis was the reverse of hysterical pontificating, even as it noted combustible elements: “energy-hungry powers” such as the United States, China and India buzzing about the oil-rich Middle East and the political and social discontent seething under repressive Arab governments.

(Photo by Nephi Niven) - Peter David, who died in a car accident May 3 at 60, was an erudite, self-effacing and protean journalist who had for the last three years been chief U.S. political correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the influential Economist magazine.

“In reviewing this litany of troubles,” Mr. David wrote in the Economist nearly two years before the so-called Arab Spring, “it is necessary to remember that what people call ‘the Arab world’ is a big and amorphous thing, and arguably not one thing at all.”

Mr. David had long waded into complex political passions during his 28 years with the Economist, the influential London-based magazine of international and financial affairs. He supervised the magazine’s coverage of the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, and his service as foreign editor from 2002 to 2009 coincided with the bloody conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was, variously, a top editor overseeing business and British political coverage and author of the Bagehot column on British politics.

For the past three years, he had been Washington bureau chief and primary U.S. political correspondent and author of the prestigious Lexington column focused on U.S. political affairs. His death on May 10 at age 60 in a car accident near Charlottesville was announced by the Economist.

He was a Georgetown resident but brooked no interest in Washington’s social caravan of journalists-as-celebrities. His receding, curly hair, owlish glasses and aversion to anything resembling cardio fitness were perhaps an anomaly in the age of on-call experts for cable news.

However “amiably rumpled” he appeared, said political strategist William A. Galston, Mr. David was held in high regard by journalists and policy makers. “He was a modest man with very little to be modest about — sort of the reverse of your standard Washington personage,” said Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Mr. David bemoaned that the journalism profession had largely been supplanted by multimedia “reportrons” who were taking over from experts who could provide context and meaning to developing events.

His authority was valued at the Economist, where he was called on to write “leaders,” front-of-the book essays of sweeping tone and concise wording. They illuminated broad themes such as the 50th anniversary of Israel, South Africa’s transition to majority rule and the alarming machismo of political leaders in the United States and Iran.

Peter Howard David was born Sept. 7, 1951, in Johannesburg to a family of Lithuanian Jews who had settled in South Africa decades earlier to escape pogroms. His father was a lawyer, and his mother embraced left-wing political activism through the Liberal Party that challenged apartheid-style government.

Members of her party feared arrest during the state of emergency that followed the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, in which police killed 69 demonstrators. Within days, the Davids relocated to London and later settled in Liverpool.

Peter David graduated in 1972 from the University of London and worked his way to mainstream journalism after initially writing for niche journals focused on devotees of house plants and UFOs, among other topics. He briefly headed the Washington bureau for the British journal Nature before joining the Economist in 1984 as a science writer.

In 1978, he married Celia Binns. Besides his wife, of Washington, survivors include two children, Ian David and Tessa David, both in London; a sister; and a brother.

In Mr. David’s final Lexington column in the Economist, he took stock of the “blizzard of tendentious commercials, contrived razzamatazz and mind-numbing trivia” of the American election season.

For all its “bouts of ‘declinism,’ ” he wrote, the United States has reason to be more optimistic than not. He reminded readers of the technology of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (“It will be decades before China can make such a machine.”), America’s first-world system of universities and its status as a mega food exporter and producer of natural gas. Far from a stagnating Congress, legislators approve billions of dollars to jump-start the economy.

“People tend to think in black and white,” he wrote. “America is either in decline or it is ordained to be for ever the world’s greatest nation. Government is either paralyzed or it is running amok, stifling liberty and enterprise and snuffing out the American dream. The election campaign accentuates the negative and sharpens this binary illusion.”

On the evening of his death, he had spoken on those themes at an event in Keswick, Va., hosted by the Charlottesville Committee on Foreign Relations. As he and his wife were being driven back to their hotel, their car was rear-ended on Interstate 64, hit a guardrail and overturned. Mr. David was pronounced dead at the University of Virginia Medical Center. He was the only fatality, and the accident remains under investigation.

Mr. David was remembered for a puckish sense of humor that often revolved around his exasperation when basic courtesies were overlooked. He was peeved by friends who did not reply to e-mails fast enough. To goose them, he appealed to ego.

In an online tribute, Clive Crook, a former Economist deputy editor who is now a senior editor at the Atlantic and columnist for Bloomberg View, wrote of Mr. David: “Not long ago, he sent me an email with the subject line: ‘I loved your column.’ Opening it immediately, I read the text: ‘Now I have your attention, would you and Lori like to come over for dinner on Thursday?’ ”