Godfrey Sperling Jr., originator of newsmaker breakfasts, dies at 97


Godfrey Sperling (right) with Katherine W. Fanning, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) at the 20th anniversary of the Sperling Breakfasts in Washington on Feb. 23, 1986. Sperling, a Washington journalist whose weekly on-the-record breakfasts were considered essential by reporters eager for access to presidential aspirants, political spinmeisters and other newsmakers hoping to influence the national dialogue, died Sept. 11. (James A Parcell/The Washington Post)
September 11, 2013

Godfrey Sperling Jr., a Washington journalist whose weekly on-the-record breakfasts served as an essential feasting place for presidential aspirants, politicos and other would-be newsmakers, as well as for reporters hungry for a scoop, died Sept. 11 in the District. He was two weeks short of his 98th birthday.

The death was announced by the Gridiron Club, a journalism organization he once led. He was the group’s oldest living member.

Mr. Sperling, a self-described “newspaper bum,” worked for the Christian Science Monitor from 1946 until his retirement as a senior Washington columnist in 2005. Known as “Budge,” he covered presidential candidates from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton when the Monitor was among the most influential newspapers in the country.

He achieved his greatest impact as a gatekeeper between the Beltway press corps and the political elite in the years before the rise of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. The Monitor-sponsored “Breakfast With Godfrey” commenced at 8 a.m. — to shake news out of people before the caffeine kicked in — and was held for decades at what is now the St. Regis hotel in Northwest Washington.

Compared with boozy lunches and dinners, the morning question-and-answer sessions were relaxed, high-cholesterol affairs that gave brand-name journalists and regional correspondents relatively private access to spinmeisters and serious political candidates. (For years, Mr. Sperling strenuously prohibited broadcast journalists, wire service reporters and photographers.)

In Play recounts the history that took place around Sperling’s breakfast table and the political moments that came out of the gatherings. (The Washington Post)

Doyle McManus, a Washington columnist and former bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, said Mr. Sperling’s breakfasts became and remain “an essential institution in the invisible preliminary rounds of any presidential campaign.

“Almost every politician who seriously considers running for president makes a soft opening, an early no-fault audition at a Sperling breakfast,” he said. “It’s an enormous convenience for the potential candidate because it’s a way of talking to 20 to 50 of the country’s leading political journalists without having to commit to run for president.”

Mr. Sperling, described as a courtly man prone at times to curmudgeonly outbursts, created an ambience that discouraged Torquemada-like questioning of guests. He fostered a civil mood that resembled trust, but he was not so naive as to think that headliners agreed to appear because they loved the press — or the heaping platters of eggs and sausage.

“Of course it’s self-serving,” he once told the New York Times. “They wouldn’t be coming in if it wasn’t self-serving. We all know it’s self-serving and we all hang onto our wallets every moment. On the other hand, we don’t hammer a guy on the head to show our manliness.”

In August 1991, Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, showed up to confront rumors of his womanizing. Their message was that the little-known Arkansas governor and his wife had survived rocky patches and were committed to their marriage — a message they later repeated before a national television audience on the CBS news show “60 Minutes.”

Over the decades, the breakfasts featured a parade of lawmakers and backstage power brokers including Hubert H. Humphrey, George C. Wallace, George S. McGovern, Henry A. Kissinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the labor leader Walter Reuther and the Nixon aide John D. Ehrlichman. The former agriculture secretary Earl Butz once cracked a joke about the pope.

“The great advantage is that we can follow up questions and keep boring in,” Mr. Sperling once told Time magazine. “At White House and other news conferences, you don’t get to ask the follow-up questions.”

In 1968, then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) spoke openly about considering a presidential bid. Mr. Sperling recalled that Kennedy began the breakfast by calling his candidacy “inconceivable,” but after a filling breakfast and further probing by the assembly of reporters, his answers began to change.

“You could almost see it in Bobby’s eyes. Something was happening,” Mr. Sperling told the Chicago Tribune decades later. “Before we left that morning . . . we were confident we had a presidential candidate.”

Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were also among the novice presidential contenders who stopped by to face questions. In 1995, Mr. Sperling’s innocuous question to Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) about a recent trip to Israel led the House speaker to rant about what he perceived as a slight by President Clinton. Gingrich said that Clinton had forced him to enter Air Force One from the rear and sat him at the back of the plane.

Other kerfuffles erupted over the years. The Republican campaign strategist Edward J. Rollins revealed in 1993 that he had doled out $500,000 in “walking-around money” to selected African American ministers in New Jersey in an effort to suppress the black vote during Christine Todd Whitman’s successful race for governor. Rollins quickly retracted his comment, but it scarred his career.

Big news did not always emanate from the breakfasts. Plenty of reserved politicians, including then-Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), demurred when questioned about their ambitions for higher office. Mr. Sperling said he once watched Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R.-Calif.) plop down in a chair and doze conspicuously for minutes.

Mr. Sperling said that the breakfasts were sometimes shunned by reporters who felt the events were too cozy and not conducive to the dispassionate coverage of government officials. Others poked fun of the whole idea of a breakfast accenting politesse. Reporter Jack Germond was among those who helped start a rival, heavily lubricated group called Political Writers for a Democratic Society.

“There’s a certain purist who remains aloof, never to be ‘corrupted,’ ” Mr. Sperling told the Times in 1996. “But his copy will reflect that, because he hasn’t really gotten to know these people. He doesn’t have the story.”

Godfrey Sperling Jr., whose father was a civil engineer, was born Sept. 25, 1915, in Long Beach, Calif., and grew up in Cody, Wyo., and Urbana, Ill. His older sisters called him “Brother,” which morphed over time to “Budge,” a name he vastly preferred to Godfrey.

He was a 1937 journalism graduate of the University of Illinois and received a law degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1940. While working as a lawyer in Urbana, he began writing for the local newspaper. He joined the Monitor after serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was the newspaper’s Chicago-based Midwest bureau chief and New York bureau chief before settling in Washington in 1965.

The next year, the breakfasts kicked off when he asked Charles H. Percy, who was elected that year as a Republican senator from Illinois, to speak with a few journalists. Mr. Sperling, who was the Monitor’s Washington bureau chief from 1973 to 1983, was reported to have hosted more than 3,000 breakfasts before he stepped down from those duties in 2001.

With the passing years, the rules were modernized. Broadcast correspondents can now attend the breakfasts. Last year, the Monitor began allowing C-SPAN cameras to film them. In February, the Monitor lifted its restriction on wire service reporters, said Dave Cook, the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief and Mr. Sperling’s successor as host. He added that representatives from online-only publications also attend the event, now billed as “The Monitor Breakfast.” The weekly fee is $47 per reporter.

Mr. Sperling’s wife of 70 years, Betty Feldmann, died in 2012. Survivors include two children, Mary McAuliffe of New York and John Sperling of Las Vegas; a granddaughter; and a great-grandson.

Mr. Sperling retired from the Air Force Reserve with the rank of colonel and moved a few years ago from Chevy Chase to the Knollwood military retirement home. He died there of a heart ailment, said his daughter.

“If anyone had said to me, the thing you will be remembered for is your breakfast group, I would have gone into another career,” Mr. Sperling wrote in a 2002 column. “A breakfast group?”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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