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.)
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.”