By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005 1:48 PM
Paul Duke, 78, a veteran newsman who for 20 years was the calm and mellow moderator of the public television program "Washington Week in Review," died Monday of acute leukemia at his home in the District.
Mr. Duke was already a respected Washington journalist when he took over in 1974 as host of the program, now called "Washington Week," the longest running news program of the Public Broadcasting Service. He had worked for the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and NBC, but at PBS he developed something akin to a cult following as he presided every Friday night over a thoughtful, good-humored discussion of the week's news among five respected journalists.
Mr. Duke set the tone for the print professionals who appeared on the show. They were -- as they are today -- men and women who didn't shout, didn't pontificate and didn't take sides.
"Paul is very serious about journalism," former long-time panelist Charles McDowell told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the occasion of Mr. Duke's 1994 retirement. "Like some people care about religion, he cares about journalism. To him, the end of the world is to hear good journalists screaming at each other, playing to the camera."
Mr. Duke often lamented the noisy intrusion of show business into the news business. "I'm a rather old-fashioned journalist in that I believe we lay it out but are not judgmental," he told the Post-Dispatch. "Now a lot of reporters are judgmental. I'm not sure this is a healthy trend."
Mr. Duke's easygoing nature became something of a running joke around Washington. At a 1987 dinner in honor of "Washington Week in Review," then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole observed: "Paul Duke had a mild case of charisma, but as you can plainly see, he was able to shake it off."
Paul Duke was born in Richmond, where he began publishing his own handwritten neighborhood newspaper at age 13. At 16, he was delivering newscasts for a local radio station and at 18 had his own 15-minute nightly sports show.
Despite that early experience, he once wrote that as an English major at the University of Richmond he had no idea what he would do after graduation. "I had no burning ambitions, no consuming goals," he recalled in an article for the university's journalism department.
Also, his mother looked askance at his becoming a journalist; it was not considered a decent profession. "Back in the 1940s, journalists had the image of being drunks and bums and ne'er-do-wells," he recalled in a 1994 Washingtonian Magazine story written by Ken Adelman.
He took a basic journalism course his senior year simply because he needed the credit. Taught by a legendary professor named Joe Nettles, it hooked him. After Mr. Duke graduated in 1947, Nettles helped him get a job covering sports for the Associated Press in Richmond. He was a 21-year-old rookie.
A year later he was writing a weekly "Virginia Sports Reel" column, but reporting on Virginia's civil rights battles began to take more and more of his time. It also earned him a promotion to AP's Washington bureau in 1957.
The civility and professionalism that Mr. Duke embodied did not prevent him from being an aggressive reporter. In 1994, Post columnist and occasional "Washington Week" panelist David Broder recalled that at the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Duke was part of a trio of congressional reporters -- along with Alan L. Otten and Robert D. Novak -- that, in Broder's words, "may have been as strong a team as any news organization has ever had on that beat." He covered Congress from 1959 to 1963, as well as the 1960 presidential campaign.
In 1963, he moved to NBC, where he covered Capitol Hill for 10 years. Eager to do live broadcasts on the political news of the day, he switched to public television in 1974. Hosting "Washington Week in Review," seven years old at the time, was part of the deal.
During his tenure, the show's average audience increased from 1.5 million to 4.6 million. It won both an Emmy and the Alfred J. DuPont-Columbia University Award for outstanding journalistic achievement.
Mr. Duke contributed articles and opinion pieces to numerous publications, including Reporter Magazine and The Post, and won an American Film Festival Blue Ribbon Award for a documentary on Harry Truman's surprise victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948. He also made documentaries about the Berlin Airlift and John F. Kennedy's campaign for the presidency.
The Watergate scandal, he said, was the most emotional story he ever covered, but it wasn't "the greatest story." That, he told Adelman, was a story about Lady Wonder, a horse in Richmond that told fortunes, found missing objects and helped solve love problems.
He retired from "Washington Week" in 1994 and lived for nearly two years in London, where he contributed special reports to "Washington Week" on European political matters and news analysis for the British Broadcasting Company. He also provided a weekly "Letter from London" to WETA FM in Washington.
In 1999, he came back for a short stint as moderator of "Washington Week" after his successor was fired.
"I cannot remember once detecting a tone of arrogance in Mr. Duke's voice or hearing him resort to the deplorable use of name-calling and epithets so easily embraced nowadays by politicians and commentators alike," a letter writer to The Post commented when Mr. Duke retired the first time. "His unassuming nature made the program an amiable discourse directed at informing the public without the need for acrimony or incivility."
Mr. Duke liked to tell about another letter, one he received in 1992 from a man accusing "Washington Week" of outrageous bias.
Mr. Duke sent him a one-line response: "Biased which way?"
The viewer came back with his own one-line response: "Biased both ways!"
His first marriage, to Janet Johnston Duke, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Janet Wachter Duke of Washington; a son from the first marriage, Paul Duke Jr. of Los Angeles, and a stepdaughter, Amy Rider of Richmond; and one step-grandchild.