Helen Dewar, 70; Distinguished Post Senate Reporter

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Helen Dewar, 70, for 25 years The Washington Post's Senate reporter who chronicled congressional debates, compromises and scandals, died of breast cancer Nov. 4 at The Fountains at Washington House in Alexandria.

Ms. Dewar worked for the newspaper for more than four decades, rising from a temporary position as an editorial aide in the women's section ("filling paste pots," she once wrote) to covering major political issues before Congress from 1979 to 2004.

She had "a rare combination of integrity, intelligence and determination to get both sides of the story," said Eric Pianin, a Post colleague and editor. "She was also a brilliant student of the Senate. She knew the rules as well as the parliamentarian."

Whether on the Hill or at a political convention, she was willing to do any job that needed to be done, said Post political columnist David Broder, who called her "one of the best reporters I ever knew.

"The thing that was notable to me about Helen . . . is she owned two very different beats, as a reporter on Virginia politics and government, and then she became the definitive Senate reporter. There was never any question among her colleagues that she learned more and had better judgment while she was on those beats than anyone else."

Tough on her editors as well as her sources, Ms. Dewar was an old-fashioned reporter whose clear prose and determination seemed almost anachronistic in an age of multimedia skills and self-promotion. A veteran of hallway stakeouts and midnight votes, she was reliable on deadline, developed authoritative sources and eschewed "gotcha" journalism, her editors said. Her scrupulous fairness earned her friends in both major political parties.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) yesterday called Ms. Dewar "a legend in Washington [and] a reporter in the best traditions of the profession -- an eye for detail and a keen sense of the truth. Helen ensured that her readers had a true reflection of the major stories in the capital."

Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) called her "a journalist of the highest caliber. She was a true Washington reporter whose love of the Congress and determination to ask the right questions earned the respect -- and occasionally the fear -- of those she covered. . . . I will especially miss Helen's sharp wit and the way her humor would inspire laughter even in the midst of a tense Senate battle."

In the 1990s, when Congressional leaders tried to bar reporters from waiting for senators just outside the door to their chamber -- one of Ms. Dewar's favorite spots to catch an inaccessible senator -- she perfected what became known as the "Dewar walk." As long as she was moving, nobody would chase her away, so Ms. Dewar would shuffle and amble around the corridors, ready to pounce when senators answered a call to a vote.

Maralee Schwartz, her editor at The Post for five years, said that Ms. Dewar was self-effacing to a fault in the newsroom but not intimidated by the elected officials she covered. Many nights, as the newspaper deadline loomed and long-winded senators waxed on, a harried Schwartz would press Ms. Dewar for an estimate on when a vote would be taken.

"You'd hear all these noises from her -- hmm, unnnh, fft -- until she'd finally say, 'It's the Senate, Maralee!' That became a saying around here -- 'It's the Senate!' " Schwartz said.

Her last story in The Post, published Jan. 20, 2005, examined the outlook for President Bush's second term and predicted, through heavily sourced reporting, the administration's difficulties in getting its major initiatives through an increasingly contentious Congress.

Ms. Dewar was born and raised in Stockton, Calif., and graduated from Stanford University. She worked as an intern with the Coro Foundation in San Francisco and joined The Post for one week in 1958, she said in an autobiographical sketch on The Post's internal Web site. She left for a reporting job at the Northern Virginia Sun in Arlington and covered education for two years before returning to The Post in 1961.

Like many Post reporters, she started out in the Metro section, covering Arlington and Fairfax and going on general assignments before being assigned to the Virginia state government beat in 1965. Ten years later, she spent a year dogging the Washington metropolitan delegation on Capitol Hill. She was assigned to the national desk in 1976 and tracked Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign. Between 1977 and 1979, Ms. Dewar covered labor and related issues before taking up the post as Senate reporter.

She won the 1984 Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress from the National Press Foundation and The Post's Eugene Meyer Award in 1987. She was inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame in January.

Ms. Dewar won a Lifetime Achievement Award this year from the Washington Press Club Foundation, which cited her reporting for its "verve, its insight and its penetrating grasp of difficult issues."

She had no immediate survivors.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company