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David Broder, 81, dies; set 'gold standard' for political journalism

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 12:39 AM

David S. Broder, 81, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post and one of the most respected writers on national politics for four decades, died Wednesday at Capital Hospice in Arlington of complications from diabetes.

Mr. Broder was often called the dean of the Washington press corps - a nickname he earned in his late 30s in part for the clarity of his political analysis and the influence he wielded as a perceptive thinker on political trends in his books, articles and television appearances.

In 1973, Mr. Broder and The Post each won Pulitzers for coverage of the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. Mr. Broder's citation was for explaining the importance of the Watergate fallout in a clear, compelling way.

As passionate about baseball as he was about politics, he likened Nixon's political career to an often-traded pitcher who had "bounced around his league."

He covered every presidential convention since 1956 and was widely regarded as the political journalist with the best-informed contacts, from the lowliest precinct to the highest rungs of government.

Former Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee called Mr. Broder "the best political correspondent in America. David knew politics from the back room up - the mechanics of politics, the county and state chairmen - whereas most Washington reporters knew it at the Washington level."

Mr. Broder was praised at the highest echelons of political power. The White House issued a statement from President Obama that called him a "true giant of journalism" and added that he "built a well-deserved reputation as the most respected and incisive political commentator of his generation."

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said in a statement, "In his thoughtful and probing questions based on decades of scholarship and on-the-scene observations, David Broder set the modern 'gold standard' for those of us engaged in political life as we sought to persuade others, to legislate and to administer the successful progress of our country."

Asking tough questions

Balding, sporting horn-rimmed glasses and measured in his speaking style, Mr. Broder was once likened to an MIT professor in appearance. He was a frequent and instantly recognizable panelist on TV news-discussion shows, a penetrating questioner who often put politicians on the spot and a clear-eyed analyst who could cut to the heart of an issue.

On "Meet the Press" in 1987, he probed whether then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, the GOP front-runner in the next year's White House race, was too much an Eastern patrician to understand average Americans.

Mr. Broder asked the candidate whether he knew how many Americans lacked health insurance and how many U.S. children were born into poverty.

Bush said he didn't know, adding: "We have the best medical-attention system in the world, and I don't want to see it go into the mode of England or this whole concept of socialized medicine where the government provides absolutely everything. You are going to break the government."

Mr. Broder had genuine admiration for Bush but explained that the questions were important because "even more than most of your rivals, I think you've lived in a very special world. Certainly in the last seven years. And I want to try to sort of test how much you understand about some of the realities for the people in the country that you seek to lead."

Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. said Mr. Broder was less concerned with being a "scoop artist" than focusing on a larger portrait of contemporary politics. For two generations, he was among the earliest to spot the rise and fall of political stars, and to identify trends such as the movement toward ballot initiatives for states on emotionally charged issues such as gay rights and physician-assisted suicide.

The plainspoken Mr. Broder disliked the influence of political consultants on Washington journalism and their desire to control how news is spun. He preferred to give voters a more prominent voice in the coverage of politics and campaigns.

"I've learned that the most undervalued, underreported aspect of politics is what voters bring to the table," he told Washingtonian magazine. "My generation of reporters was deeply influenced by Teddy White, the greatest political journalist of our time. He showed us how far inside a campaign you could go.

"We naturally emulated him, at least as far as our skills would take us," he said. "Before long, we got so far inside that we forgot the outside - that the campaign belonged not to the candidates or their consultants or their pollsters, but to the public.

"Given the American people's deep skepticism about our political system today," he added, "we can raise their faith some if we give them the feeling that, at least at election time, the press and candidates are responding to their thoughts and views."

'Eyes set a little higher'

In a syndicated political affairs column that was published in 300 newspapers, Mr. Broder was credited with popularizing political ideas and debate coming from academic circles.

"I can't think of any columnist of a major newspaper who took academic political scientists more seriously than David Broder," said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor and an authority on congressional politics.

Mr. Broder, he added, was able to "reach beyond the dispensers of political wisdom in Washington and tap into a totally different plane than day-to-day commentators in Washington. . . . He could traffic in day-to-day gossip with the best of them, but his eyes were set a little higher, to look at broader trends."

His books include "The Party's Over: The Failure of Politics in America" (1972), which argued for reforms in the two-party system to combat "a rising tide of distrust of government and public officials"; "The System" (1996), in which Mr. Broder and journalist Haynes Johnson examined the failure of President Bill Clinton's health-care reform agenda; and "The Man Who Would Be President" (1992), based on articles he wrote with Post reporter Bob Woodward about Vice President Dan Quayle, who was widely perceived as a lightweight.

That seven-part series on Quayle drew a highly mixed reaction when published in The Post, with some believing Mr. Broder and Woodward had been too soft on Quayle. But the eminence of the two authors and the measured tone of their work - which portrayed Quayle as a resourceful political strategist - spurred a reexamination of the caricature of the much-maligned vice president.

Another book, "Behind the Front Page" (1987), illustrated Mr. Broder's ongoing desire to open the curtain on his profession and look for ways to improve it. In that book, he explored the relationship between journalists and those they cover.

Mr. Broder had a "relentlessly centrist" philosophy about politics, the political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in the New Yorker magazine. Mr. Broder brooked little tolerance toward what he termed, in describing the action of 1960s militant antiwar activists, "confrontation politics, with its constant threat of violence and repression."

In later years, notably in his book "Democracy Derailed" (2000), he showed skepticism toward ballot initiatives on inflammatory issues - such as Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. He said he viewed ballot initiatives as "almost an alternative form of government . . . at odds with the system of checks and balances, the constitutional republic that our founders had given us."

Mr. Broder said he recognized flaws in the traditional two-party system but preferred to work within the structure. Similarly, he added that problems always arose with candidates who emerged from outside the political system, such as Steve Forbes and H. Ross Perot, because they have not had enough time in the public sphere to develop and be tested publicly.

Baker, the political scientist, said this view sometimes led people who preferred maverick candidates to criticize Mr. Broder as "the embodiment of conventional wisdom." Baker added that Mr. Broder's great strength was the impartiality in his writing - not a splitting of the difference on people and issues, but instead a judiciousness in his analysis of individuals and institutions.

Stalwart Cubs fan

David Salzer Broder was born Sept. 11, 1929, in Chicago Heights, Ill., where his father was a dentist. The younger Broder became a Chicago Cubs enthusiast and, in time, a member of the Emil Verban Memorial Society, a group of Cubs' fans whose chief activity was to commiserate about the team's historically pitiful record.

At 15, he entered the University of Chicago, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1947 and a master's degree in political science in 1951.

As editor of the student newspaper, Mr. Broder became fascinated with politics. The paper was being split by two factions, self-described liberals led by Mr. Broder and a group of students with communist leanings.

"Both sides used the classic tactics," Mr. Broder told journalist Timothy Crouse of the political struggle at the paper. "Come early, stay late, vote often, pack the staff with your people, and always find an acceptable stooge to front for you."

He added, "You even had to worry about the political affiliation of the guy who was taking the paper down to the print shop on any given night, because if he was on the other side he damn well might rewrite a lead or a headline to get the party line into the paper."

In 1951, he married college classmate Ann Collar, who became chairman of Arlington County's school board. Besides his wife, of Arlington, survivors include four sons, George Broder of San Francisco, Joshua Broder of Brooklyn, N.Y., Matthew Broder of Hamden, Conn., and Michael Broder of Arlington; and seven grandchildren.

'Coffee-shop kind of man'

After Army service, Mr. Broder joined the Congressional Quarterly in Washington. He spent five years writing for the old Washington Star before the New York Times hired him in 1965 as a Washington-based national political correspondent.

He lasted 18 months at the Times and attributed his brief stay to turf feuds between the Washington bureau and the New York home office. Those conflicts restricted what he could cover.

For years, The Washington Post had resisted poaching reporters from other major newspapers. In the mid-1960s, the new executive editor, Bradlee, actively pursued high-profile journalists to raise the paper's quality and ambition.

Bradlee wrote in his memoir, "A Good Life," that Mr. Broder was "the first top rank reporter ever to quit the Times for the Post. The traffic had all been the other way. I romanced him like he's never been romanced - in coffee shops, not fancy French restaurants, because Broder was a coffee-shop kind of man: straightforward, no frills, all business."

As senior political writer, Mr. Broder began designing the paper's campaign and election coverage for the 1968 presidential race.

His best-known early scoop came from a conversation with Republican presidential candidate Nixon during a 1968 campaign stop in Oregon. Nixon dropped hints that Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew (R) was a potential running mate because of his executive experience.

"I wrote it in May and promptly forgot about it," he told Crouse in the book "The Boys on the Bus." "It never crossed my mind again that it was a serious prospect, and I was as astonished as everyone in that convention when it came to pass. But out of that, I've become 'a great confidant of Richard Nixon's' and 'the only reporter who knew he was going to pick Agnew.' "

For decades, Mr. Broder traveled more than 100,000 miles annually and chronicled the rising influence of black leaders and members of the women's movement at political conventions. He said he never tired of the "intense and unpredictable human drama in convention week," the sudden rise and fall of potential candidates for high office.

Mr. Broder largely withdrew from daily reporting after the 2004 campaign but continued his column. He also taught journalism at the University of Maryland and, as he had throughout his career, continued to mentor younger generations of reporters.

In 2008, journalist Ken Silverstein of Harper's Magazine raised concerns that Mr. Broder violated conflict-of-interest rules at The Post by accepting thousands of dollars from appearances before trade and business groups - a practice Mr. Broder had once criticized.

Mr. Broder said he breached The Post policy in some instances by not informing his bosses and apologized for "the embarrassment it has caused the paper."

As a reporter, Mr. Broder admitted shortcomings on issues great and small. He compiled for publication his "annual accounting of errors and misjudgments" highlighting his bloopers in election coverage.

Although the columns were at times lighthearted - once noting the three times it took before he properly identified the Financial Accounting Standards Board - he was appalled when reflecting on his coverage of President George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"Without waiting for him to actually do anything, I saluted his performance, leading off with the assertion that 'it took almost no time for President Bush to put his stamp on the national response to the tragedy that has befallen New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.' "

In a reference to a comment to Bush's highly criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency director, Michael D. Brown, Mr. Broder added, "But if Bush were as vindictive toward the press as is sometimes reported, he could well turn to me and say: 'You're doing a heck of a job, too, Davey.' "

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