David S. Broder: The best political reporter of his time

The Washington Post's David Broder explains why 2008 was the best election season he'd ever covered since the Kennedy-Nixon campaign.
By Robert G. Kaiser
Thursday, March 10, 2011

David S. Broder, who died Wednesday at 81, was the best-known and surely the best political reporter of his time. He was fair, thoughtful and astoundingly hardworking, and he earned the admiration of an extraordinary range of American politicians. His judgments could have great influence, as when he turned against Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigations in 1974. With Broder skeptical, Nixon's chances of survival seemed to shrink.

Broder first made a name for himself as a political reporter at the Washington Evening Star, a fine newspaper in its day. In 1965 he was lured to the New York Times but soon became exasperated with the office politics between the Times's Washington bureau and headquarters in New York. The Post's managing editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, who coveted Broder's help to help make a mediocre Washington Post into a great newspaper, promised him the moon. When Broder accepted the offer in August 1966, for the princely sum of $19,000 a year - the highest salary at The Post at the time - he was the first journalist to leave the Times for The Post.

From the moment he arrived, Broder was much more than a Post reporter. He was always an informal political editor, shaping the paper's coverage and making it better. In a business dominated by hard-driving egos, Broder was an anomaly: a Midwestern gentleman, gentle in manner, always eager to help fellow reporters and to preserve the reputation of his newspaper. His standards never slipped, save perhaps when yielding to his perennially unfulfilled dreams for his beloved Chicago Cubs.

Colleagues who worked with him share similar memories about his dogged approach to reporting and his generosity. He wanted us all to care about politics, and especially about the voters. He loved voters.

Interviewing them, Broder once said, invariably reminded him "that the American people don't always have all the information in their hands, but their judgment is just about always sharp. You'll find that they don't make a hell of a lot of mistakes." This was not a cynical reporter.

"David made voters important in political coverage," said Maralee Schwartz, a longtime political editor at The Post. Every election year he spent days walking precincts and knocking on doors, talking to citizens about their concerns and their political preferences. "He knew that we at The Post, consumed by our Washington contacts, were out of touch with ordinary people," Schwartz said, recalling how Broder had made her knock on doors. "It made me a better journalist," she said.

David was back in New Hampshire in 2008, walking the streets in key precincts and questioning voters - surely the only 78-year-old reporter doing so at the time.

His shoe-leather reporting paid off repeatedly. In 1980, when the expert class was deeply unsure, Broder saw that Ronald Reagan was likely to win the White House and said so in print on the eve of the election. In 1994 he wrote before Election Day that the Republicans were going to recapture control of Congress for the first time in four decades, a lonely prediction. And though he hid it well, he had more than enough ego to take satisfaction from being right when others were too timid or just wrong.

The transformation of politics by money and technology in the 1980s dismayed Broder. He didn't like the way political consultants took over campaigns from the politicians. One day in December 1988, he came back to the office with an eye-opening quote from Douglas Bailey, a moderate Republican who had helped run Gerald Ford's 1976 presidential campaign. Bailey explained what was wrong with the new technologies: "It's no longer necessary for a political candidate to guess what an audience thinks. He can [find out] with a nightly tracking poll. So it's no longer likely that political leaders are going to lead. Instead, they're going to follow." Broder never much liked politicians who followed.

He wasn't perfect, Lord knows. In 1974, not long before Nixon resigned, he confessed to Len Downie, one of the editors running the Watergate coverage (who would later become executive editor) that he had failed earlier to appreciate what Nixon had done - failed even to accept that he could have committed those crimes. In recent years, critics from the left accused him of being an apologist for the Washington establishment, a charge that wasn't groundless. He loved politicians, even some smarmy ones.

And he loved his work. He began talking about retirement years ago, but it never happened. His contemporaries were long gone from the front lines, but David S. Broder could not quit. His last column appeared on the Post op-ed page on Feb. 6.

Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of The Post, joined the paper in 1963. His e-mail address is kaiserr@washpost.com.

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