David S. Broder: Reporter

The Washington Post's David Broder explains why 2008 was the best election season he'd ever covered since the Kennedy-Nixon campaign.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 8:10 PM

OF ALL THE EPITAPHS that might fit him - journalist, columnist, commentator, author, teacher, student of politics - we think our friend and colleague Dave Broder, who died Wednesday at age 81, would probably be most pleased with the one-word description we offer above. Mr. Broder was a columnist for many years, but he started out as a reporter and remained one for a lifetime.

Like most reporters, he clearly learned, from the time of his first job on the Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph, a basic lesson of the business: that the story you expect to write when you set out on an assignment never quite matches up with the one you find when you get there. Or, as he put it in one of his books, sometimes "the moment comes when the disappointed reporter has to tell an editor, 'It doesn't check out.' ''

In more than half a century as a Washington political writer - mostly for this paper but also for Congressional Quarterly, the old Washington Star and the New York Times - Mr. Broder traveled to places in every region of the country and then revisited most of them quite a few times. Like many of the good ones in his business, he remembered names and people, and, more than most, he was supremely gifted at listening - a talent that comes from respecting one's sources and being genuinely interested in what they have to say, whether they are senators, county chairmen, schoolteachers, receptionists or unemployed machinists.

When he was among a group of his colleagues at work, Mr. Broder was not given to holding forth. He was mostly listening and learning. Until he could no longer do it, he kept up the daily rounds - the routine breakfast meetings with officials and operatives, the news conferences and congressional hearings. He treated life as an education, whether it was school, Army boot camp (as a draftee with a graduate degree), a New Hampshire coffee shop or the countless phone calls to and from the tiny glass cubicle where he worked amid towers of paper that seemed high enough to have dated from the Grant administration.

Mr. Broder was often called "the Dean," a position that is now likely to go unfilled in the Washington press corps. His detractors used the term sarcastically; they came mostly from the political left and found him much too moderate. In this, he was probably reflecting not just his temperamental aversion to ideology but what he'd seen of the country over the years - a country whose governing institutions he genuinely loved and worried about. But he could thunder at times, and when he did, it counted all the more in public opinion. Mr. Broder had credibility of a kind that is rare today in the world of political discourse.

In a column in 1982, Mr. Broder was speculating on a hypothetical event in the distant year 1999, by which time, he wrote, "I expect to be reporting on shuffleboard tournaments in someplace like Sun City." That year came and went, and Mr. Broder kept avoiding the shuffleboard beat. A few years ago he did "retire" and began limiting himself to just op-ed columns, but almost to the end of his life, he kept traveling, listening and doing what he'd done since the Pantagraph days: filing a piece for the paper.

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