Covering politics with David Broder

The Pulitzer-winning Washington Post political columnist, who was known as the dean of the Washington press corps and covered national politics for four decades, has died.
By Lou Cannon
Thursday, March 10, 2011

David S. Broder, in the words of the Founders, had a decent respect for the opinion of mankind. Unlike so many political journalists, he always wanted to know what others thought. Indeed, Broder ended one of his (several) excellent books asking readers, "What do you think?"

Dave talked to everyone: people on the street and in crowds - he famously knocked on doors - as well as politicians and other reporters. I met him in the 1960s, when I was a state capitol reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. The Sacramento press corps tended to be disdainful of reporters from what we called "the East," believing that they arrived in California with their heads full of stereotypes and their leads already written. Broder was different. He was the only Easterner who regularly dropped into our bureaus wanting to know what we thought of Pat Brown or Ronald Reagan.

Broder was, of course, "Eastern" only by our provincial standards. He was from the American heartland, where he had once co-edited the Maroon at the University of Chicago. Ed Engberg, his co-editor, told me jokingly in 1997 that Broder had missed his calling. Engberg said that Broder had increased the paper's circulation from 3,000 to 22,000 and would have made a splendid circulation manager.

When I went to Washington in 1969, Broder was the gold standard of political reporters, as he would be for decades. What I didn't realize until I joined The Post in 1972 was that his influence on his colleagues was even greater than his influence on his readers. He saw to it that the newest and rawest members of the national staff, of which I was one, received top assignments that resulted in Page One stories, even if that meant that he took a back seat. At the 1972 Republican National Convention, he sat in a smoke-filled room for four hours, taking notes for me on an obscure issue that I had been covering so I could write the lead story that day. In putting himself out for his colleagues, Broder taught us that it was the story that mattered, not our egos. He inspired us to work as a team and lifted the confidence and quality of the entire newsroom.

Many years ago, he wrote a piece that began, "Let us be modest, ladies and gentlemen of the press, for we have much to be modest about." It impressed me - and it impressed my eldest son, Carl, even more. When Carl was at the Baltimore Sun, a young reporter complained that one of the prima donnas in our business had treated him shoddily. Carl told him to forget it and to think instead of the example set by Broder. "Don't ever think it's necessary to be puffed up," Carl advised the young reporter. When I was a teenager, he said, David Broder never came to our house and didn't ask me what I was doing or how I felt. He is the greatest of them all, and he never had a swelled head.

Of all the many debts I owe Dave Broder, I am especially grateful for the encouragement he gave me at the 1980 Republican convention, held in Detroit. The convention's only open question was the identity of Ronald Reagan's running mate. Most journalists were abuzz with talk that Reagan would put former president Gerald Ford on the ticket. Thanks to sources in the Reagan campaign, I didn't believe it.

I went to Broder and said that I thought George H.W. Bush was going to be on the ticket. "Pursue it and write it," he said, "and leave everything else to me." We both were fortunate that Ben Bradlee was our editor, for he encouraged reporters to do their own thinking and backed us up when we went out on a limb. I thought I was on a very long limb that week, but thanks to Broder and Bradlee, The Post stuck with a story that turned out to be right.

When Reagan put Bush on the ticket, I was in the convention hall. Broder called me from The Post's workspace and said that Bradlee was so happy he was going to kiss me when I came back. "Tell him I won't come back to the workspace then," I replied.

Broder complied, and Bradlee relented. We all celebrated that evening, with Broder as always drinking less than the rest of us.

I would never have made it through that convention or my 26 years at The Post without him.

Lou Cannon, a former White House correspondent for The Post, is the author of several books and a columnist for State Net Capitol Journal in Sacramento.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company