David Broder's remarkable life and career

By Dan Balz
Thursday, March 10, 2011; A07

On the night before the 2008 New Hampshire primary, a few Washington Post reporters gathered for dinner in Manchester to pay tribute to our colleague David Broder for covering presidential contests in the Granite State for nearly half a century. We all knew it might be the last primary he would cover there.

He was in good form, dressed in his typical road wear - an old, tan corduroy jacket and plaid flannel shirt. He had a smile on his face and was totally in his element. He loved these moments in every campaign, as the voters were about to speak. At one point, he was asked for any last-minute observations. "Watch Ron Paul!" he said with a laugh.

Younger reporters around the table - and everyone at the table qualified - offered Broder stories. One told of the time he dressed up as David Broder for a Halloween costume party. "Did you win the contest?" Dave asked, clearly amused.

Another, who once had a fear of flying, recalled how relieved she was to see him on her flight to Iowa during an earlier campaign. "I thought, 'This plane can't crash,' " she said. " 'It's got David Broder on it.' "

Another told him she had been reading his reporting and columns since 1976. She knew that "because that's when I learned to read." Dave smiled. "They're hiring children now," he exclaimed to more laughter.

Finally, someone recalled how, many weeks earlier, Dave had offered a private prediction at a politics staff meeting that Barack Obama was going to win the presidency. Obama would stumble the next day in New Hampshire, but Dave's prediction, made long before it was conventional wisdom, obviously turned out to be correct.

"How do you know that?" we asked that night. "He's from Illinois," Dave said with a chuckle. Illinois was the reporter's home state.

That was typical of how he dealt with questions he didn't really want to answer - with modesty and a quip that would give away nothing about the secrets to his extraordinary talents.

David Broder was the best political reporter of his or any other generation. He defined the beat as it had not been defined before. He spent a lifetime instructing succeeding generations of reporters - never by dictate but always by example.

He could be tough on politicians when they deserved it, but he was extraordinarily generous to his colleagues, particularly those new to the beat. He created a climate of collegiality that allowed everyone else to flourish, even while demonstrating from one campaign to the next the keenest insights and shrewdest judgments.

His secret was no secret at all. He was a tireless reporter. He wrote two columns a week for most of the past 40 years, but for almost that entire time he carried a full load as a reporter on The Washington Post's national staff. As influential as he was as a columnist, he considered himself a reporter first and foremost.

He brought enormous integrity and humility to his craft. He wanted to know what others thought. He did not form his judgments and then go prove his point. He listened to people, no matter how grand or small their station, and took their scattered observations and spun them into the wisdom he dispensed in his writings.

He knew the details of everything but never lost sight of the big picture. In an era in which political reporting has become more and more focused on minutiae, he kept his focus where it belonged - on the events and forces that move ordinary Americans and shape history. He loved the inside stuff, but he never mistook the whim of the moment for something real.

Long before the Internet made it easier to keep abreast of political developments nationwide, Dave had his own system. He built a network of stringers for The Post in every state of any political importance. He clipped and filed and read and absorbed it all.

He also seemed to remember whatever he read, as well as long-distant conversations. We did many interviews together over the years, and I was regularly astonished when, months later, he would pluck from his memory an observation from one of those talks that was suddenly pertinent to the day's news.

He knew that covering American politics meant getting out of Washington regularly. He traveled regularly to give himself perspective. He knew how the contours of politics differed from one state to another and why those differences mattered nationally.

He made a point of getting to know governors, recognizing that they often became presidents. By late in his career, he was treated like royalty at the annual meetings of the National Governors Association. At one winter meeting, he sought out a newly elected governor - who would later become a Cabinet officer - for an interview. The governor was clearly thrilled - almost giddy - to meet him. Dave hardly noticed. He was there to learn.

Above all, he believed that campaigns should belong to the voters, not to candidates or the media. He sought them out. He knocked on their doors in precincts carefully selected for their voting patterns.

It was old-fashioned reporting, hard but rewarding. Dave did it until the end of his days. Hour after hour, as darkness fell on a chill autumn evening or in the heat of a summer Saturday, he would trudge along the streets of towns across the country, inviting himself in to hear a father's fears, a mother's hopes, a family's aspirations.

He was rarely satisfied with his work. At one of the presidential debates, he finished his analysis within 30 or 40 minutes, easily making his deadline. It was a fine piece, but he wasn't happy. With another deadline looming 45 minutes later, he rewrote it from top to bottom. Then he packed up along with everyone else and went back to his hotel room, where he sat down and wrote his column for the next day.

He was collegial but also exacting. Editors knew when he was unhappy, and he was unhappy whenever The Post did not measure up to his high standards, whether it was getting beat by the competition, the play of an article that he believed deserved more or less attention, or what he regarded as the lack of organization or preparation for upcoming events. "He has the look," we would say. No one liked it when he had "the look."

He wrote with great clarity of thought, calm in the center of a storm. He was the fastest and cleanest deadline writer most of us ever worked around. He did not linger over his copy. Time spent writing cut into his reporting time, which was always precious.

He was not without faults or limitations. He had the messiest office in the newsroom. How messy? So messy that at times there was barely enough room for him to slip through the door and sit in front of his computer. The rest was piled high with the detritus of his travels: old papers, reports, releases, books, you name it. It was such a ghastly sight that it became a standard stop on tours that Post reporters gave to friends or relatives.

He was technologically challenged, though always game. Filing stories from the road often caused him problems. It took a long time before he set up voice mail on his cellphone. When the newspaper industry shifted to computers in the early 1980s, he went off to cover New Hampshire armed proudly with his new laptop. Just in case, he also carried his battered old typewriter.

That was almost 30 years and many laptops ago. He was still at it through the midterm elections last fall, making his rounds in the states despite an aging pair of legs and a body that was giving out on him. His death at 81 brings a remarkable career to a close. It is hard to imagine that there will ever be another political reporter like him - or a friend and colleague for whom so many have such respect and affection.

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