Don’t look for Bob Levey’s name on any ballot on Tuesday. He’s not running for Congress.
“I ran for student council in sixth grade and was defeated,” said the former Washington Post Metro columnist. “That sated my appetite for public office.”
Left unsated, however, was Bob’s appetite for imagining public office. The result is “Larry Felder, Candidate,” a novel just published by the longtime occupant of this very space. (For information, visit bobleveypublishing.com.)
In the novel, Larry Felder’s candidacy is complicated by Larry Felder’s life, including an invalid wife, a lovestruck campaign manager and supporters who may be a little too free with their checkbooks.
And who is Larry Felder? An award-winning journalist who has quit his Washington newspaper job to run for Congress from Maryland’s 8th District.
That happens to be what Bob Levey is and where Bob Levey lives. But Larry is not Bob.
“He is an amalgam of some of the tremendous talents I worked with at The Washington Post,” Bob said over breakfast last week at Jimmy T’s Place, a diner a few blocks from the Capitol. “It’s certainly built around David Broder. But it has dashes of Haynes Johnson and a little garnish of Bill Greider.”
Those are names from an earlier Golden Age at The Post, the paper Bob came to in 1967 as a general-assignment reporter in the Metro section.
“I was 22 years old,” he said. “I knew less than nothing. . . . Ben Bradlee, the most formative person I’ve been around in journalism, hired me. I’ll never get over that, even if he did.”
There’s a Bradlee-esque character in the novel, too, though Bob said he’s a little crustier than the editor on whom he’s based.
“Bradlee had a very pronounced soft side,” Bob said. “He was like a great football coach: ‘You guys go play. Anybody messes with you, I’ll have your back.’ What can be better than that?”
Bob grew up in New York City, where his mother was a college professor and American Cancer Society executive and his father covered labor and business for the New York Times and then CBS News.
“I remember being 10 years old and dressing up for Halloween with a snap-brim hat with ‘PRESS’ in the hat band,” Bob said.
He wrote “Bob Levey’s Washington” for 23 years, starting in 1981 after taking the reins of the daily local column from its founder, Bill Gold. In 2004, when the future of The Post seemed less than a sure thing, Bob took a buyout. It was a tough decision, he said, but the right one. He was 58 and figured he probably had a few tricks left.
Since then, Bob, 73, has headed two nonprofit organizations and taught journalism at the University of Memphis and at Virginia Commonwealth University. He provides consulting services to charities and for 13 years has written a monthly column in the Beacon, a publication for seniors.
He’s also a trustee at Montgomery College, a role that, unlike spouting opinions in print, involves actually getting things done. As one character laments in “Larry Felder, Candidate,” journalism gives its practitioners “a front-row seat, but never a role on stage.”
Over his eggs, Bob said, “Journalism is played between some pretty tight white lines. Fiction allows those white lines to expand a bit.”
Leonard Downie Jr., the editor who followed Ben Bradlee at The Post, was famous for not voting, feeling the act could make readers question his impartiality.
Whadja think of that, Bob?
“I had great respect — and still do and always will — for the ethical constraints that people at The Post face,” he said. “But I think it’s possible to vote and not let that vote taint what you do in your daily journalistic life. I vote every single time I can. I always have.”
Bob’s two kids are grown and doing well. He and his wife, Jane, traded their single-family home in Chevy Chase for a condo in downtown Bethesda. He said he still thinks like a columnist.
“I’ve been gone almost 15 years,” Bob said. “People ask me all the time, ‘Do you miss it?’ What I miss is the energy of the newsroom. I miss the antic personalities. I miss the wretched coffee.”
I told Bob we have slightly better coffee now.
“One of those cartridge machines?”
Yes, I said.
Bob shook his head. “In the old days,” he said, “that was impossible.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.