The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ken Bode, political reporter who moderated ‘Washington Week,’ dies at 83

He also worked in Democratic politics and was dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism

Journalist Ken Bode in 1989 with students at DePauw University. (DePauw University)
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Ken Bode, who drew on his experience in academia and Democratic Party politics during a varied career in journalism, reporting on the presidential campaign trail for NBC, making prizewinning documentaries for CNN and moderating the public affairs roundtable “Washington Week” for PBS, died June 2 at a care center in Charlotte. He was 83.

His daughters, Matilda and Josie Bode, confirmed the death but said the cause was not yet known.

Erudite but unpretentious, Dr. Bode was a savvy chronicler of the nation’s political scene. He combined the expertise of a scholar (he had a PhD in political science) and the passion of an activist (he had worked for liberal Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota) with an open, easygoing manner that friends traced to his upbringing in small-town Iowa, where his father ran a dairy and his mother kept the books.

Dr. Bode (pronounced boh-dee) liked to sprinkle his reporting with colorful details and wordplay, as when he described a Supreme Court vacancy by noting that the seat represented “one-ninth of one-third of the government.” He also showed a special interest in “political rascals,” as his longtime producing partner Jim Connor put it, profiling “people who got in trouble with the law on a large or small scale,” such as a Tennessee sheriff and Philadelphia ward boss who were both convicted on corruption charges.

After launching his television career in the 1980s as a national political correspondent at NBC, Dr. Bode taught journalism at DePauw University, reported and wrote an Emmy-winning CNN documentary, “The Public Mind of George Bush” (1992), and led Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism for three years as dean, helping to grow the school’s broadcast news program.

But he was perhaps best known for moderating “Washington Week in Review,” as the long-running roundtable show was then known. Produced by the Washington-based PBS affiliate WETA, the Friday night show had acquired a reputation as a calm and thoughtful forum for discussions of public affairs under moderator Paul Duke, who led the program for two decades before Dr. Bode succeeded him in 1994.

Over the next five years, Dr. Bode sought to maintain the show’s genial spirit while adding modern touches, including remote interviews with correspondents. He was also credited with bringing more women and people of color into its roundtable discussions, which included journalists Gwen Ifill of NBC, Michel McQueen Martin of ABC and Mara Liasson of NPR.

“I think it’s human and real and probably very good that Bode isn’t like Paul Duke,” frequent panelist Charles McDowell Jr. of the Richmond Times-Dispatch said in a 1994 interview with the New York Times. While Duke had an “unusual, sort of cool image,” McDowell added, Dr. Bode was “more animated … more willing to let it go to a discussion, and override the Q and A a little bit. I think a lot of people are very relieved at that, as a matter of fact.”

But Dr. Bode was edged out of the moderator’s chair in 1999, as WETA executives reportedly sought to bring more attitude and opinion to “Washington Week,” in a bid to turn the show into something like “The View” for politics. Producer Elizabeth Piersol was fired, apparently because she continued to support him, and veteran journalist Roger Wilkins resigned in protest from the station’s board.

“If that’s the direction the show is going to go, I’m the wrong moderator anyway,” Dr. Bode told The Washington Post after his ouster. “I think they’re making a mistake. … One of the things I’m really proud of with that program is there are times when we have three Pulitzer Prize winners sitting at that table. We bring in people who are really covering the news to empty their notebooks and provide perspective, not to argue with each other.”

The station denied planning a major overhaul to “Washington Week.” In any event, the show’s format remained largely unchanged under Dr. Bode’s successor, Ifill, who said she had turned down an offer to become the moderator while Dr. Bode still had the job.

The older of two sons, Kenneth Adlam Bode was born in Chicago on March 30, 1939, and grew up in Hawarden, Iowa, on the state line with South Dakota. He became the first person in his family to attend college, studying philosophy and government at the University of South Dakota, where he led the school’s Young Democrats chapter and met McGovern.

After graduating in 1961, he studied political science at the University of North Carolina, earning a master’s in 1963 and a doctorate three years later. He taught at Michigan State University and the State University of New York at Binghamton but found himself bored and irritated by academic bureaucracy, drawn instead toward liberal politics.

Dr. Bode was working for McGovern at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where he tried to corral delegate votes on behalf of an anti-Vietnam War peace plank. In his early 30s, he left academia behind to spearhead an effort to open the Democratic Party to women, young people and minorities, after years in which a select group of White men functioned as party power brokers.

He served as research director for the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which developed rules to revise the party’s nominating process for the 1972 convention, and led a group called the Center for Political Reform to advance his efforts at the state level. “He was a pivotal figure in the reform movement of the Democratic Party. … He really made it a passion,” said his friend Richard Cohen, a former Post columnist who worked for Dr. Bode in those years. “It was a real calling — to cause trouble in the party.”

Dr. Bode turned toward reporting during the Nixon administration, working as a political editor at the New Republic. He transitioned to broadcast journalism with encouragement from an old college friend, Tom Brokaw, who helped him land a correspondent job at NBC News in 1979.

“He was constantly intellectually restless, about politics and about life,” Brokaw said in a phone interview. “I thought he was smart, and I knew he knew a lot about politics. But I kind of kept an eye on him, because his inclination was to be more of an activist than I was comfortable with.”

As a reporter, Dr. Bode was “an insider’s insider,” Brokaw added, with a fluency in campaign strategy that helped him cultivate relationships on both sides of the aisle. He appeared on shows including “Meet the Press” and “Today,” where he delivered a weekly report called “Bode’s Journal,” before leaving NBC in 1989 to teach at DePauw in Greencastle, Ind.

His decision to leave the network surprised even his own children, whom he had hoped to spend more time with after years spent chasing stories. “Dad,” he recalled one of his daughters saying, “I think it’s a big comedown to go from being a Washington national correspondent for NBC to teaching where Dan Quayle went to college.”

But the teaching position proved a boon, enabling him to regularly attend his children’s school and sporting events for the first time. He continued to teach while working at CNN, where he made documentary specials on the savings and loan crisis as well as presidential candidates, and after becoming dean at Medill in 1998, he would commute two days a week from Evanston, Ill., to D.C., where he moderated “Washington Week.”

Dr. Bode later worked as an ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, monitoring broadcasts for PBS and NPR, and wrote a column for the Indianapolis Star.

His marriage to Linda Yarrow ended in divorce. In 1975, he married Margo Hauff McCoy. In addition to his wife, of Charlotte, and his two daughters, Matilda of Charlotte and Josie of Chicago, survivors include a brother and two grandsons.

Even as Dr. Bode reported on national politics, he sought to find people on the margins who could offer a fresh perspective. His daughter Matilda recalled that during the early stages of the 1988 presidential campaign he interviewed a New Hampshire astrologer named Celeste, who said she had supported Gary Hart, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, until she studied his birth chart. The candidate had been born under the wrong stars, she said.

By the spring of 1987, when Hart’s presidential campaign unraveled following reports that he was having an extramarital affair, her assessment seemed prescient. Dr. Bode revisited Celeste “and had her do our star charts, one for Josie, one for me,” his daughter said, “because he figured she must know something.”

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