David Broder, 1929 – 2011
In the last few years it became “inside the beltway” sport for some to denigrate the kind of journalism that Dave Broder practiced for so long from his lofty perch at the Washington Post.
To his few critics, Broder, who died on Wednesday at age 81, was old school, a guy interested in the substance of politics, not the cynicism, someone who actually believed that politicians could be motivated by something other than self-interest. Worst of all, to some, Broder was a model of civility; judicious with his judgments, slow to pull the trigger of blame.
For my money, he was the gold standard, the dean, the kind of reporter who is rapidly disappearing from the political beat, or any other beat. Broder was to the soles of his well-worn shoes a reporter, not a pontificator. He was criticized by some for repeating the conventional wisdom on D.C., but by any measure of the work that journalist do, he was a calm, reasoned, informed, non-cynical voice that both tried to understand politics and not debase politicians. Dave Broder was a nice guy in what is often a cutthroat business.
I met him once and spent a day with him at an Andrus Center conference in Boise a number of years ago. That forum, organized with the Frank Church Institute at Boise State, focused on politics, the press and the law in the post-9-11 world. Well into his 70’s, Broder consented to fly across the country and be part of a discussion that I moderated featuring judges, lawyers and journalists. He provided no bombast, just perspective. No harsh criticism of the political process, but rather understanding informed by the belief that most of the time people in public life try, as they see it, to do the right thing.
Many of the tributes to Broder, and there will be many over the next few days, will mention his penchant for going door-to-door to talk to real voters about politics. The tributes will stress his sensitivity, even his compassion for the mighty who tumble from great power and his fundamental decency and gentlemanly nature. All true.
New Yorker political writer Hendrik Hertzberg admits to criticizing Broder for his repeating of the conventional Washington wisdom, but then recounts a charming story of Broder impressing the devil out of Hertzberg’s fawning mother. Not every good reporter is a hit-headed Carl Bernstein. Thank goodness there has been room for a long, long time for a decent and discerning Dave Broder.
I connived to sit next to Broder at dinner after a long day at that Andrus Center conference. We’d spent the day discussing and debating how the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would change American politics, law and the press. I wanted to hear him hold forth on Washington, but he kept gently turning the conversation local.
Always the reporter, he wanted to know what was going on in Idaho. Midway through dinner, he pulled out one of those uniquely shaped reporter’s notebooks and starting taking notes. I was dumbfounded. Dave Broder, the dean of Washington political reporters, thought I had something worth recording in his notebook. If I hadn’t already liked the guy, that would have sealed the deal. But, most importantly, he really did want to know. He was a reporter. Always looking for information, opinions, insight.
Writing in the Post yesterday, Robert Kaiser said it well: “In a business dominated by hard-driving egos, Broder was an anomaly: a Midwestern gentleman, gentle in manner, always eager to help fellow reporters and to preserve the reputation of his newspaper. His standards never slipped, save perhaps when yielding to his perennially unfulfilled dreams for hisbeloved Chicago Cubs.”
One of the reasons our politics has assumed such a hard and nasty edge relates directly to the hard and nasty approach of too many opinion-driven news organizations and the people who work for them. Dave Broder, even when criticized, refused to succumb to the nasty and cynical. He uplifted his craft and, as a result, uplifted those he covered.
I’ve often thought since that dinner in Boise back in 2003 that Dave Broder would have been welcome on that particular night at any Georgetown salon, Washington embassy or U.S. Senator’s dinner table. He chose to come to Boise. He wanted to know what was happening out here. He was curious and interested. He was a real reporter.
At that Andrus Center conference Broder was asked what responsibility the press has to protect secrets that might impact national security. It was the time when then CIA officer Valerie Plame had been publicly identified and her cover blown thanks to political leaks and press reports.
Broder warned the questioner that he was going to get a longer answer than he might want and then proceed to say, with nuance and insight, that it is the government’s responsibility to protect its secrets. The press has another job. The job of the press is to report what is going on, he said, what is important. The government tries to protect secrets, the press reports news.
Old school, indeed.
If you don’t believe Dave Broder was one-of-a-kind, try to think of anyone in journalism today who can now inherit his unique role. He was the dean, maybe the last of a breed.
I’m not sure he ever revisited those notes he took when we were talking during dinner, but he did write it down. I’ll remember that – and Dave Broder – for a long, long time. Good guy, terrific journalist.