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David Broder: the Dean - and a Prince

David Broder: the Dean - and a Prince

By Carl M. Cannon - March 9, 2011

At my parents' house one summer night many years ago, one of the adults invited for dinner asked me and my high school best friend about our interests in life. "I'm thinking of journalism," replied my pal, Terry Farmer. No dummy, he: the inquiring dinner guest was my dad's famous Washington Post colleague David Broder. "Me, too," I quickly added, even though I had no idea about my career path.

"Don't do it," Broder quipped in mock concern about the prospect of such energetic and youthful competition. "It's a crowded field. Have you thought about the sciences?"

It was vintage Broder: graceful, self-deprecatingly funny, and perceptive all at the same time: Terry was a science whiz and became a geophysicist for Shell Oil. I did go into journalism-it was in my blood-but never forgot the example of the man dubbed "the dean" of the Washington press corps. The lesson David Broder taught me and my friends and my siblings-and generations of young reporters he nurtured and helped-was that even the great can be gracious.

My father has written an appreciation, available on the Washington Post website, as has Dan Balz, the current political reporter who perhaps most resembles Broder in temperament and breadth of knowledge. But my mother, who only knew him socially, summed up the feelings of most of those who came into his orbit. "David was such a lovely man," she said.

Broder began his newspaper career in college at the University of Chicago, where the staff was divided between liberals and communists. David, ever the voice of moderation, was with the liberals. In its editorial lauding Broder as a reporter's reporter, even the Washington Post noted that in recent years he'd come into criticism from the left side of the political spectrum. Those of us with institutional memory about such things recalled that earlier in his career, particularly in the Nixon era, it was conservatives who railed against the Washington Post's coverage, including that furnished by its star political reporter. To me, such carping always said more about the person who was complaining than it did about Broder.

He not only kept his own political views private, he also managed to write an opinion column and do a prodigious amount of straight reporting, all while keeping excellent sources in both parties. "It was a very difficult high-wire act, but he was able to do it," William Safire, the former Nixon aide-turned-New York Times columnist once said. "I don't know how. Maybe he had a way of splitting his professionalism and saying, ‘Today I'll be an opinion columnist' and ‘Tomorrow I'll be a disinterested reporter.' But you couldn't characterize his politics."

If his coverage had a built-in bias, it was that David believed in the two-party system-and the power of the voters to work within that system to reform politics, and shape the government. He also tended to think that political writers, editors, and broadcasters spent too much energy mastering the innards of political campaigns and too little time taking a step back and listening to what the American people were trying to tell us.

"I've learned that the most undervalued, underreported aspect of politics is what voters bring to the table," he once told Washingtonian magazine. "My generation of reporters was deeply influenced by Teddy White, the greatest political journalist of our time. He showed us how far inside a campaign you could go."

"We naturally emulated him, at least as far as our skills would take us," Broder added. "Before long, we got so far inside that we forgot the outside -- that the campaign belonged not to the candidates or their consultants or their pollsters, but to the public."

In the end, this attitude was appreciated by the candidates themselves, regardless of their ideology. Mitt Romney, who has been busy avoiding political reporters in the nascent 2012 presidential campaign, took time out to mourn Broder's passing on Twitter. "David Broder was the last of a breed - an insightful reporter who trusted facts more than opinion," Romney tweeted. "I will miss him."

The testimonials flowed from both sides of the aisle: Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale lauded Broder as the "preeminent political journalist and columnist in the country," a writer whose "sources and his understanding were so deep." Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana said Broder "set the modern ‘gold standard' for those of us engaged in political life as we sought to persuade others, to legislate and to administer the successful progress of our country."

President Obama expressed his respect as well, describing Broder as "a true giant of journalism." Obama noted David's accomplishments and high professional standing - a Pulitzer Prize for his Watergate coverage, "a well-deserved reputation as the most respected and incisive political commentator of his generation," and the unofficial title as "Dean" of the Washington press corps - but the president also took note of perhaps the most singular aspect of the man:

"Through all his success," Obama said speaking on behalf of himself and the first lady, "David remained an eminently kind and gracious person, and someone we will dearly miss."

You are not alone, Mr. President.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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