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David Broder, the Best Boy on the Campaign Bus, Dies at 81

4 years ago
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"The high priest of political journalism, the most powerful and respected man in the trade was David Broder."
-- "The Boys on the Bus" by Timothy Crouse, 1973

For nearly four decades, from the late 1960s to the 21st century, David Broder of The Washington Post, wore those priestly robes lightly, treating his journalistic calling and the American voters with reverence, never succumbing to the know-it-all self-importance that is an occupational hazard on the political beat. Broder, who filed his last column for the Post just a month ago, died Wednesday at age 81 from complications from diabetes.

Transcending his 1973 Pulitzer Prize for commentary (based on his columns about Nixon-McGovern campaign) and his 401 Sunday appearances on "Meet the Press," Broder was animated by his passion for get-out-of-Washington, knock-on-doors, call-the-county-chairman political reporting. "He would show up in the most unexpected places," recalled Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander in a statement. "Sometimes he was the only reporter present. He never played favorites." Alexander should know: Broder profiled him in his 1980 book, "Changing of the Guard," and covered his two failed presidential campaigns.

The jacket photo on the flyleaf of "Changing of the Guard" depicted Broder in his prime – dressed in a suit and white shirt, his face punctuated by a shy smile and enormous horn-rimmed glasses, standing in front of a manual typewriter in the Post newsroom. This half-forgotten book, a portrait of the post-World War II generation rising in American politics, captured the enduring strength of Broder's dogged talk-to-everyone style of reporting. Broder's portrait of an obscure first-term Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich discussed his "crazy scheme to achieve the majority Republicans had not won in the House since 1952." That crazy scheme that Broder presciently highlighted made Gingrich House speaker 15 years later.

Done the right way -- the Broder way -- political reporting demands humility, the ability to listen and the capacity to be surprised by the voters. These are not skills acquired in TV green rooms or by believing that eternal truths can be divined from regression analyses of polls. In his 1987 book, "Beyond the Front Page," Broder explained, "One of the best ways to report a campaign is to park yourself in a particular community long enough to find out who is for whom – and why."

None of this is flashy. None of this will win you the kind of ephemeral scoops that will dominate the web between 1:12 and 1:28 on a slow Wednesday afternoon in March. But this kind of Broderesque reporting (along with stalking the halls at political science conventions and attending regional meetings of the National Governors Association) is an ideal way to understand not only who will win -- but also why and what that result says about America.

Sadly, in recent years, Broder was sometimes the target of vicious invective and vituperative mockery from left-wing bloggers and ideological warriors. Broder, who as long as his health and age would permit craved getting out of the hermetically sealed Beltway environment, was wrongly attacked as the embodiment of Washington conventional wisdom. Demonized by stray comments on "Meet the Press" and occasional clunky columns, Broder, in reality, was being punished unfairly for the sin of being a political moderate in an immoderate era.

Despite his dogged belief in pragmatism and bipartisanship, Broder could be a tart-tongued critic of political manipulation and synthetic campaigning. Disgusted by an incumbent president's refusal to go beyond making deceptive claims to handpicked audiences, Broder wrote during the 1972 campaign, "In every way possible, the Nixon entourage seems to be stifling the kind of dialogue that in the past been thought to be at the heart of the presidential campaign...The editors of this country and the TV news chiefs ought to tell Mr. Nixon in plain terms, that before they spend another nickel to send their reporters and camera crews around the country with him, they want a system where journalists can be journalists again."

The truth is that Broder was an idealist about the political process (and, yes, the dreams of the sad-sack Chicago Cubs to someday win the World Series). Unfortunately, he was witness to the way that each presidential campaign seemed more witless than the last. Candidates may have become increasingly cloistered from the reporters who cover them, but the voters (especially in early caucus and primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire) never let Broder down.

It seems cruel that Broder will never learn the outcome to the impossible-to-handicap 2012 Republican race where everything is ready except the candidates. It will be strange for me not to see him in the back of a candidate rally in Dubuque, taking it all in with a bemused smile, or amiably chatting with a star-struck young reporter on a press bus.

Unable to turn back time, all I can do is to make this ironclad promise: The next time that I am in a bar in Iowa or New Hampshire with my press-pack colleagues, I will lift a glass in honor of the greatest political reporter since Teddy White. Here's to you, David Broder.

Follow Walter Shapiro on Twitter.
Filed Under: Obits, 2012 President

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Best boy ? Aren't we a little condescending, Walter ? Broder was a class act. Don't make fun of him , Walter.

March 09 2011 at 11:20 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

A good man with a kind heart.

March 09 2011 at 7:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

He will be sorely missed!

March 09 2011 at 7:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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