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March 16, 2011

David Broder, A Reporterís Reporter

Kevin E. Dayhoff

David S. Broder, 81, the well-respected dean of letters for The Washington Post for over four decades, has died from complications of diabetes.


In an era when too many writers shoot from the hip with commentary that is only rivaled by a bar room conversation with an inebriated unicorn, Mr. Broder always seemed to have a certain depth and gravitas to his work.


A prolific writer, The New York Times noted “Mr. Broder, whose last column was published February 6, was often called the dean of the Washington press corps and just as often described as a reporter’s reporter, a shoe-leather guy who always got on one more airplane, knocked on one more door, made one more phone call.


“He would travel more than 100,000 miles a year to write more than a quarter-million words. In short, he composed first drafts of history for an awful lot of history.”


In spite of that level of productivity, in the week since his death, I have been a bit unnerved by how many of my colleagues are not aware of the life and work of such a distinguished journalist, who seemed to effortlessly sit on either side of the typewriter as a hard-news newspaperman and a political commentator.


Although many could not recall his work at The Washington Post, it was only after I called attention to his numerous appearances on Washington Week and Meet the Press that Mr. Broder came to life.


The transcript for the March 13, 2011 airing of Meet The Press notes, Mr. Broder “was fixture here on Meet The Press. He holds the record, by far, for the most show appearances, 401…  The first was on July 7th, 1963…Although he was an institution in Washington and on this show, he never let himself get trapped in the Beltway. He loved traveling the country, precinct by precinct, knocking on doors and talking to voters. All told, 13 presidential campaigns over 50 years.”


In all the years I have followed his work, I found him to be unswervingly straight down the middle in his reportage and commentary. Whenever I saw his byline or his smiling, kind, and professorial face on TV, I made sure to pay attention to what he had to say.


Mr. Broder, who won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 1973, began his journalism career at the student newspaper of the University of Chicago, the Chicago Maroon, in 1951, while studying for his master’s degree.


The Chicago Maroon reported in a May 23, 2005 article by Zach Werner, that Mr. Broder “… joined The Washington Post in 1966 and has written both news and opinion stories over the course of his career. Prior to the Post, he covered national politics for The New York Times (1965-66), The Washington Star (1960-65), and Congressional Quarterly (1955-60).


“In addition, Broder has authored seven books on politics and journalism… He has reported on every national campaign and convention since 1960…”


Although I’m confident I watched him on Meet the Press in the 1960s – I was an avid viewer – my first memory of Mr. Broder and his work comes in a bit of unusual manner. I have always associated reading the name David S. Broder for the first time in 1973 when he was mentioned in Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.”


I kid you not.  Perhaps that may very well be the first time you ever read the name David Broder and Hunter S. Thompson in the same sentence.


I recall very little about “Fear and Loathing,” except it introduced me to the highly stylized form of writing, later referred to as “gonzo journalism,” the incestuous relationship between the press and the political actors covered by the media, fax machines, and Mr. Broder, all by way of reading “Rolling Stone,” and all in one fell swoop.


It was a veritable pièce de résistance moment two years after moving out of the house, having been raised on Baltimore’s Sun, Redbook, and the local weekly newspapers.  Some may suggest I never recovered from the shock.


Many years later, I was curious about the new phenomena of newspapers appearing on the Internet in the late 1990s and one of the first I discovered there was The Washington Post. And there again was the name David Broder.


It was not until after he died that I was able to put it all together by reading “Broder's Shift Key: An Unlikely Online Makeover,” by Mark Stencel, Mr. Broder's researcher at The Washington Post from 1991 to 1993 and later the Post’s online editor about 1996, when the Post first went online.


Mr. Stencel observed that Mr. Broder “was also an online pioneer, even if an unlikely one. David was game to try anything he thought might make the world he covered more accountable and accessible… So he regularly contributed to his newspaper's initial transformation into a multimedia publishing company…”


I have always believed that it is no longer good enough to be the best, you have to be nice. Mr. Broder seemed to live-up to that ideal. Joel Achenbach wrote: “If there were a more decent and generous journalist in our business than David Broder, I've never met the person.


“Broder … had no pretense in him. He knocked on doors to the very end of his career, interviewing voters, getting to know the local political organizers, never promoting himself to a rank too exalted to conduct shoe-leather reporting…”


In an attempt to fathom just why it is that Mr. Border’s death has bothered me so much, I have decided that he was like a kindly uncle that I never met or never knew except by way of how he always seemed to be able to rearrange 26 incongruent letters in a manner that equaled a meaningful story.


I’m just saying…


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