Thursday, March 10, 2011

David Broder, gentleman of the press

In the rarified atmosphere that nationally syndicated columnists and talk show commentators breathe every day, I imagine it's hard to avoid getting an over-inflated view of your importance. We've heard about the big salaries and huge speaking fees some of them command, and we've seen puffed-up egos on TV, heard them on the radio and read their thoughts in print. It's fascinating to see how highly some of them value their own voices.

And then there was David Broder, the veteran columnist for The Washington Post who remained, at heart and in practice, a shoe-leather reporter all of his days in this business. Broder died at 81 Wednesday, and the world of journalism will miss his presence.

The soft-spoken Broder, a son of the Midwest, looked at both sides of issues and often empathized with the arguments of each. But more important, he listened. He knocked on doors, asked questions of ordinary Americans about what they saw going on in national and state politics and wrote thoughtful pieces about what he heard. On Sunday talk shows he seemed less inclined to shoot from the lip and more interested in understanding context and explaining it to folks who sometimes wanted only yes-or-no, good-or-bad, win-or-lose answers.

But Broder also wrote tough columns that raked politicians over the coals and sometimes called his own profession to account for its lapses. One memorable column was his Aug. 29, 2001 piece after N.C. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms announced his decision not to run for re-election. His column began:

"Those who believe that the "liberal press" always has its knives sharpened for Republicans and conservatives must have been flummoxed by the coverage of Sen. Jesse Helms's announcement last week that he will not run for reelection next year in North Carolina. The reporting on his retirement was circumspect to the point of pussyfooting.

"On the day his decision became known, the New York Times described him as "a conservative stalwart for nearly 30 years," the Boston Globe as "an unyielding icon of conservatives and an archenemy of liberals." The Washington Post identified Helms as "one of the most powerful conservatives on Capitol Hill for three decades."

"Those were accurate descriptions. But they skirted the point. There are plenty of powerful conservatives in government. A few, such as Don Rumsfeld and Henry Hyde, have been around as long as Helms and have their own significant roles in 20th century political history. What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country -- a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired. A few editorials and columns came close to saying that. But the squeamishness of much of the press in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life."

I didn't know Broder well but spent a little time with him now and then, thanks to Walt DeVries, the political scientist from Wilmington who for years ran the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership. It was DeVries' vision that created a program that would train those interested in running and serving in political office in the technical details and creative art of campaigning and serving. His graduates include Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and independents -- and he frequently got his old friend David Broder to come to North Carolina to speak at training sessions or give a graduation address. He also helped other N.C. nonprofits who wanted Broder to appear at a seminar or make a speech.

On of them was the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, and DeVries arranged for Broder to make a visit to a session on political changes in North Carolina during the '80s. As editor of the center's quarterly, North Carolina Insight, it was my job to pick Broder up at RDU and make sure he was settled in at his hotel and got to where he needed to be. I expected a Very Important Person consumed in his own profound thoughts. But the man I picked up insisted on carrying his own bags, was interested in knowing my background, was already conversant in what was going on in Tar Heel politics but asked good questions about the nuances of our closely split electorate. He, too, liked to talk about baseball. In 10 minutes it was as if we had known one another a long time.

I'd run into Broder from time to time as he breezed through the state on the trail of one story or another, watched him question businessmen, college presidents and those who might know something he needed to know. His interviews always seemed more like conversations than interrogations.

In a business where the press corps is sometimes derided as a pack of hyenas on the trail of blood, and where the term Gentlemen of the Press most often sparks a round of derisive laughter, David Broder was a rare figure who lived up to the image. He was a gentleman of the press.


Atlanta Roofing said...

The impression that although Broder was more centralist than conservati¬ve, he did give Republican¬s a bit more slack than he did Democrats. It may have just been a balancing act between being objective, and pleasing his MSM masters. That was the downfall of others like Bill Moyers, Dan Rather & Phil Donahue.

David P. McKnight said...

David Broder was patient yet persistent. He worked at the highest national levels of journalism, but he was keenly interested in the challenges faced by state and local governments. He enjoyed participating in important television network news programs, including more appearances on NBC's "Meet the Press" than any other guest journalist, but he never lost faith in the importance and relevance of print journalism in the form of newspapers and magazines.

Broder was the equivalent of a "Hall of Fame" political reporter in the tradition of a great Major League baseball pitcher, but he never lost interest in the vital roles of the editorial "dugout" and "bullpen."

As a reporter and editorial writer myself for many years at North Carolina newspapers, I could only rarely approach the levels of excellence routinely achieved by by my newspaper editor father, C.A. McKnight of The Observer. Perhaps the closest I came to following "the family tradition" was the simple act of selecting columns by David S. Broder for the editorial pages of The Fayetteville Observer because political reporting and analysis such as was rendered by the veteran Washington Post columnist through the years represented the highest ideals of newspaper journalism as viewed in our household when I was growing up in Charlotte.

And David Broder didn't want to consider retirement if he could help it because he was writing columns all the way through February 2011, the month before he died.