WASHINGTON (AP) — David Broder, one of the nation’s premier political reporters for decades, was a curious mix of old and new.
He combined unglamorous shoe-leather reporting with a knack for detecting trends ahead of his competitors. A rumpled dresser with thick glasses and a shirt pocket full of pens and pencils, he was constantly in demand by good-looking TV news hosts who craved the insights and knowledge he had gained while covering every presidential campaign since 1960.
The Washington Post reporter and columnist earned the unofficial title “dean” of political reporters as a comparatively young man. But he kept working until his 80s, sometimes typing away in an incredibly cluttered office late at night or on Sundays in a nearly empty newsroom.
Broder, who was 81 when he died Wednesday from complications from diabetes, was so renowned for his even-handed, down-the-middle approach that politicians spent years debating whether he was at heart a Republican or Democrat.
Fittingly, accolades poured in from all sides Wednesday. President Barack Obama said Broder “built a well-deserved reputation as the most respected and incisive political commentator of his generation.” The president added: “Through all his success, David remained an eminently kind and gracious person, and someone we will dearly miss.”
Former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement, “We could always count on David to ask the tough but fair questions. His work demonstrated why freedom of the press is at the heart of the American experiment.”
Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Broder “set the standard for modern political reporting and analysis. … Everyone who cares about self-government owes a debt to David.”
Broder emerged as a sure-footed, prescient political journalist in the days of clunky typewriters and carbon copies, when “the boys on the bus” sometimes cobbled together a campaign story under the byline of an inebriated colleague who otherwise might be fired.
“If there was a pack, he was the leader of it,” said veteran Associated Press political writer Walter Mears, who met Broder in the early 1960s. When Ed Muskie thought he wasn’t getting proper credit for his performance in the 1972 New Hampshire presidential primary, Mears said, reporters made up a song that poked fun at themselves and Muskie. It went: “David Broder, write for me, tell me what is victory.”
Broder never rested on his fame, nor hogged it. He would dig into his massive Rolodex to provide sources for the greenest of reporters at the Post. He sometimes startled lowly copy editors by thanking them for improving his articles.
He could have worked entirely by phone (and eventually e-mail). But Broder was a champion of meeting average citizens who, in the end, decide elections. In a 1991 lecture, he said reporters should spend “a lot of time with voters … walking precincts, knocking on doors, talking to people in their living rooms. If we really got clearly in our heads what it is voters are concerned about, it might be possible to let their agenda drive our agenda.“
He wasn’t the most eloquent of writers. But he was fast, insightful and humble, seemingly as willing to file a story destined for page B7 as one for A1. While famous for covering presidential elections, Broder was happiest among mayors and governors. They were closer to the voters, he said, and more attuned to their communities’ changing moods and fortunes.
Broder won the 1973 Pulitzer for columns written in 1972, the year Richard Nixon swept to a second term over Democrat George McGovern.
Longtime colleague and Post political writer Dan Balz said Broder “defined political reporting in America in a way nobody else did.” He called him “the most generous colleague any of us has ever worked with.”
Broder was familiar to television viewers as a panelist on programs such as PBS’s “Washington Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He appeared on the NBC program more than 400 times, far more than any other journalist in the show’s history.
He was the rare journalist who combined straight news reporting with a regular column on politics that appeared on the op-ed pages of dozens of newspapers. Most writers avoid the combination, preferring to indulge in opinions or stick with as much objectivity and nonbias as possible.
Part of Broder’s legacy, however, is a clear mandate for political writers to infuse their reporting with analytical insights that help the reader understand the often obscured motives of politicians, and the possible directions of emerging trends.
A September 2007 study by the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters found that Broder was second among columnists only to George Will in the combined circulation of newspapers in which his column appeared.
He was the only one of the top five whom the group did not label as either conservative or liberal.
In 1990, a survey of newspaper editors conducted by Washingtonian magazine rated Broder as “Best Reporter,” “Hardest Working” and “Least Ideological” among more than 100 columnists.
Among the books he wrote or co-wrote were “Behind the Front Page,” “Dan Quayle: The Man Who Would Be President” and “Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money.”
Starting in 2001, Broder was a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. He also taught for a time at Duke University, but he always said he preferred reporting.
In 2008, he took a buyout from the Post, ending his career as a full-time employee there. But he continued writing his twice-weekly syndicated column.
David Salzer Broder was born in Chicago Heights, Ill., in 1929. He graduated from the University of Chicago and served in the Army from 1951 to 1953 before beginning his journalism career at the Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph. He worked for Congressional Quarterly and The Washington Star before joining The New York Times.
A fast-rising Times reporter, Broder surprised colleagues in 1966 by leaving after only 18 months. The paper’s often bureaucratic ways frustrated him. At an editor’s suggestion, he spelled out his grievances in a lengthy memo that made him a hero to many colleagues. It went down in Times lore as “the Broder memo.”
He went to The Washington Post, which then was far less renowned among U.S. journalists. He, editor Ben Bradlee and others began raising the Post’s reputation for political reporting, which was boosted further by its Watergate coverage in the 1970s.
Broder’s appetite for working long hours and weekends was legendary. Balz recalled a nighttime presidential debate in the 1990s in which Broder wrote “a perfectly fine” analysis on deadline, then completely reworked it in the 45 minutes before the next edition’s deadline. He then went to his hotel room and wrote a separate column on the debate.
Young editors who grew up revering Broder’s work sometimes found themselves in the unnerving role of his editor. Broder typically accepted their suggestions with a breezy grace, urging them to trust their instincts. “I’m sure what you’re doing is fine,” he would say.
No one, however, could persuade Broder to remove the shockingly high stacks of newspapers and other clutter that made it downright scary to enter his small office in the Post newsroom. When a fire marshal visit seemed imminent, workers would clear out the room during his out-of-town reporting trips.
Broder picked up political trends early, largely because he left Washington constantly to visit politicians and communities that others ignored. In July 2002 — 18 months before the 2004 Iowa caucus, and more than two years before the presidential election — Broder spent a few days traveling in Iowa with a virtual unknown, Vermont’s Democratic Gov. Howard Dean.
“Dean, 53, is patiently introducing himself to activists in the early voting caucus and primary states,” Broder wrote. “He travels with a single aide and stays as often as possible in the homes of local Democrats. Asked if he follows the former president’s custom of making his own bed, Dean said, ’Of course.’”
Some political writers had barely heard of Dean. Broder was ahead of the pack, however, as Dean eventually became the Democratic frontrunner (only to implode in Iowa while John Kerry surged.)
Mears said Broder was always humble. When campaign reporters had a few drinks before a late-night Barry Goldwater speech in 1964, Broder thought Mears had overindulged. He silently dropped a copy of his overnight story on Mears’ desk, hoping to inspire or help his friend.
Mears rallied, wrote his own story, and returned Broder’s copy to him in the hotel bar. “David, I can write better drunk than you can sober,” Mears snarled.
Broder roared with laughter, Mears said. “He told that story over and over.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Barakat contributed to this report.