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Politics

David Broder: A Legend and a Gentleman

Remembering a reporter who made Washington -- and journalism -- better.

The first time I nervously boarded the press bus during the 1984 presidential campaign, I was greeted by many cold stares and, thankfully, one smiling face.

“I’m Dave Broder from The Washington Post,” the man with the smile said. “Who are you?” In truth, I was a nobody, working for a midsize daily newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa. But one of his best buddies from campaigns past was my editor, which somehow made me OK in his eyes.

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He took me row by row, up and down the aisle of that crowded bus, introducing me to the men and women who owned the famous bylines I had come to know as I dreamed of someday following in their footsteps. Then he sat with me as we rode to a Pittsburgh market to watch Walter Mondale pose awkwardly with a dead fish.

That was my first experience with the best political reporter from a generation that had a lot of great ones. It wasn’t my last, but there will be no more. He died today, at 81.

Broder was old school. Facts mattered. Opinions didn’t belong in news stories. Polls were part of a story but not the whole story. And focus groups? He didn’t need them to figure out what people were thinking. He knocked on doors and asked them. And then he wrote better stories than the rest of us because he had done better reporting.

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He made mistakes, like every reporter does. His judgment was sometimes flawed. But unlike other journalists, Broder devoted one column a year to what he called his “annual accounting of errors and misjudgments.” That is accountability writ large.

By the time I met David Broder on that long-ago April day, he already owned a Pulitzer Prize and was entrenched at the Post after stints at the Washington Star and The New York Times. He was, in fact, already a legend. But he never bought it. He saw himself as Dave, and Dave was a gentleman.

About now, if he were here, Broder would say, “Kid, this reads like a puff piece.” So let me tell you the worst thing I know about this guy: He had, hands down, the messiest office in Washington. My guess is that someone at the Post put flowers on Broder’s desk today. But they’re probably pretty hard to find.

Later tonight, the printing presses will rumble to life and another edition of The Washington Post will be created. There will be a picture of Broder and a story, just like thousands of other times. But this time, the story will be about David Broder, not by him.

A night or two after we met, as I rushed to make deadline after a debate between Mondale, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, Broder appeared at my side and asked if I had everything I needed. I told him I was set.

If he asked me that today, this is what I’d say: “This one’s tough, Dave. I could use some advice.”

And in that gentle, thoughtful way of his, he’d say, “Write what you know.”

I know this: Journalism is better because of David Broder. And it won’t be the same without him.

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