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Posted at 5:20 PM ET, 03/10/2011

Why we loved David Broder

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

I loved David Broder from the moment I met him, and there are dozens of reporters who feel that way.

That first encounter came when I was 23 years old in 1976, in the weeks before the New Hampshire primary. I was then working for the New York Times and found myself in a press room, during a debate as I recall. And here was Dave Broder, one of the most famous and accomplished political reporters in the United States, bounding in after doing some reporting -- he was always reporting. He just handed his notes over to a younger reporter and said, "Here, you can use these." The guy who could have been the Big Foot was happy to be the legman for a younger colleague. It's the sort of generosity he showed again and again and again.

It's been said eloquently by so many others that he was a reporter's reporter -- and within that, a citizen's reporter, a voter's reporter. It wasn't just that he knew every governor and every state party chair in the country -- and some enormous proportion of county commissioners, state legislators and city council members, too. It was also that he felt compelled, constantly, to go door-to-door to talk to voters. They were subjects for Broder, not objects. He wasn't trolling for good quotes. He truly wanted to know what and how people thought and felt. He wanted to understand them.

One of the best journalistic projects I ever worked on was the result of a David Broder brainstorm. In 1991, David felt that we in Washington didn't fully understand what was happening in the country, that despite President George H. W. Bush's relatively healthy approval ratings at the time, there was almost certainly more going on beneath the surface.

So he organized this enormous inquest into the mood of the country. (It makes one nostalgic for the days when newspapers could finance such endeavors without worrying much about the cost!) And we fanned out in groups of two to San Bernardino, Calif.; Fort Worth; Kenosha, Wis.; Dover, Del.; and Charlotte. I drew Kenosha with my colleague Maralee Schwartz. Our groups spent a week in the community, going door-to-door, to community and city council meetings, to churches and shopping centers. We interviewed politicians and union leaders and local business folks. But we were looking above all for the views of citizens of every station and class. I still have a soft spot for Kenosha from that experience.

When we all got back, we compared notes (there were lots of notes) and realized that there was a lot more discontent in the country than anybody thought. We wrote a series - and, again, it was really all David's inspiration -- that pointed to disaffection with President Bush at a moment when he was soaring in the polls and the articles could be read (I looked at them again this week) as predicting the rise of something like the Ross Perot movement before anybody knew the potential for such a thing was out there. You could say the series was prophetic. David would insist it was simply thorough reporting.

David was known for his love for governors, and I think he liked governors for the best reasons: Yhey were - at least for most of his life as a reporter - problem-solvers, not ideologues. To the extent that David had an ideology, it was a bias toward nonpartisan problem-solving. It was why, I think, he was so interested in moderate Republicans in the 1960s and wrote what remains a great book, "The Republican Establishment," with my Brookings Institution colleague Steve Hess, in 1967.

He liked the fact that governors of both parties wanted to get things done and often reached similar conclusions about approaches and priorities, whichever party they were in. In the 1980s, for example, Democrats such as Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Dick Riley in South Carolina and Republicans such as Lamar Alexander in Tennessee and Tom Kean in New Jersey were all working hard, with interesting overlaps and variations, to improve the schools. That was a classic David Broder story, and he successfully shamed a lot of other journalists -- by example, not by preaching -- into taking the substance of governing seriously, and to keeping their eyes open to the next new governor out there. (I have occasionally tried to do my own version of this, far less systematically I must say, with mayors.)

Here is The Great Broder Paradox: Later in life, he was seen as a pillar of the Washington journalistic establishment, "the Dean" of the press corps. Yet David was one of the least Washington Establishmentarian people you could ever meet. He never stopped being a man of the Midwest. He was impatient with the mores of the stuffy side of Washington. This came out especially in the annual columns he wrote about his beloved Beaver Island vacation spot in Michigan.

Here's how he began his 1982 Beaver Island column, published on July 25:

I take a lot of abuse from colleagues back in Washington who spend their summer vacations at fashionable places on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard or the coast of Maine. They insist that because they have cocktails with an undersecretary and cookouts with an ambassador, they are more "with it" than we are on this never-heard-of-it island at the top of Lake Michigan.
They are wrong, of course. I have known for more than 30 years that Beaver Island is the center of the real world . . .
David was a small-d democrat to the depths of his soul. He was a giver, a listener, a sharer and a friend.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.  | March 10, 2011; 5:20 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  Dionne  
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Comments

E.J., I appreciate your perspective as I too found Mr. Broder, someone to read and listen too. There's volumes of info that streams to the masses but Mr. Broder had wisdom that resonated. My hope is that journalists take his example and look past the sound bites and see the real wisdom so they can share in honesty and humility.

I wonder what Mr. Broder would think of the squeeze on workers in Wisconsin, Michele Bachmann's claims on Meet the Press and the lack of Democrats leading when their President (Clinton)was the one who balanced a federal budget.

Thank Mr. Broder's family for sharing him with us for these many years.

Posted by: Dale-TX | March 10, 2011 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Thank you; people are known not only for their work (which I admired) but also by the lives they touched. It sounds as if the two matched in Mr. Broder. I lived in DC for 20 years and read him avidly even after moving. There's nobody else I see that can fill his shoes. RIP.

Posted by: Omyobama | March 10, 2011 8:54 PM | Report abuse

Who?

Posted by: wewinyoulose1 | March 11, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

One of the sad things about being a long term Post reader has been watching EJ turn into a typical beltway shill. This was most evident to me when he couldn't bring himself to say anything bad about John McCain even when he was at his most looney, craven, and nasty in the 2008 election cycle. Broder was a total insider who didn't mind telling us what a nice guy Karl Rove was and he wasn't above trying to elevate hacks like Boehner and McConnell to the level of statesmen. he wanted to gut social security and probably would have happily embraced Walker. there may have been a time when Broder listened to normal people but he was pompous and arrogant when WaPo still had webchats with pundits and reporters. His columns, for the past 20 years have been an endless rehashing of old talking points and lazy research. the sad thing is that WaPo lets people stay forever creating financial losses as well as a sclerotic waxworks of a paper.

Posted by: thebuckguy | March 11, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

I didn't know Broder like Mr. Dionne, whom I have the utmost respect for. But, I will never the forget the column Broder wrote implying that Obama should attack Iran to bolter his approval ratings. That Broder is the one that I will always despise.

Posted by: rick390 | March 11, 2011 6:39 PM | Report abuse

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