After the e-mail from The Washington Post buzzed on my Blackberry Wednesday with the news that famed columnist-reporter David Broder had died at 81, I wondered what could I possibly add to all those eulogies from journalists and politicians who knew the great man far better and longer than my passing acquaintance.
But as I ruminated about it, I thought how can I not acknowledge how much I admired his craft, his style, his work ethic, his fairness, his kindness and his overarching concern about how government operated and affected real people – not just about the machinations of the pols.
For eight years beginning in 1998, I was a part-time editor on the national copy desk of The Washington Post. As I describe it to others, I was a peon in the house of the king. Long before I arrived, Broder was one of the princes. I was one of those gnomes of the evening whose names were barely known by the top editors, or even the reporters we edited.
Broder – known by millions from his syndicated columns and TV appearances — was uniformly jovial and pleasant, even if he didn’t know your name. I had read and admired his work for years before I met him. As one who has always had a messy desk, I took comfort that his office was the messiest, most cluttered, paper-strewn disaster I had ever seen.
Part-timers like me generally didn’t get to touch the copy of an eminence like Broder, but even he, like every writer, needs an editor. And once in the midst of the chaotic aftermath of the 2000 election and its vote recount — back in the good old days when copy editors had time to fact-check stories — I was handling a Broder piece.
I forget what it was, but I found an obvious error in Broder’s story. This was at that frantic time when all hands were on deck, and the Post was bringing in Chinese and barbecue to the newsroom to feed the troops. Broder was standing in line to get some chow, and I approached him with my question about his story. Oh, he said, that was something “the desk” – a national editor – had put in the story, not something he had written.
This is not to say that Broder did not make his share of mistakes. He wrote an annual corrective column listing his errors from the prior year. But he made far fewer mistakes in fact or judgment than many of our craft.
He was no great stylist, but he wrote and spoke with clarity in down-to-earth terms, even as he translated the analysis of the policy wonks. He was accurate, fair and balanced before and after those terms became corrupted. He worked hard, traveled widely, and he reported on the concerns of the average voters, something I and my colleagues do not do enough of. It is safe to say he was a liberal of the old school, but he tried to give voice to all sides.
In a time of turmoil and transition in journalism, David Broder represents some of the best traditional values of our craft. He had a life’s work worthy of praise and emulation.