Eulogies for David Broder are still tumbling from the fingertips of friends and fans. He was the dean of political journalists, a man both generous and gracious, a reporter’s reporter. Humble.
All true. But what I haven’t heard him called yet is sweetie pie. He was that, too. A sweetheart – a kind, unpretentious presence in a world increasingly bereft of such qualities.
Unlike so many who have written of Broder in the past several days, I didn’t know him well, didn’t grow up at his elbow, didn’t stalk his shadow. I did know of him, as did anyone in this business. And I did meet him a few times, the first as part of the Washington Post’s recruitment strategy.
When I was invited to join the Post’s syndicate (the Washington Post Writers Group) five years ago, I was ferried around to meet two of the stable’s eminences – George Will and Broder. More or less, it was akin to securing an audience with the pope. I leave to readers to decide which of these two gentlemen would agree with that assessment.
If Will’s office, housed in a federalist building in Georgetown, is the Vatican, Broder’s was the catacombs. Stacked with newspapers, magazines and books, it was a hobbit hole for the insatiably curious. In today’s vernacular, he would be considered a hoarder. In the old-school world of newsrooms, he was merely a reporter surrounded by the bounty of his passion.
One needn’t have known Broder personally to mourn his passing. He didn’t only represent the sort of reporting and analysis that made him a household word; he symbolized a now-bygone era and corresponded to a time when a reporter was a reporter (and proud of it). A “journalist” was what a reporter became at the end of his road.
This is to say, he preceded the age of celebrity journalism and the narcissistic culture that drives the rapacious pursuit of attention. It was the work that attracted and defined Broder, not the fame that came to him, anyway. The thrill for reporters of Broder’s mold was to see one’s byline in the paper, to get the scoop and, most important, to get it right.
He was, in other words, the un-celebrity.
Certainly Broder was known. Having appeared on television for decades, he was a recognizable figure. A regular on “Meet the Press,” he appeared on the set more than 400 times. But as well-known as he was, he was also an inconspicuous observer who moved quietly among everyday Americans without leaving fingerprints.
In today’s culture of personality, where journalists are often as much a part of the story as the events they cover, Broder remained true to his role as surveyor rather than subject. It wasn’t about him. How rare and refreshing when so many clamor for the spotlight.
So much has changed since the young David Broder began his job. The few, the proud, the ink-stained wretches didn’t speak of “journalism careers” in those days. Among the things missing – and forever-to-be-missed by those of a certain age – is the sensory experience of putting out a daily newspaper:
The clatter of typewriters, the swoosh of hard copy being sucked through vacuum tubes – a then-modern invention that was swifter than copy boys – the perfume of coffee, cigarette smoke and, yes, even a little alcohol around some desks. The smell and feel of newsprint that still leaves ink smudges on your fingertips.
A newspaper engages the senses as no other medium. A collaborative act of creation, it is, like birth, both massively difficult and incomparably satisfying. A little miracle every day.
This is the world from which Broder emerged. And though few rue the day when computers replaced typewriters, or when copy editors’ red pens were replaced by those other miracles – the highlight and delete functions – we do regret the loss of something human in that process. The sensory delight and din of creation have been tamped down and muted by numbing efficiency.
Thus it was a palpable pleasure to enter the inner sanctum of Broder’s world. Alas, his office was cleared out a couple of years ago as part of a renovation. Too bad. It would have been nice to know that there was one place left on the planet where a messy desk wasn’t cause for human resources to issue a new decree, but was a monument to the creative chaos that once fueled the passions of a great reporter. And a sweetheart.
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