Swimming in the Press Pool: What I Learned
from David Broder

Despite a lifetime covering politics, he still believed in our better angels.

Washington Post file photograph of David BroderDavid Broder was the ironman of American political coverage, the dean of the Washington press corps. In the half-century he worked as a reporter in D.C., he never lost faith in the wisdom of readers and voters and everyday Americans, never succumbed to the all-too-common (and all-too-reductive) cynicism that says all politicians are money-grubbing, self-serving weasels.

He was a Washington Post reporter and columnist and television commentator. He was also my teacher and my role model and my adviser. If I were smarter, I would have kept up that relationship from my grad school days at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, and I might then have earned the right to call him a mentor.

It is too late for that now. He died Wednesday at the age of 81.

Broder — he told us to call him “Dave” — was unflagging in sharing his wisdom and talent and experience with uppity greenhorn reporters like me. I’m not sure if I’m proud of this or not, but the episode from his political reporting course that I remember best was one in which his patience and quiet good humor were all that kept me from being thrown out of his class. I had come down with a cold accompanied by laryngitis, but I was determined to get to class and participate in the discussion regardless of my inability to speak. When I couldn’t resist jumping into the verbal fray, I raised my hand and thrust my hastily scrawled comment to a classmate to read on my behalf. She tried to take the bit seriously, but the ridiculousness of the stunt — and the laughter that ensued — nearly derailed the whole discussion. Dave, to his great credit, just chuckled and somehow steered everyone back to the point at hand.

I can’t imagine how many pairs of shoes Dave must have worn out while knocking on doors all over this country, finding out what people outside the D.C. bubble really thought and felt. It was a frequent pilgrimage of sorts, to his holy shrine of American democracy: The homes where people live and wrestle with their monthly budgets and try to figure out how they feel about those characters in Washington, the ones who take our taxes and lead our wars and run our Medicaid. Those hundreds of interviews he did during every election cycle weren’t a substitute for polling, he told us, but they gave invaluable insight into the worries and fears and messages permeating the nation. It was a gospel he preached to us students as well as to his colleagues, and one he lived out even during last year’s midterm elections.

If Dave had a fault, it was only that his faith in the essential nobility of politics — of mere men and women striving to lead a whole community, city, state, or nation — led him to laud efforts at compromise and centrism even when some of those strategies undid more than they accomplished. With so many Molotov cocktails lobbed around the halls of Congress (and from the broadcast booths and blogosphere), anyone who sounds even remotely like a grown-up can seem worthy of praise. If only being reasonable were enough to defeat the bomb-throwers.

Then again, maybe reason and compromise ultimately will win the day. I certainly hope so — partly for Dave’s sake, but mostly for ours.

During my final class with him, Dave mused that political reporters in his day were “noncombatants.” That wasn’t true anymore, he admitted. Reporters now have to fight. News is a business, and reporters are vulnerable. (Boy, did he have that right.) That means we have to work even harder to stand up for our standards in the face of financial pressures, he said.

Even more deeply, reporters are constantly fighting cynicism — the cynicism in our own heads that breeds when we see some politicians doing cowardly or despicable things, and the cynicism in our readers, who seem to be increasingly losing faith in journalists as well as in the political system. We must strive to convince people that we’re leveling with them, he said. And when we find a story where the government really is getting the job done, we shouldn’t forget that’s news, too.

The best thing political reporters have going for them is that politics has great stories, he told us. Politics is filled with complex characters and dramatic storylines, and the results of those stories affect people’s lives. If we can’t make compelling stories out of those great raw materials, he said, that reflects very poorly on us as journalists.

It’s a high standard, and a tremendous example. You will be missed, sir.

One of my only samples of David Broder's handwriting, from a paper I wrote for his class

Article © 2011 by Michael Duck