I knew I was in the presence of genius when political reporter David Broder once asked a class of graduate students whether they agreed with Joe McGinniss or Teddy White.
Broder, who died Wednesday at the age of 81, taught a weekly seminar at the University of Maryland about political reporting to graduate students there.
Students read excerpts of some of the classics of political reporting like White's "The Making of the President 1960" and McGinniss' "The Selling of the President."
White includes in his soaring history of the epic 1960 campaign a beautiful description of the ennobling facets of American democracy and voting.
McGinniss, as his title suggests, takes a less hopeful view, saying that politics is a con game.
Working as Broder's graduate assistant, I realized he was asking a truly powerful question of would-be journalists: What is the nature of politics in this republic of ours? Is it merely a cynical exercise, or something more? Those views radically shape how reporters do their jobs.
It was early in the semester, and almost all students raised their hands saying that politics is a con game. Then, Broder quietly educated and softened opinions as the weeks progressed.
As I graded students' final papers, it was obvious that something changed. No longer were they fully convinced that politics is merely a cynical exercise. Instead, I could see how some saw that politics can be a service performed by men and women who make complicated and challenging choices amid grave consequences.
Politicians, flawed as they often are, still sacrifice much to serve fickle American citizens, and Broder taught me and his students that politics can still be noble at its best and always fascinating.
Broder was rightly called the dean of American political reporters, and his death this week leaves a hole.
He was famously generous with younger colleagues and a patient, curious listener, but what his legacy is to me remains an abiding faith in the American Republic and its people.
He could be tough on politicians, and sometimes his reports cost candidates seeking the presidency immensely. But in the two years I worked with him, I never saw cynicism nor political bias. I can honestly say I don't know whether he voted Republican or Democrat.
For these lessons, I will be always grateful. Broder taught me what it is to be a reporter.
Now, he had his flaws. It is not exaggeration to say that his office at the Washington Post was the single most disorganized office I have ever seen, piled high in every possible inch with press releases, books and studies. It seems the stuff of folk legend.
And sometimes, he probably neglected his health. In 2000, not long before I first met him, he was covering the Iowa caucuses. A sore on his foot became infected and rather than seeking medical attention, he soldiered through it to finish his reporting.
Suffering from the diabetes that ultimately took his life, doctors were forced to amputate toes on both of his feet, so he began walking with a noticeable limp.
Yet, he still walked to most interviews. Speaking with sources over the phone missed important nuances, he thought, so he continued to walk the beat of a political journalist.
David also pioneered a new form of political journalism that he did in campaigns through 2008.
While the professional pollsters at the Post and elsewhere used scientific methods to ascertain voting intent, David thought something was still missing. So he and his team of reporters began to pick important swing districts during election seasons. They flew there and spent hours outside grocery stores or walking up and down streets simply talking to voters, one after another.
I remember David going to Florida late one summer to limp those muggy streets to listen to voters and their concerns.
Broder covered every national political convention between 1956 and 2008. He was a welcome guest in the White House from President John F. Kennedy to President Barack Obama. He won a Pulitzer Prize and appeared more than 400 times on NBC's Meet the Press.
So, like many reporters in Washington, it wouldn't have surprised me if, as his health declined, he chose to rest on his laurels, writing more from memory, making a phone call here and there to a narrow group of inside sources to do his reports. He could have faked it, and few would have been none the wiser.
But that wasn't the David Broder I knew. As I think about this American treasure in the years ahead, I will always imagine this gentle man, with gray hair and horned-rimmed glasses in a Chicago Cubs jacket, never cynical, smiling and limping along the muggy streets of South Florida or the cool ones of New Hampshire with his reporter's notebook in hand, not to get the views of pundits or of well-paid political consultants, but to hear the voices of those he served — the American people — one-by-one where they lived.
David Broder was a reporter, and America is the better for it. He will be missed.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.
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