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.
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