Over the course of ten presidential campaigns, I traveled a lot of miles with David Broder of the Washington Post. We traveled on campaign planes and buses; we traveled scrunched together in cars, filled with quartets of snuffling and coughing journalists, traversing Iowa–somehow, always, a windy, blizzardy 2-hour drive from one event to the next–during those months when Iowa was saturated with candidates.
We were not close friends. He was aloof, older, rectitudinous. I represented Rolling Stone magazine when we first met. But, over time, he came to value my wilder side and I, certainly, came to appreciate his sobriety. He was the Dean, a consequence of his longevity and his bearing. He was preternaturally honorable, uncynical, with a chronic disposition toward fairness. This worked to his advantage as a reporter and to his disadvantage as a columnist. A good columnist needs to be a little bit wicked; he wasn’t. (He was, as a result, tougher on Bill Clinton’s personal sloppiness than he should been and easier on George W. Bush’s intellectual slovenliness; Bush was surrounded by grownups, people Broder had known for many years, and Clinton wasn’t.)
He respected the politicians he covered, perhaps a bit too much. He respected the public much more, however. He felt that if he didn’t go out wantonly interviewing people in the heartland, sometimes going to door to door, more often gathering clumps of citizens together in a room–his own private focus groups–he wasn’t doing his job. This was why his peers respected him so much: he did the work. His opinions, such as they were, tended to flow from his reporting; he certainly was no ideologue.
Journalists–good ones–are skeptical of crowds. The absence of a crowd (Bob Dole’s meager clots in 1996, for example) usually means more than the presence of a throng. And of my memories of David, one stands out. It was New Hampshire 2000. John McCain was drawing throngs. George W. Bush summoned more enthusiasm than Bob Dole had, but less than McCain. Plus we were smitten with McCain’s candor and humor–and, yes, the attention he lavished upon us. I didn’t trust it; I wasn’t sure we were seeing it clearly. And I remember standing with David, ramrod straight in posture as ever, in the midst of a crazy huge McCain crowd a few nights before the primary, with a gentle snow–large, tufted flakes–falling and I asked him if thought this was real. “In this case, Joe,” he said with a little laugh, but still more sober than most judges, “I think you can trust your eyes.”
He was right. He usually knew when to trust his eyes, and when not to, and that is why so many of us trusted–and cherished–him. David died today at the age of 81, still working the phones till very near the end. My deep condolences to his family and colleagues.