In the rarified atmosphere that nationally syndicated columnists and talk show commentators breathe every day, it's hard to avoid getting an over-inflated view of your importance.
And then there was David Broder, the veteran columnist for The Washington Post who remained, at heart and in practice, a shoe-leather reporter. Broder died at 81 Wednesday, and the world of journalism will miss his presence.
The soft-spoken Broder, a son of the Midwest, looked at both sides of issues and often empathized with the arguments of each. More important, he listened. He knocked on doors, asked ordinary Americans about what they thought and wrote thoughtful pieces about what he heard. On Sunday talk shows he seemed less inclined to shoot from the lip and more interested in understanding context and explaining it.
But Broder also wrote tough columns that raked politicians over the coals and sometimes called his own profession to account. One memorable column was his Aug. 29, 2001, piece after U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., announced he wouldn't run again. His column began:
"Those who believe that the 'liberal press' always has its knives sharpened for Republicans and conservatives must have been flummoxed by the coverage of Sen. Jesse Helms's announcement last week that he will not run for re-election next year in North Carolina. The reporting on his retirement was circumspect to the point of pussyfooting. ...
"There are plenty of powerful conservatives in government .... What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country - a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired. A few editorials and columns came close to saying that. But the squeamishness of much of the press in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life."
I didn't know Broder well but spent a little time with him now and then, thanks to Walt DeVries, the political scientist from Wilmington who for years ran the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership. He frequently got his old friend David Broder to come to North Carolina to speak. He also helped other N.C. nonprofits who wanted Broder to appear.
One was the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, and DeVries arranged for Broder to visit a session on political changes in North Carolina during the '80s. It was my job, as editor of the center's quarterly, North Carolina Insight, to pick Broder up at the airport and make sure he was settled in at his hotel and got where he needed to be. I expected a Very Important Person consumed in his own profound thoughts. But the man I picked up insisted on carrying his own bags, was interested in knowing my background, was already conversant in Tar Heel politics but asked good questions about the nuances of our closely split electorate. He, too, liked to talk about baseball. In 10 minutes it was as if we had known one another a long time.
I ran into Broder from time to time as he breezed through the state on the trail of one story or another, watched him question businessmen, college presidents and those who might know something he needed to know. His interviews always seemed more like conversations than interrogations.
In a business where the press corps is sometimes derided as a pack of hyenas on the trail of blood, and where the term Gentlemen of the Press most often sparks a round of derisive laughter, David Broder was a rare figure who lived up to the image. He was a gentleman of the press.