During a career that has now spanned over 25 years, I've had a chance to meet and even work with several great and legendary political journalists, including R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr. of The New York Times; Curtis Wilkie, Robert Healy, David Shribman, and Walter V. Robinson of The Boston Globe; Mary McGrory and David S. Broder of The Washington Post; and Walter R. Mears of The Associated Press.
The last two intersected in an infamous way, during the 1964 presidential campaign, when a group of reporters got to drinking before a late-evening Barry Goldwater speech.
Broder thought Mears had a few too many, so, ever the courtly mid-westerner, he decided to leave Mears a copy of his own story. His aim was to nudge his colleague along for early East Coast deadlines.
Instead, Mears banged out his own story, returned Broder's to him, and said in response, "David, I can write better drunk than you can sober."
But with Broder's death Wednesday at age 81, it's not journalism so much that prompted me to sit back down at my laptop after a long day in a new job.
It was to reflect on the uncommon decency displayed by a veteran worker for a newcomer in their shared profession. It's a lesson for everyone in every industry, and especially for me as I make the turn from the front- to back-nine of my career.
I can't believe I just wrote those words.
I graduated in 1985 from a small Wisconsin college, Lawrence University, and set out to build a career for myself in journalism. Having a father who was a stock broker and a mother who was a real estate agent, I had no real "in" with the profession, so I worked my way up the ladder.
My first full-time job was at the City News Bureau of Chicago, a legendary news institution that spawned such legendary writers as novelist Kurt Vonnegut, columnist Mike Royko, and investigative reporter Seymour Hersh still going to this day.
I later moved from The Salem Evening News to The Sun of Lowell, where, in November 1990, I read a story in the Boston Sunday Globe recapping Broder's speech at Colby College. He had just received an honorary doctorate of laws and the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award.
I had long admired Broder and his reporting on and analysis of national politics, so much so that I subscribed to the Post's then-national weekly edition. It contained the best of the newspaper's stories from the prior week, as well as the columns of writers such as Broder.
"I realized that I have continuously looked to you for compass headings in my quest to be the most ethical and accurate newspaper reporter possible," I wrote in a Nov. 18, 1990, letter to Broder prompted by the story.
"For example, I have paid close attention to your warnings about crisscrossing the boundary between political insider and journalist," I added.
Noting how Broder encouraged all reporters to spend more time speaking with voters than campaign consultants, I felt inspired to ask Broder if I could come to Washington, work for him, and learn at the knee of the master.
"If you ever need a researcher or cohort to assist in the preparation of your column and articles, I hope you would consider me for that position," I wrote.
I sent the letter off, not really expecting a reply, battle-hardened from the challenge of breaking into the industry just five years earlier.
Yet several weeks later, a wide postcard arrived in the mail.
When I flipped it over, it was embossed with the name, "David S. Broder," and emblazoned with the Post's logo.
In between, in hand-typed lettering, Broder responded: "Dear Glen Johnson."
He thanked me for my note, resume, and sample newsclippings, and promptly said there were no researcher openings at the Post. But then, he went further.
"Your work reads to me as if you are past that point," Broder wrote. "You show a lot of skill and confidence in your reporting and I hope you'll let it carry you to the goals you seek, not step back into a researcher role."
He signed off with an affectionate "Yours," and used a pen to write, "David Broder."
Months later, lightning struck. At the height of President George H.W. Bush's popularity following Operating Desert Storm, a former US senator from the hometown of my small newspaper, Lowell's own Paul Tsongas, announced improbably that he'd challenge the incumbent president for re-election in 1992.
The Sun remains a relatively small paper, but it had a big heart, especially for the local story, so, by then as the Lowell city political reporter, the editor sent me out on the trail.
I filled one suitcase with my clothes, the other with a "library" of news clippings, notebooks, batteries, and acoustic couplers for my Radio Shack computer, as well as a copy of The Almanac of American Politics. I was a one-man show, but I got to work in proximity to some of the great or rising young political reporters of the time: Dan Balz of the Post, Cathleen Decker and Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, Robin Toner and Richard Berke of The New York Times, and Wilkie himself.
I also was able to cross paths with Broder.
In April 1992, after Tsongas quit the race and "Comeback Kid" Bill Clinton was en route to the Democratic nomination and presidency, I wrote a thank-you note to Broder.
"I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed meeting you while I chased around Paul Tsongas for The Sun," I said.
By 1996, I was working for the AP in Boston and assigned to cover then-Governor William F. Weld's epic US Senate race against the Democratic incumbent, John Kerry. Clinton cruised to re-election against Bob Dole in a campaign that was largely a non-event.
By 2000, though, I had transferred to the AP's Washington bureau and landed a plum assignment covering the presidential campaign of then-Texas Governor George W. Bush in a wide-open race for the presidency. Mid-campaign, I joined the Globe, my hometown newspaper, and again ran into Broder on the trail.
Covering a presidential campaign is hard on everyone involved, from the candidate to the press corps to the legion of college kids who make everything work, from setting up events to unloading baggage from the charter jet.
I was amazed to see Broder, then 71, still schlepping along, listening to the candidate speeches, traipsing through Iowa and New Hampshire, and polishing gems gleaned from those voter conversations about which he always preached.
One day, in Florida as best I can remember it, I found myself trudging into a filing center behind none other than the Dean himself, David S. Broder.
There were plenty of tables at which to sit, but for a still-young political journalist, there was only one place to be.
I took the seat next to Broder.
We had chatted earlier in the trip, but as we sat next to each other and worked on our stories, he for the Post, me for the Globe, I recalled the history of our interaction, from my time in his native Chicago at the City News Bureau; to the days at The Sun as I chased after him and the other Boys on the Bus; to the present, when we together watched an election whose conclusion neither of us could have imagined at that moment.
I also remembered that everywhere I went that campaign, I carried a camera in a case affixed to my belt.
Aware of the preciousness of the moment, I pulled it out, passed it to anyone standing nearby, and asked them to take a picture of me and Broder.
Today, I remembered that picture, and flipped back through my Bush picture volume to find it.
The time-stamp on the back read, "2:49 p.m., Sept. 22, 2000."
At that moment, Broder was 71 and I was 37.
It was less than a year from Sept. 11, 2001, a day of infamy in American history, as well as the date on which Broder would mark his 72nd birthday.
It also was almost precisely a decade after I had written Broder that first letter, in which I sought to become his researcher and he pushed me to chase bigger goals, on my own.
Then, as now, another 10 years hence, I'm glad I followed his advice. And I have no doubt that in leaving this world, he'd hope that everyone follows his example as it comes time to send the next generation of workers on their way.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.