Death of a Reporter and a Friend
Remembering David Rosenbaum
By Edward Shanahan
The circumstances that brought me to the memorial service on Capitol Hill were unimaginable, yet what was said about my friend David Rosenbaum was oddly restorative of my regard for the work of good newspaper reporters.
After spending more than 30 years toiling for newspapers, I retreated some years back into the used book business and became somewhat defensive, and even critical, about newspapering and some of its current practices and practitioners.
There have been too many lapses of judgment and professional integrity for many of us to remain dewy eyed and idealistic - when the reporter often seems to become more important than the story, and the media companies often become the focus of attention rather being merely the conveyors of information. There is too much emphasis on the trivial, a fascination with celebrities and frauds, too little attention to substance and details.
Early in January you may have recalled reading about David Rosenbaum, a 63-year-old reporter in the New York Times bureau was brutally attacked while he was taking an after-dinner Friday-night stroll in his comfortable Washington, D.C. neighborhood.
So serious were the injuries he suffered that on Sunday he died, plunging his family and his many colleagues in the news business into shock and disbelief.
His was a safe, upscale neighborhood, it was reported, and the attack seemed so senseless – especially to those who knew David Rosenbaum as a decent, hard-working man of great good humor and strong family bonds. He had retired only a month earlier, but intended to keep writing for the Times on a free-lance basis.
It was unlikely that if you don’t keep track of bylines the way some of us do, you would recognize the name David Rosenbaum. He certainly did not show up on the television talk circuit where so many reporters seem to live that you wonder when they get their reporting and writing done.
But the 600 to 700 media and political figures, as well as government sources who packed auditorium of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, standing three and four deep around d the perimeter of the overflow crowd at his memorial service five days after his death, knew David’s work intimately because he was one of a kind.
David’s beat for most of the 35 years he worked in Washington was patrolling the corridors and haunting the hearing rooms of Congress, specializing in such arcane matters as tax legislation, budget actions dealing with authorizations and appropriations, Social Security legislation, and finance and Treasury policies. He read the fine print that bored others and wrote stories about complicated matters with exceptional clarity, a word that was emphasized repeatedly by those who came to honor David. He was able to produce, for the public record, a scorecard on who won and who lost in the messy backroom, often secrecy-shrouded legislative struggles.
Perhaps, the major national story he covered as chief Congressional correspondent was the succession of hearings and proceedings leading up to the eventual impeachment of President Nixon. He told me that for months after that almost historic experience, it was difficult to gear up for lesser stories, but that did not last long. He was a total pro.
As it turned out, he put in another 30 years as the reporter on the hill who the rest of the competition was trying to keep up with, yet with whom he maintained a collegial rather than an adversary relationship.
He was a very fast writer under punishing deadlines, according to testimony, and his approach to writing, his daughter Dottie related was “never start a sentence unless you know how it will end.” Good advice.
I first met David in 1966 when we were both new reporters at Congressional Quarterly, a quirky weekly publication that covered in detail that no other publication could the ins and outs of major legislation as it traveled though the Capitol Hill meat grinder.
Our editors placed a premium on making the complicated clear and the tone on our reports non-partisan, absent any opinion on the part of the reporters.
David was much better at that than I was – I was restless under such constraints, but the training was valuable for both of us as we headed on to careers at newspapers after toiling at CQ for about two years. We spent a lot of time together off the job as did our families. Those were good years in Washington, it seems in retrospect.
Because of his demonstrated talent, David moved down the street to the legendary Times bureau, and I moved South to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Yet, we kept in touch and saw each other from time to time during visits to Washington. What was somewhat surprising was that as increasingly infrequent as these encounters were we regarded each other as good friends.
That, too, was another theme that emerged at the service. David had a limitless capacity for friendship and probably all 700 on hand in the auditorium felt that each of them was David’s good friend, too.
Perhaps, the best example of this was offered by former Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas who spoke of his affection for the gifted and decent reporter who covered Pryor in his official role for many years. “How I admired him as a person and for his craft,” Pryor said.
And he so much wanted to be a friend of David’s but they both understood and accepted the fact that there had to be an arm’s length relationship between the reporter and the politician,, Pryor said with genuine regret. And so they maintained their distance.
How different that attitude is from the all-too-frequent efforts of some reporters to seek access by promising favorable treatment to their source.
So in the end what had promised to be a profoundly sad occasion turned out to be uplifting instead, as those who came to honor David also came to realize they were honoring his work too, and maybe that might be his most important legacy.
Again Sen. Pryor speaking of David’s singular approach to news reporting: “This place was his territory … the echo of his footsteps and the pounding of his noble heart will be heard for generations to come.”
Let’s hope so.
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