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The Civility of David Broder

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When I received the news of David Broder's death, I was in the middle of writing a case statement on why we needed more civility in our public discourse. David exemplified that civility and was able to bridge ideology, party, and national tensions to spark action on issues about which he and the nation cared.

My first experience with David occurred when I was a Chief of Staff on Capitol Hill in my early 30s and heard him talk about the power of communities to effect change. I promptly wrote him a letter about how our congressional office was envisioning a "new model of governance" in which Members of Congress organized leaders in local communities to tackle tough problems. He immediately wrote me back and wanted to learn more. We had organized the Coalition for a Drug-Free Cincinnati and David was excited to come see it. He reported on it at the Republican National Convention in a column entitled, Jump-Starting New Models of Governance. It prompted more national attention and helped result in the development and passage of the Drug-Free Communities Act, which provided support to hundreds of community anti-drug coalitions across the country.

When I served as Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and then USA Freedom Corps after 9/11, David was there, covering our issues in a balanced manner and quietly forging bipartisan consensus. He loved America and consistently wrote about national and community service opportunities for citizens to give something back to their country. After 9/11, he wrote numerous columns that helped galvanize more Americans to serve through USA Freedom Corps programs. Many Republicans did not like federal support for national service -- David took them head on.

I went to see David in 2005 about a forthcoming report on the high school dropout epidemic. He welcomed me into his office at the Washington Post, where I found him in a small office with mounds of papers and reports surrounding him, and he listened to my story. I told him that almost no one in America knew that one-third of all public high school students -- and one-half of minorities -- were dropping out of high school; that we had just completed a survey, working with the Gates Foundation and Hart Research, of dropouts that gave the nation hope that most could have graduated; and that we were outlining a 10-point plan of action to mobilize all sectors to respond. He told me of a recent visit to the Gateway to College program in Portland, Oregon, where he saw former dropouts reading Plato and Malcolm X and engaging in their learning. He said, "Sunday or Thursday for the column?" Sunday it was.

David wrote a column called The Dropout Challenge that ignited a national movement to address it. Millions of people were instantly educated about this "silent epidemic" and the country awakened to do something about it. Just last year, we reported with Johns Hopkins and America's Promise Alliance increases in high school graduation rates across 29 states and were able to showcase states, districts and schools that had boosted their graduation rates significantly. David Broder played a significant part in helping to engage every sector in America to help stem the dropout tide.

But what I loved about him the most was that he was such a fine human being who valued civility in public discourse and had a rare ability to clarify issues and marshal relevant facts in an unemotional manner to support his judgments. Even though he was on many TV programs, and this Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist was syndicated all over the country and picked up in markets around the world, the fame never took hold of him and he was humble and respectful and patriotic to the end.

We will miss you, David Broder. My hope for the country is that we will honor you in many ways, but perhaps most of all by finding more room for civility in our public discourse. God knows our country needs it.

John M. Bridgeland was former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and USA Freedom Corps. He is currently CEO of Civic Enterprises in Washington, DC.