A Conversation with The Washington Post's Dan Balz
The seasoned political reporter on working at the Post for three decades and 2016's unconventional race for the White House
Dan Balz in the newsroom of The Washington Post, where he has worked for 38 years. Photo by Liz Lynch
Name: Dan Balz. Age: 70. What he does: Chief correspondent for The Washington Post. Lives in: Bethesda.
In the summer of 1968, Dan Balz—newly graduated from the University of Illinois—was sent by his hometown newspaper, the Freeport Journal-Standard, to cover one of the most tumultuous political gatherings in recent history: the Democratic National Convention, taking place 100 miles away in Chicago.
Nearly a half-century later, Balz is covering the last leg of an equally memorable chapter in U.S. politics—a campaign pitting the first woman nominated for the White House by a major political party against a highly unconventional figure who is the first presidential nominee in more than 60 years not to have held elected office.
Along the way, Balz, who started working for The Washington Post in 1978, has become one of the most influential political reporters in America. Named the Post’s chief correspondent in 2011—the first person at the newspaper to hold that title—Balz provides readers with written analyses and occupies a perch held for many years by the late David Broder, a legendary figure in political journalism.
Balz, 70, is a regular panelist on PBS’ Washington Week, a frequent guest on Sunday news shows, and author or co-author of four books, including best-selling accounts of the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Most recently he was a contributor to Trump Revealed, co-authored by two of his Post colleagues and published in August.
A Bethesda resident for more than two decades, Balz and his wife, Nancy, lead what he characterizes as “a fairly quiet life” when he’s not on the campaign trail. Nancy, a retired librarian, worked at several county libraries after the couple moved to the area. They have a married son, John.
Following a brief stint as a state capital reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Balz arrived in Washington in 1972 to work for National Journal. He was deputy editor there before leaving for the Post, where his résumé includes two stints as an editor, a three-year posting to Texas as Southwest correspondent, and a job as a White House reporter. He has reported periodically from London.
Balz spoke with Bethesda Magazine over breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien on Bethesda Row—just around the corner from one his regular haunts, Quartermaine Coffee Roasters—soon after returning from covering the “Brexit” referendum, in which British voters called for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.
You hold both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in communications. What first drew you to journalism?
As a kid, I enjoyed writing, with no particular goal in mind. I worked on my high school paper and yearbook. I went to the University of Illinois and spent my freshman year just kind of knocking around. My brother, who was three years ahead of me at Illinois and was in the journalism program, encouraged me at the end of my sophomore year to work for the student newspaper. And I did the next year, and fell in love with it. That was a five-day-a-week, independent, student-run newspaper with very little adult supervision. And at the end of my sophomore year—this was 1966—I got a [summer] internship here in Washington with my congressman from Illinois, one John B. Anderson. From then on, I kind of knew what I wanted to do.
So covering politics was something to which you aspired fairly early on?
No, I wanted to be a Washington reporter. When I first thought about doing that, I didn’t think of it in the context of being a political reporter. I thought I’d cover the federal government—Congress or the White House or agencies. When I was at National Journal, I got hired to cover economics. And it really wasn’t until I got to the Post that political reporting was the direction I got channeled into—somewhat accidentally. I started at the Post as an editor on the national desk, doing a lot of congressional editing. In late summer or early fall of 1979, I was asked to be the political editor for the [1980 election] cycle, which meant editing the likes of the great David Broder and the great Lou Cannon. I think that turned me more directly toward political reporting.
Many reporters covering politics classify themselves as “political junkies.” Do you?
I suppose by now that I would have to describe myself that way. But I’m not one of those people who grew up knowing every congressional district. I’ve always been more interested in the intersection of candidates’ efforts to woo voters, and voters’ efforts to evaluate candidates—and to try to understand the forces at play every four years when we pick a president.
With the exception of 1988, when you served as the Post’s national editor, you have been a reporter on every presidential campaign since 1984—eight in all. Is 2016 the most unusual?
I don’t think there’s any question about that. Every campaign is different and every campaign is unique, but we just haven’t experienced anything like this, mostly because of Trump. It’s been a challenging campaign to cover. You begin every campaign with some sense of how things are going to unfold. In this case, they didn’t follow that track at all. Like a lot of people, I thought Donald Trump was not made to be a long-distance runner. And we’ve never seen, that I can remember, a political party in such turmoil over its nominee.
As you note, the view that Trump would not last was nearly universal among the media. In hindsight, what was behind this miscalculation?
One was a question about his lack of seriousness and commitment, because he had toyed with [running] before. Based on past history, my assumption, and I think the assumption of others, was that this was partly publicity and partly a way of branding. Second, if you look at what he has stood for over the years, it’s in almost no way consistent with the type of person who ends up as the Republican nominee. He’s neither a mainstream conservative nor a movement conservative. And it seemed as though the field, when he got in, included quite a number of pretty substantial politicians who you figured would be more successful than he was.
[A] day that stands out is June 16, 2015. That was the day Trump announced his candidacy in New York. I was in Iowa [later] that day and went to see him campaign in Des Moines. What was most striking was that, at a time when he was being dismissed as a sideshow, there were lots of people who came out who were interested to see and hear him. It was a sign that he had an audience, and we soon learned that he was capable of winning them over.
To put it mildly, Trump has had a difficult relationship with the media—including an edict seeking to bar the Post from covering his campaign events. Has this had an impact on your coverage of the race?
The only way I have felt it directly is that it’s a little bit harder to get to some of the people [in the Trump campaign]. But up until he decided to bar the Post, he was very accessible to the Post. He made himself available to people who were working on [the new Post book on Trump] quite a lot. I ended up doing one chapter with Jenna Johnson, one of our lead Trump reporters, on how he won, and he sat for a long interview for that chapter and then a couple of follow-up phone interviews. I’ve only interviewed him in person a couple of times. In his office, he is gracious and welcoming, a more subdued person than you see on the campaign trail.
Since it’s the subject of your chapter in the book, how do you think Trump managed to pull off winning the nomination?
Trump’s an outsized personality—I’m stating the obvious here. That counts in politics today. That celebrity factor is what made Donald Trump’s candidacy different from everybody else’s. And what he found was that he also had a political message that resonated. It’s the same thing that happened in Britain with the Brexit vote. There are a lot of people today who listen to the so-called experts and they don’t believe them, or they listen to the political leadership and they don’t believe them. As the Trump thing was rolling, there was somebody [who said] there’s no institution that people trust—and so Trump was able to capitalize on that and say, ‘I’m with you.’ He spoke in such a direct way about issues that people who were frustrated wanted to hear somebody talk about.