A Reporter, an Editor, and a Funeral

By Jack Limpert

Mark Leibovich opens This Town, his book about Washington, with a memorial service: “Tim Russert is dead. But the room was alive….the big-ticket Washington departure rite can be such a great networking opportunity. You can almost feel the ardor behind the solemn faces: lucky stampedes of power mourners, about two thousand of them, wearing out the red-carpeted aisles of the Kennedy Center.”

Last week I went to a two-hour funeral service with echoes of Russert, but on a very local Washington level: For three decades John Tydings had run the Board of Trade, a DC group that represents the city’s business interests. John was a savvy behind-the-scenes operator: well-connected, smart, effective, hard-working, a nice guy. The service, at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, was packed with local power brokers—the kind of people who get things done but don’t go on television to talk about it. Helping to conduct the service were Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Theodore Cardinal McCarrick—two striking figures in red among all the black and white.

What’s this got to do with editing and writing?

John Tydings started at the Board of Trade in 1968, about the same time I started at The Washingtonian, and over the years he was a wonderful source. He never gossiped about the power brokers he knew but each winter when we picked the Washingtonians of the Year—the dozen or so people who’d done the most for the city—I’d call John and we’d talk about the possibles. At the mention of many names he’d say something positive but of a few he’d say something like “Why don’t you wait a year or two on that one.” That was John’s way of saying something was going on and he didn’t want to see the magazine embarrassed.

More important, he helped the magazine see what was happening that wasn’t being written about. In 1985 we were chatting and he mentioned that the city’s leadership was beginning to change and he wondered how it would change his job and the city. What he was talking about was the seismic shift beginning to take place in business as the digital revolution helped national business expand at the expense of local business. In the next 10 years Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and Nordstrom’s moved into Washington, driving out local department stores like Woodward & Lothrop. Lowe’s and Home Depot killed off Hechinger’s, our dominant local home improvement chain. Bank of America, Brooks Brothers, Crate & Barrel—one by one they took over from the local businesses that we once thought would be around forever.

For a journalist, people like John are a valuable early warning system. That kind of relationship takes time to develop—you don’t develop a sense of trust with a couple of phone calls. But if you want to do good stories, look for people like John Tydings, get to know them, be straight with them. It’ll mean better journalism.

A reporter, an editor, and a funeral? I went to the service with Harry Jaffe, a longtime reporter-writer for The Washingtonian. The service started at 11 a.m. and Harry got us there at 10 a.m. so we could meet everyone as they came into the church. The Kennedy Center or Our Lady of Mercy—networking is not a sin for a journalist.

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