Al Eisele: “Journalism Is Still About People, More Than It Is About Process and Policy”

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Albert Eisele, founding editor of the Hill newspaper, dies at 85”:

Albert Eisele, a veteran member of the Washington press corps who helped found the Hill, a newspaper dedicated to coverage of the hurly-burly of Congress, the White House, politics, lobbying and life in the nation’s capital, died June 29 in Falls Church, Va….

Mr. Eisele grew up on a Minnesota farm, honed his journalistic skills as a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch and landed in Washington in 1965 as a correspondent for what was then the Ridder newspaper chain. He was tasked with covering the numerous Minnesotans who held positions of power at the time — among them, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and U.S. Sen. Walter F. “Fritz” Mondale, for whom Mr. Eisele later served as press secretary during Mondale’s tenure as President Jimmy Carter’s vice president.

Mr. Eisele returned to journalism in 1994 to help start the Hill, a venture he undertook with former New York Times reporter Martin Tolchin and publisher Jerry Finkelstein. The publication debuted weeks before the dramatic midterm elections when Republicans under the leadership of Rep. Newt Gingrich retook control of the U.S. House of Representatives after 40 years of a Democratic majority.

The Hill at first seemed a scrappy upstart compared with Roll Call, a similar Capitol Hill newspaper that had circulated in Washington since 1955. But under Mr. Eisele’s leadership as editor, the Hill became known, like its more established competitor, as a must-read for Washington insiders who wished to know not only the broad strokes of a bill but also the subtlety and shadings of its provisions, and how and why it came to be.

With its emphasis on scoops, the Hill also became known as a training ground for journalists. “One of the things I’m proudest of is the fact that we sent so many talented young reporters on to bigger and better things,” Mr. Eisele said when he retired in 2005. “At least 55 of our former reporters have gone on to major publications and broadcast organizations.”

The Hill, which is distributed to all congressional offices, the White House, the Defense Department, other governmental agencies and the Supreme Court, today reports a print circulation of more than 24,000. Its website is one of the most popular online sources of political news.

In addition to serving as editor of the Hill, Mr. Eisele wrote a column, On the Record, and co-authored another, Under the Dome, featuring Washington gossip. In 2005, he traveled to Iraq, where he reported on the discovery of a 600-foot escape tunnel dug by detainees at a U.S. detention center at Camp Bucca….

Albert Alois Eisele was born in 1936 in Blue Earth, a Minnesota town just north of the Iowa border where his parents operated a 160-acre farm. They moonlighted as writers, penning columns about rural life that were syndicated in newspapers across the Midwest. Mr. Eisele later wrote a book about his mother and father, “Northern Lights, Southern Nights: A Memoir of Writing Parents.”

Mr. Eisele’s upbringing introduced him not only to newspapering, but also the power of the government to affect the daily lives of millions of people. His family did not have electricity in their home until after the Rural Electrification Act was passed in 1936 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal — a memory that Mr. Eisele carried to Washington where it shaped his understanding of politics.

Mr. Eisele received a bachelor’s degree in history from Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., in 1958 and was a minor league baseball pitcher before beginning his journalism career.

His books included “Almost to the Presidency,” a biography of Humphrey and Eugene J. McCarthy, the Minnesota senator who unsuccessfully challenged Humphrey for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination on a platform opposing the Vietnam War. (Republican Richard M. Nixon won the election that year.)

Mr. Eisele “offers much more than a mere study of two men from the same state whose ambition takes them along similar courses,” Haynes Johnson, a political correspondent for The Washington Post, wrote in a review. “He has succeeded in capturing the small flashes of personal behavior that illuminate personality and help to explain actions. He also reminds us, time and again, how short are our political memories.”

After serving as press secretary to Mondale — another Minnesotan who grew up on a farm just north of the Iowa border — Mr. Eisele helped found a Washington think tank, the Center for National Policy. He worked for a Minnesota-based computer company, Control Data, before starting a consulting firm, Cornerstone Associates.

As a founding editor of the Hill, Mr. Eisele frequently provided political commentary on C-SPAN and other media outlets….

Mr. Eisele observed a profound transformation of journalism over his four-decade career, as readers increasingly abandoned newsprint for the Internet. But some elements of the craft, he observed, remained the same.

“Journalism is still about people, more than it is about process and policy,” he told the Hill when he retired. “In Washington, it is about the interaction about how people vie for power, seek power, misuse power, accumulate power and sometimes lose power and the reluctant letting go of power.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.

Also see an earlier Al Eisele obit published by the Hill newspaper.

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