The Monitor's Godfrey Sperling remembered: pioneer of newsmaker journalism
Godfrey 'Budge' Sperling's nearly 60-year career included 24 political conventions, but he was best known for the Monitor Breakfast, where talk was disarmingly civilized and, sometimes to the regret of his guests, on the record.
World War II was barely over when Godfrey Sperling Jr. reported forÂ work at The Christian Science Monitor, still wearing his uniform as anÂ Army Air Corps major.
Although he was a lawyer and held a degree in journalism, Mr.Â Sperlingâs first assignment was to go door to door in the Boston areaÂ for the circulation sales department. No matter. He loved theÂ Monitor and the church that publishes it and wanted to help any way heÂ could.
So began a remarkable 59-year journalism career. By the time SperlingÂ wrote his last column in 2005, he was one of the best-known printÂ journalists in the nationâs capital. He passed on Sept. 11.
Along the way, Sperling, known by his childhood nickname of âBudge,âÂ served as chief of the Monitorâs Chicago, New York, and WashingtonÂ news bureaus. With a passion for politics, he covered 24 politicalÂ conventions and interviewed numerous presidents and would-beÂ presidents, starting with John F. Kennedy aboard his campaign plane,Â the Caroline. He was in the TV studio for one of the Nixon-KennedyÂ debates.
Gregarious by nature, Budge traveled widely, chatting up local andÂ state officials, digging for fresh political insights and buildingÂ relationships. Since he was viewed as a relentlessly nonpartisanÂ reporter, during Watergate Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater sometimes would speak bluntly to Budge about President Nixon, sendingÂ the White House a message.
But for all of his reporting, Budge was best known as the host ofÂ Monitor breakfasts, a forum where Washington reporters gather toÂ interview a public figure in a civilized, comprehensive way. SperlingÂ launched the sessions in 1966 and hosted 3,241 of the gatherings overÂ a 35-year span. Guests included Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan andÂ Clinton along with five vice presidents and countless cabinet and congressional officials.
When Sperling retired as host in 2001, The Washington Post called theÂ breakfast venue he created, âone of Washingtonâs premier journalisticÂ forums.â
Budge both reveled in the attention the breakfasts brought him and wasÂ bemused by it. Â âIf anyone had said to me, the thing you will beÂ remembered for is your breakfast group, I would have gone into anotherÂ career, â he wrote in a column in 2002. âA breakfast group?â
Sperling brought to the sometimes-daunting task of lining upÂ high-level breakfast guests the same relentless, highly competitiveÂ approach that characterized his reporting. While not the MonitorâsÂ most elegant writer, no one in the bureau out-hustled Budge.
Breakfast critics, of whom there were several, echoed author NoraÂ Ephronâs observation that, âhow a politician performs [at a breakfast]Â does not prove anything except for his ability to hornswoggleÂ journalists and pay his respects to their egos.â
But it was not quite as simple as that. Budge was adept at ferretingÂ out information by putting guests at ease with sometimes ramblingÂ questions. When he retired as moderator, The New York Times observedÂ Sperlingâs gentle questioning was âa centerpiece of the atmosphere inÂ which politicians were made to feel comfortable. Sometimes tooÂ comfortable.â
For example, at a 1967 breakfast, Michigan Gov. George Romney harmed hisÂ chances for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination by tellingÂ breakfast attendees that he had been âbrainwashedâ about US policy inÂ Vietnam. And at a November 1993 breakfast, Republican consultant EdÂ Rollins revealed that he had distributed walking around money toÂ suppress the black vote in the election for governor of New Jersey.
Outlasting many critics, Sperling came to be feted frequently. InÂ 1987, his beloved University of Illinois gave him its AlumniÂ Achievement Award. In September 1995, President Bill Clinton hosted aÂ luncheon for Budge and the breakfast group in the State Dining Room toÂ mark Budge's 80th birthday. In 2002, the Monitor established a journalismÂ fellowship in his name at the University of Illinois College ofÂ Communications.
The honors kept on coming. In October 2008, the 93-year-old SperlingÂ returned to the university to be inducted into the Illini Media HallÂ of Fame. His student host, Andrew Mason, wrote about the experienceÂ saying, âI got to see a legend.â
One of Budgeâs greatest joys was membership in the Gridiron Club, aÂ group of Washington journalists who put on an annual dinner where theyÂ sing satirical songs for the president. By his own admission,Â Sperling did not have much of a singing voice, but he enjoyed theÂ clubâs camaraderie.Â His favorite Gridiron moment came in 1981, when he invited HollywoodÂ dance legend Ginger Rogers to be his guest at the white tie dinner.Â Budge said that when he picked her up at the hotel, she appeared inÂ âblack chiffon and ostrich feathers â just like I had expected.â
While devoted to Betty, his wife of 70 years, BudgeÂ admitted that, âI shall always remember what I often refer to as âmyÂ walk with Ginger.â Thatâs when she took my arm and we walked from herÂ hotel suite down to the hall packed with Gridiron invitees waiting toÂ go into the big ballroom.â
It was, Budge wrote revealingly, âa heady moment for a small-town boyÂ from the Midwest.â