Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS

Robert Costa’s Notebook: A toast to Dan Balz

By Robert Costa

Greetings from New York’s Upper West Side, where I have been lucky to meet some “Washington Week” devotees. There’s nothing better than taking a stroll past haunts from my favorite sitcom, “Seinfeld,” and meeting friendly people.

But I’m in the bustling Big Apple for more than a good bagel and a cup of black coffee. Dan Balz, “the chief” at The Washington Post and a longtime regular on “Washington Week,” was given the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism this week at Columbia University.

This is a special award. Winners are heavyweights of political journalism, as well as models of integrity and excellence. Two former “Washington Week” moderators have won it over the years: Paul Duke in 1999 and Gwen Ifill last year.

It was a wonderful ceremony at Low Memorial Library in the heart of Columbia's campus. Tom Brokaw, the venerable NBC News anchor, gave opening remarks. Dan was joined by his wife, Nancy, and many Post colleagues who came up from Washington to toast him.

Gwen was mentioned several times by Dan and others with such warmth, one year after she passed away. “She smiles down on us today,” Dan said in his acceptance speech to applause and nods. Her legacy certainly lives on.

I jotted down a few notes during the other speeches and thought I’d share what I heard with you.

Roger Simon, the veteran columnist who went to the University of Illinois with Dan, recalled “watching him work the phones” on controversial stories back in the 1960s, using a “pleasant but firm tone.” Roger said Dan exposed a slush fund for athletics and generated anger among boosters but he stayed cool and did his work.

Maralee Schwartz, a Post editor and reporter for decades, said “fairness” and “integrity” make Dan the model. He has scored scoops and writes with flair, she said, but it’s the trust he has built with his readers that has elevated him for so long. She added that he’s “respectful of voters and sources,” which cements that trust.

Kevin Merida, who’s now at ESPN but for years was at the Post, talked about Dan as the “chief” and what that means inside a competitive, tough newsroom. What a fitting nickname for the soul of the Post’s political team.

Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, said Dan’s ability to listen is what makes him different. That quality gives him “wisdom,” Marty said, and makes Dan “a reporter, not a pundit… He’s constantly on the road talking to people.”

Peter Hart, a pollster who has worked with Dan for years, had a line I loved: Reading Dan Balz in the Post is “like listening to Vin Scully call Dodgers games.” Well said, Peter.

See you on Friday.

Robert Costa

P.S. — A day before Dan’s lunch, I appeared on PBS’s “Charlie Rose.” Usually, I chat with Charlie from a studio in Washington but this time I was at the table. More than a decade after serving as his intern, I continue to be in awe of his work ethic and his commitment to civil and engaging conversation. Like Dan, he’s one of the greats — and he’s been a true friend at PBS since I joined “Washington Week.” You can catch it in the video player below or watch it here.