David Lightman: Lifelong political junkie

By Sara Faiwell
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

As a sixth-grader in the nation’s capital, David Lightman sat in his family room watching a television set tuned to the Nixon-Kennedy debate. Even then, he had an eye on presidential politics, he said.

"Something about that race really captivated not only me, but the generation,” said Lightman, 53, who is now the Washington bureau chief of the Hartford Courant, a 217,518-circulation Connecticut daily. “I just came by politics because it seemed interesting.”

In his decades on the campaign trail, that interest now has taken Lightman around the country. He brags that he has been to all 50 states thanks to his reporting career.

"I get to go places I would never visit by myself, and I get to meet people I'd never meet,” Lightman said from his hotel room in Phoenix, Ariz., while covering a recent Democratic candidate debate.

The son of a civil service worker, Lightman said politics was not something talked about at the dinner table when he was a child. However, by the time he was in college, Lightman was writing about the 1968 contest between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey for the campus paper.

His big professional break came in 1980, when after nine years covering cops and county and state government for the Baltimore Sun, he became a junior member of the paper’s political team. During that campaign, he bounded all over the place, covering candidates such as Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy in the primaries.

“By then I was 31 and had covered Annapolis (the capital of Maryland), and you think you’re ready for this,” he said. “The first time I got on the Reagan bus, you are with the reporters like David Broder who are old enough to be your parents. You think, ‘How can I compete with these people?’”

Something Lightman said he learned from that experience: Your energy carries you. He found that out after talking with people on the perimeter, instead of just covering stump speech after stump speech.

“David has an eye for the seemingly arcane, leading to stories that lazier reporters miss,” said Bill Hawkins, a former Baltimore Sun metro editor. “He's smart, and he has an innate ability to smell a scam in the making.”

But in 1984 Lightman made a rookie mistake while covering former Florida governor Reubin Askew’s presidential campaign. After a 30-minute exclusive interview in Askew’s car, Lightman got back to the office, only to realize his tape recorder had not worked. He says he doesn’t count on tape players to this day.

In 1988, while traveling with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Lightman became accustomed to visiting three or four black churches each day. But one night in Queens, NY, Jackson’s caravan got lost, finally delivering Jackson to his next scheduled stop at 11:30 p.m. on a weekday. It was dark, rainy and late, but when Lightman walked into the church, he said people were literally hanging from the rafters to see Jackson.

“To watch him appeal to these voters who felt they had no power ... you think, 'My God, this is amazing,' especially since it’s now 1 a.m. It’s extraordinary the way he touched people," Lightman said.

Now with home-state senator Joe Lieberman in the Democratic race, Lightman is still running all over the country, trying to beat other reporters and talking with campaign officials on a daily basis.

“You meet them, you use them for stories, but they don't become your friends,” Lightman said of his relationship with such officials. “We all know our roles, but I don't want to play tennis with (Sen.) Chris Dodd or invite his press secretary over for dinner. I'm in their world, but I'm not part of it.”

Lightman’s name often appears on ABC’s “The Note,” a Web link for political junkies with up-to-the-minute campaign information. Last summer, when he was in Iowa for early caucus coverage, the site quoted him this way:

“Lieberman is still a blur of sorts in Iowa, someone whom people just can't put into focus,” Lightman writes. "He's a friendly, decent man who promotes himself as a centrist in a state where Democrats are generally liberals, but his voting record leans left on most key issues."

“I get to be an eyewitness to history and get to know the top policymakers,” said Lightman. “I like being right on top of what's going on. If Bush talks to Congress about Iraq, for instance, bam, I'm there.”

Although he thrives on the glamour and spontaneity of his job, however, Lightman says he would much rather be at home on the couch, watching college football with his two sons, on any given fall weekend.

"Being there” often means being away from his wife and family. Lightman admits he’s lucky to have a wife who “puts up with this stuff.” He declined to have his wife interviewed about his political reporting career. Maybe that has something to do with Lightman's strong belief in dating or marrying someone who has nothing to do with the business -- someone who perhaps “worries about traffic and taxes and normal stuff,” he said.

E-mail Sara Faiwell at sara-faiwell@uiowa.edu

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