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.

R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor/File

World War II was barely over when Godfrey Sperling Jr. reported for work at The Christian Science Monitor, still wearing his uniform as an Army Air Corps major.

Although he was a lawyer and held a degree in journalism, Mr. Sperling’s first assignment was to go door to door in the Boston area for the circulation sales department. No matter. He loved the Monitor and the church that publishes it and wanted to help any way he could.

So began a remarkable 59-year journalism career. By the time Sperling wrote his last column in 2005, he was one of the best-known print journalists in the nation’s capital. He passed on Sept. 11.

Along the way, Sperling, known by his childhood nickname of “Budge,” served as chief of the Monitor’s Chicago, New York, and Washington news bureaus. With a passion for politics, he covered 24 political conventions and interviewed numerous presidents and would-be presidents, starting with John F. Kennedy aboard his campaign plane, the Caroline. He was in the TV studio for one of the Nixon-Kennedy debates.

Gregarious by nature, Budge traveled widely, chatting up local and state officials, digging for fresh political insights and building relationships. Since he was viewed as a relentlessly nonpartisan reporter, during Watergate Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater sometimes would speak bluntly to Budge about President Nixon, sending the White House a message.

But for all of his reporting, Budge was best known as the host of Monitor breakfasts, a forum where Washington reporters gather to interview a public figure in a civilized, comprehensive way. Sperling launched the sessions in 1966 and hosted 3,241 of the gatherings over a 35-year span. Guests included Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton along with five vice presidents and countless cabinet and congressional officials.

When Sperling retired as host in 2001, The Washington Post called the breakfast venue he created, “one of Washington’s premier journalistic forums.”

Budge both reveled in the attention the breakfasts brought him and was bemused by it.  “If anyone had said to me, the thing you will be remembered for is your breakfast group, I would have gone into another career, “ he wrote in a column in 2002. “A breakfast group?”

Sperling brought to the sometimes-daunting task of lining up high-level breakfast guests the same relentless, highly competitive approach that characterized his reporting. While not the Monitor’s most elegant writer, no one in the bureau out-hustled Budge.

Breakfast critics, of whom there were several, echoed author Nora Ephron’s observation that, “how a politician performs [at a breakfast] does not prove anything except for his ability to hornswoggle journalists and pay his respects to their egos.”

But it was not quite as simple as that. Budge was adept at ferreting out information by putting guests at ease with sometimes rambling questions. When he retired as moderator, The New York Times observed Sperling’s gentle questioning was “a centerpiece of the atmosphere in which politicians were made to feel comfortable. Sometimes too comfortable.”

For example, at a 1967 breakfast, Michigan Gov. George Romney harmed his chances for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination by telling breakfast attendees that he had been “brainwashed” about US policy in Vietnam. And at a November 1993 breakfast, Republican consultant Ed Rollins revealed that he had distributed walking around money to suppress the black vote in the election for governor of New Jersey.

Outlasting many critics, Sperling came to be feted frequently. In 1987, his beloved University of Illinois gave him its Alumni Achievement Award. In September 1995, President Bill Clinton hosted a luncheon for Budge and the breakfast group in the State Dining Room to mark Budge's 80th birthday. In 2002, the Monitor established a journalism fellowship in his name at the University of Illinois College of Communications.

The honors kept on coming. In October 2008, the 93-year-old Sperling returned to the university to be inducted into the Illini Media Hall of Fame. His student host, Andrew Mason, wrote about the experience saying, “I got to see a legend.”

One of Budge’s greatest joys was membership in the Gridiron Club, a group of Washington journalists who put on an annual dinner where they sing satirical songs for the president. By his own admission, Sperling did not have much of a singing voice, but he enjoyed the club’s camaraderie. His favorite Gridiron moment came in 1981, when he invited Hollywood dance legend Ginger Rogers to be his guest at the white tie dinner. Budge said that when he picked her up at the hotel, she appeared in “black chiffon and ostrich feathers – just like I had expected.”

While devoted to Betty, his wife of 70 years, Budge admitted that, “I shall always remember what I often refer to as ‘my walk with Ginger.’ That’s when she took my arm and we walked from her hotel suite down to the hall packed with Gridiron invitees waiting to go into the big ballroom.”

It was, Budge wrote revealingly, “a heady moment for a small-town boy from the Midwest.”

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