News & Politics

The New Chief: David Leonhardt Takes Over the Washington Bureau of the New York Times

The 38-year-old Pulitzer prize winner isn't cut from the same mold as past Washington bureau chiefs

After winning a Pulitzer for his economic analysis, Dave Leonhardt was the surprise pick to run the New York Times Washington bureau. Photograph by Stephen Voss

It’s safe to say David Leonhardt wasn’t angling to be boss of the New York Times Washington bureau.

He was quite happy as the paper’s chief economics reporter in the nation’s capital as Washington’s death dance over money and the deficit became the top story.

His Economic Scene column helped put “college wage premium” and “market forces” into plain English so well that he won a Pulitzer Prize this year. He has been able to spend a decent amount of time with his wife, Laura, helping to raise their young children.

Nor was Leonhardt in the line of succession. At 38, with three years in the bureau, he was a relative newbie. Word was that veteran deputy Richard Stevenson, the newsroom favorite, was in line to succeed Dean Baquet, who was called to New York to play number two behind the paper’s new executive editor, Jill Abramson.

So when Abramson phoned Leonhardt in July and asked if he wanted to be a candidate, it was a surprise, he says: “It was an enormous amount to think about. I really loved the job I had.”

But not enough to turn down the bureau-chief job, which he starts September 6.

Leonhardt isn’t in the bureau-chief mold. He’s neither the swashbuckling Times man R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr., who covered wars and campaigns before he ran the bureau in the 1990s, nor Howell Raines, the hot-blooded veteran of civil-rights coverage, nor Abramson, a creature of the capital and an expert in legal affairs.

Leonhardt has never been on the campaign trail full-time, covered Congress, or written on foreign affairs. Why anoint a reporter who’s focused on economics?

Says Abramson: “Certainly, my great respect for David’s sophisticated analysis of economics was part of the attraction.” He’s also well liked by his colleagues, and the fact that he’s one of the youngest weighed in his favor.

Leonhardt takes over what’s by most measures the strongest reporting crew in Washington. From Jeff Zeleny’s command of politics to Carl Hulse’s congressional coverage to David Sanger’s depth in national security and foreign affairs to James Risen’s investigative reporting to Mark Leibovich’s pungent profiles to Elisabeth Bumiller’s Pentagon beat, Leonhardt will have his hands full managing a high-octane staff of more than 40.

“I think of myself as a writer,” he says, “but a big downside of writing is it can be a solitary pursuit. I like working with people. The notion of switching to a job in which there is more of that is pretty appealing.”

Leonhardt is a New Yorker, but he spent a few formative years in Boston. “I learned to read and add by reading the Boston Globe sports section,” he says. And he learned to love the Red Sox. Both of his parents are educators. He attended Horace Mann, a private school in the Bronx, and wrote for its weekly, the Record. At Yale, Leonhardt studied applied mathematics. He wrote for BusinessWeek before coming to the Times in 1999.

Becoming bureau chief elevates Leonhardt to the capital’s A-list for dinner parties, the sphere of Apple and Raines. “I don’t do too much of that stuff,” he says.

What he is doing is boning up on the world beyond economics: In the stack next to his bed in suburban Maryland is Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War, and David Ignatius’s latest spy thriller, Bloodmoney.

Does Leonhardt hope to climb the Times’ editing ladder, as did Raines, Abramson, and Baquet? “I’m not doing this with the expectation to start many years as an editor,” he says.

But he could be surprised—again.

This article appears in the September 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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