POLITICS: PennAve

Remembering Washington Examiner editor, former White House correspondent Bob Kemper

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Photo - Washington Examiner Assistant Managing Editor Bob Kemper in 2013. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner)
Washington Examiner Assistant Managing Editor Bob Kemper in 2013. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner)
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UPDATE, May 8: A memorial fund has been set up in honor of Bob Kemper; see the end of this story for more information.

The Washington Examiner staff lost a dear friend and colleague Saturday with the passing of Bob Kemper.

An Examiner assistant managing editor and a former Washington and White House correspondent for two major national newspapers, Kemper died Saturday of an apparent heart attack. He was 53.

Those who worked with him knew him as a hard-working newsman from the old school, who covered the White House under two administrations as well as major national news events and helped train scores of young journalists as an editor at the Examiner.

They also recall him as a sincere friend, a good editor and a great wit.

Examiner Editor Stephen G. Smith said Kemper's reporters and desk mates "will remember his deft line editing, his deep understanding of political Washington and his lively — and occasionally wicked — sense of humor."

Examiner White House correspondent Brian Hughes recalled him this way:

"Whether you were a friend, colleague or complete stranger, you could always count on Bob to deliver his greatest gift: laughter. As an editor, he had this unique way of making you smile even when eviscerating your copy. Seemingly infinite presidential debates really just turned into the late-night Kemper comedy hour — or hours. He was an equal opportunist and was capable of ribbing you without an ounce of nastiness.

Bob was an essential influence in the lives of many journalists in the early stages of their careers.
 

"My favorite memories were in those frantic moments, right before deadline, when everyone was on high alert but Bob was pushing you across the finish line with his arsenal of self-deprecating one liners. And if you haven’t had a drink with Kemper, you’re really not doing it right. I’ll forever be jealous of the people doing that right now."

Kemper reported on Washington and the White House for both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Chicago Tribune. He was one of the few journalists allowed to spend much of Sept. 12, 2001, with President George W. Bush, and he later authored a book on the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Rubble: How the 9/11 Families Rebuilt Their Lives and Inspired America.

In less-heady periods, his missives for White House pool duty were the stuff of legend.

When he changed papers and jobs in 2004, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank dedicated a "White House Notebook" installment to Kemper's dispatches, calling him "the man who did for the White House pool report what Ernie Pyle did for war journalism and Walter Cronkite did for network news. With the departure of Kemper ... the nation has lost its foremost chronicler of White House tedium."

An excerpt from Milbank's piece:

Consider [Kemper's] report on President Bush's St. Patrick's evening visit to the British Embassy to see a play called "The Spider's Web," featuring the president's sister-in-law, Margaret Bush. "Was the play good? Who knows?" Kemper wrote. "Was Margaret the spider? Who knows? Does the play have any chance of opening at the Italian Embassy any time soon? Who knows? You see, though [Bush] was reportedly at the British Embassy, your pool was at Cactus Cantina, a Mexican restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue."

What's more, Kemper recounted, to make sure the journalists did not acquire weapons while at Cactus Cantina, "everyone had to go to the Little Reporter's Room together with an armed guard."

Such excessive security measures were a constant theme in Kemper's, and other poolers', prose. "Your pool was searched three — count 'em, three — times on its way into the event," he reported from Monterrey, Mexico. "Bags went through X-rays so often it is believed they can no longer have little purses of their own."

From a 2003 New York Times piece on what it's like to be in the White House pool and sometimes be kept "far from the action":

... Bob Kemper of The Chicago Tribune was held in the Doge Bar during the meetings and riots at the Group of 8 summit conference in Genoa in July 2001, left to drink what his pool report said were 23 cups of espresso. Mr. Kemper ended up describing the relaxed Italian police who mingled around the coffee bar watching the rioting on CNN.

''They watched quietly, pensively even, sipping their espressos and occasionally commenting on the action,'' Mr. Kemper wrote, sardonically. ''And though your pooler speaks absolutely no Italian, he determined that they must be saying something like, 'Oh, look, is that Fernando? Ohhh, good baton hit!' ''

(To be more precise, Kemper reported he "braved homemade pasta with pesto, ice cream, 23 espressos and a piece of cake.")

Asked by USA Today in 2001 to name the best part about regular visits to Crawford, Texas, outside Waco, where the new president had a ranch, Kemper replied, "all the free sweat."

Bob Kemper in 2011. (Washington Examiner photo)

Kemper joined the Examiner newspaper as an assistant managing editor in September 2010, overseeing its national and Virginia political coverage. Among his accomplishments as an editor was oversight of the paper's extensive probe into sweetheart deals and poor management by the agency overseeing the massive project to connect D.C.'s subway system with Dulles International Airport in the Virginia suburbs. He stayed on with the Examiner when it converted from a local daily newspaper to its current all-politics format last June.

His friend and colleague Mike Hedges, former managing editor of the Examiner, recalled visiting with Kemper recently. "He loved recalling the times we'd broken big stories, and the times we'd had fun writing a headline and beating the competition. He took a lot of pride in the paper's aggressive local news coverage, and especially in the excellent work he'd coaxed out of a bunch of young reporters.

"Bob was an essential influence in the lives of many journalists in the early stages of their careers," Hedges said. "His patience and good humor, along with his great reservoir of knowledge and journalistic skill, brought out the best in them. They will be better journalists and better people for the time they got to share with Bob. His joy in producing the best paper we could each day inspired us all, and was a fundamental part of the Examiner newspaper's character. I was grateful to have him as a friend, and I'll truly miss him."

'Caution: Music may have been playing only in pooler’s head'
Read one of Bob Kemper's complete White House pool reports from 2004, posted by Wonkette.

For two years before coming to the Examiner, Kemper was a freelance writer and editor, mainly for U.S. News and World Report and National Journal. He also was an adjunct professor at American University's communications school.

Before that, Kemper spent four years reporting for the AJC and three years working for the Tribune, coming to Washington after serving as a national correspondent in Chicago, writing about city, state and national campaigns. (At the Tribune, he recalled to Examiner colleagues, he had three separate phone numbers for three desks — one in the main newsroom downtown, one at his desk in the Tribune magazine offices on a different floor, and another at a bureau in the suburbs, "and my editor could never get me at any of them.")

A newsman who knew the purpose of pneumatic tubes and copy spikes in newsrooms of old, Kemper never took to Twitter (he did have a page on Facebook), but he would likely be amazed to see the many plaudits he has received from friends and colleagues there since his passing. Susan Page of USA Today called him "a smart, lively, funny journalist who has died too young." Yahoo's chief Washington correspondent Olivier Knox called him a "great reporter, generous friend, and easily the funniest person I have ever met."

Kemper's passing came as a shock to many. He suffered a major heart attack in the Examiner newsroom on Feb. 3 and spent much of the following month in the hospital. But in recent weeks, friends and colleagues thought he was making a strong recovery, undergoing cardiac rehab, exercising and spending time with his family. Just a couple of weeks before his death, he told colleagues he hoped his doctors would soon give him a timetable for returning to work.

Robert John Kemper grew up in tiny Kulpmont, Pa. — a "mile-long town," he once called it, in the Pennsylvania coal country — where his father had grown up and once worked in the mines. He was an alumnus of Juniata College there. He first made his name in Richmond, Va., where he covered the state capitol for the Newport News Daily Press before moving to Washington to cover the Pentagon and Congress.

A Kensington, Md., resident, he was a devoted father to his three children, sons Ryan and Jack and daughter Grace. Survivors also include his mother, Lucy; siblings Richard Kemper and Karen Hirschi; and ex-wife Mary Kemper.

Services were held May 8 at Saint Bartholomew Church in Bethesda. Interment followed in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring.

A memorial fund supporting the education of the Kemper children has been set up in Bob Kemper's honor by some of his former colleagues from Cox News, parent company of the AJC. Checks can be written out to the Bob Kemper Memorial Fund. (Please contact the Washington Examiner for the mailing address).

"Thanks for all you taught me," former Examiner reporter Steve Contorno, now with the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times, wrote Sunday on Twitter regarding Kemper. "Mostly, thanks for the laughs."

Friends and former colleagues are invited to share stories and memories of Bob Kemper. Email Jennifer Peebles at jpeebles@washingtonexaminer.com.

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