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Godfrey Sperling, 97; originator of newsmaker breakfasts

For the 20th anniversary newsmaker breakfast, Bob Dole was questiond by Mr. Sperling.

James A. Parcell/Washington Post/file 1986

For the 20th anniversary newsmaker breakfast, Bob Dole was questiond by Mr. Sperling.

WASHINGTON — Godfrey Sperling Jr. — a Washington journalist whose weekly on-the-record breakfasts served as an essential feasting place for presidential aspirants, politicos and other would-be newsmakers, as well as for reporters hungry for a scoop — died Wednesday in the District of Columbia. He was two weeks short of his 98th birthday.

The death was announced by the Gridiron Club, a journalism organization he once led. He was the group’s oldest living member.

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Mr. Sperling, a self-described ‘‘newspaper bum,’’ worked for the Christian Science Monitor from 1946 until his retirement as a senior Washington columnist in 2005. Known as Budge, he covered presidential candidates from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton when the Monitor was among the most influential newspapers in the country.

He achieved his greatest impact as a gatekeeper between the Beltway press corps and the political elite in the years before the rise of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. The Monitor-sponsored ‘‘Breakfast With Godfrey’’ commenced at 8 a.m., to shake news out of people before the caffeine kicked in, and was held for decades at what is now the St. Regis hotel in Northwest Washington.

Compared with boozy lunches and dinners, the morning klatches were relaxed, high-cholesterol affairs that gave brand-name journalists and regional correspondents relatively private access to spinmeisters and serious political candidates. (For years, Mr. Sperling strenuously prohibited broadcast journalists, wire service reporters, and photographers.)

Doyle McManus, a Washington columnist and former bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, said the Monitor’s breakfasts became and remain ‘‘an essential institution in the invisible preliminary rounds of any presidential campaign.”

‘‘Almost every politician who seriously considers running for president makes a soft opening, an early no-fault audition at a Sperling breakfast,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s an enormous convenience for the potential candidate, because it’s a way of talking to 20 to 50 of the country’s leading political journalists without having to commit to run for president.’’

Mr. Sperling, described as a courtly man prone at times to curmudgeonly outbursts, created an ambience that discouraged Torquemada-like questioning of guests. He fostered a civil mood that resembled trust, but he was not so naive as to think that headliners agreed to appear because they loved the press or the heaping platters of eggs and sausage.

‘‘Of course it’s self-serving,’’ he told The New York Times. ‘‘They wouldn’t be coming in if it wasn’t self-serving. We all know it’s self-serving, and we all hang onto our wallets every moment. On the other hand, we don’t hammer a guy on the head to show our manliness.’’

In August 1991, Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, showed up to confront rumors of his womanizing. Their message was that the little-known Arkansas governor and his wife had survived rocky patches and were committed to their marriage, a message they repeated for a national television audience on the CBS news show ‘‘60 Minutes.’’

Over the decades, the breakfasts featured a parade of lawmakers and backstage power brokers including Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace, George McGovern, Henry Kissinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the labor leader Walter Reuther, and the Nixon aide John Ehrlichman. The former agriculture secretary Earl Butz once cracked a joke about the pope.

‘‘The great advantage is that we can follow up questions and keep boring in,’’ Mr. Sperling once told Time magazine. ‘‘At White House and other news conferences, you don’t get to ask the follow-up questions.’’

In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke openly about considering a presidential bid. Mr. Sperling recalled that Kennedy began the breakfast by calling his candidacy ‘‘inconceivable,’’ but after a filling breakfast and further probing by the assembly of reporters, his answers began to change.

‘‘You could almost see it in Bobby’s eyes. Something was happening,’’ Mr. Sperling told the Chicago Tribune decades later. ‘‘Before we left that morning . . . we were confident we had a presidential candidate.’’

Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were also among the novice presidential contenders who stopped by to face questions. In 1995, Mr. Sperling’s innocuous question to Representative Newt Gingrich about a recent trip to Israel led the Republican House speaker to rant about what he perceived as a slight by President Clinton. Gingrich said that Clinton had forced him to enter Air Force One from the rear and sat him at the back of the plane.

Other kerfuffles erupted. The Republican campaign strategist Edward Rollins revealed in 1993 that he had doled out $500,000 in ‘‘walking-around money’’ to selected African American ministers in New Jersey in an effort to suppress the black vote during Christine Todd Whitman’s successful race for governor. Rollins quickly retracted his comment, but it scarred his career.

Mr. Sperling said the breakfasts were sometimes shunned by reporters who felt the events were too cozy and not conducive to the dispassionate coverage of government officials. Reporter Jack Germond was among those who helped start a rival, heavily lubricated group called Political Writers for a Democratic Society.

‘‘There’s a certain purist who remains aloof, never to be ‘corrupted,’ ’’ Mr. Sperling told the Times in 1996. ‘‘But his copy will reflect that, because he hasn’t really gotten to know these people. He doesn’t have the story.’’

Godfrey Sperling Jr., whose father was a civil engineer, was born in Long Beach, Calif., and grew up in Cody, Wyo., and Urbana, Ill. His older sisters called him Brother, which morphed over time to Budge, a name he vastly preferred to Godfrey.

He joined the Monitor after serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was the newspaper’s Chicago-based Midwest bureau chief and New York bureau chief before settling in Washington in 1965.

Mr. Sperling, who was the Monitor’s Washington bureau chief from 1973 to 1983, was reported to have hosted more than 3,000 breakfasts before he stepped down in 2001.

With the passing years, the rules were modernized. Broadcast correspondents can now attend the breakfasts. Last year, the Monitor began allowing C-SPAN cameras to film them. And in February, the Monitor lifted its restriction on wire service reporters.

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