WASHINGTON — Donald M. Rothberg, a versatile and respected reporter who covered politics, the Watergate scandal and foreign affairs during a 40-year career with The Associated Press, died on Friday after a brief illness.
Rothberg, 79, cut an impressive swath through the capital landscape, blending a reporter’s need-to-know instincts with an easy-to-follow writing style that minced few words, laying bare his deep understanding of the corridors of power and the people who wielded it.
Born in Dorchester, Mass., and a graduate of Boston University, Rothberg was a journalistic frequent-flyer, whose writing and reporting pursuits took him across the United States with presidents and presidential candidates and to the four corners of the world with secretaries of state James A. Baker III and Warren Christopher.
He donned many hats in the Washington newsroom — chief political reporter, special investigative team member, diplomatic correspondent, enterprise writer, columnist, news editor. His reputation often made him the go-to man on breaking stories.
“Don loved covering smoke-filled-backroom politics and wanted his stories to give readers a chair in that room,” said Kathleen Carroll, AP’s executive editor. “No backslapper, he sometimes presented a crusty exterior, the tough news guy, but the barking burst of his laugh was always one of the best sounds in the newsroom.”
Rothberg had a smooth but unrelenting journalistic style, and he wrapped his talent around some of the most eye-catching and history-making stories of the 20th century, including the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard M. Nixon’s presidency. He was among a handful of seasoned newsroom veterans who could rightfully claim the aura of mentor without ever having to say it.
“Don was an unerring witness to the machinery of Congress in an era when great lawmakers knew when and how to cut a deal,” said Jonathan P. Wolman, editor of The Detroit News and a former Washington AP chief of bureau. “He had an instinctive feel for politics — not just inside the Beltway but across the 50 states. He had an unabashed affection for the characters of public life and sha red their stories generously with readers.”
Rothberg’s mastery of the special brand of journalism that is indispensable to covering Washington was obvious in his writing.
“Americans returned to their bullet-scarred Capitol less than 24 hours after a gunman fatally shot two policemen and sent a wave of fear through the national monument to freedom and democracy,” he wrote in his account of a shooting rampage at Congress in July 1998.
After college and a tour of duty in the Army, he went to work in 1959 at The Daily Astorian in Astoria, Ore. Rothberg joined AP in Boston in 1961, covering politics and state government. He transferred to Washington in 1966 and was a member of the special assignment team when it won the Worth Bingham award for a series of investigative reports.
He covered Watergate from its early stages through Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 and the cover-up trial. Rothberg also covered four presidential campaigns.
Rothberg demonstrated his versatility when he pitched in on AP’s coverage of the stock market crash of Oct. 19, 1987 — Black Monday as it became known. And for his efforts, he shared in John Hancock Award for Excellence in Business and Financial Journalism and the Top Performance Award of the Associated Press Managing Editors association.
Although he officially retired from AP at the end of 1999, he wasn’t through with news.
“Several years after his retirement, terrorists attacked Washington and New York on 9/11. Unbidden, Don showed up in the bureau and asked me simply, ‘What can I do to help?”’ said Sandy Johnson, AP’s former Washington bureau chief.
Rothberg subsequently returned a second time to serve as news editor for national security coverage during the Iraq war, mentoring younger journalists and lending his wealth of experience to the news report.
Rothberg is survived by his wife, Lynn; their daughter, Jennifer Rothberg Tanzi; and her husband, Brian; grandsons Connor and Landon; and his sister, Charlotte Kaufman of Boston.