Politics

An Intense Reporter Turned Patient Editor: Steve Komarow Remembered

Few Capitol reporters and war correspondents make no enemies; CQ Roll Call’s top editor an exception

Steve Komarow, CQ Roll Call’s senior vice president and executive editor. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Steve Komarow, CQ Roll Call’s executive editor and senior vice president, accomplished something very rare in the often cutthroat worlds of Washington bureaus and foreign correspondence: Across a varied and accomplished career of four decades, his calmly confident news judgment and patiently clear-eyed managerial style produced nearly universal respect and virtually no lasting enmity.

At the Capitol and across several war zones, Komarow, who died Sunday at 61, stood out for his unruffled approach to the most dramatic developments, an equanimity in supervising high-maintenance reporters, an easy affect amid intense journalistic competition — and a cockeyed grin when confronted with the constant but mostly ephemeral melodramas of all four high-pressure newsrooms where he played pivotal roles.   

“Steve had so many gifts,” Michael Tackett, a national political correspondent for The New York Times and a competitor or colleague since the 1980s. “Preternatural calm. A crackling intellect. A true leader who always stood back to let others receive credit. High standards at low volume. A tenacity whether pursuing a story or battling a wretched disease. And a Hall of Fame sense of decency.”

It was a style on display from the first story that got him global attention, when he was a 26-year-old junior reporter in Washington for the Associated Press.

On Dec. 8, 1982, a nuclear disarmament advocate named Norman D. Mayer drove a truck he claimed was filled with 1,000 pounds of dynamite to the base of the Washington Monument, trapping nine people inside. 

He insisted on negotiating face-to-face with a childless journalist. Komarow volunteered and, over the course of 10 hours, succeeded in securing the release of the hostages after relaying Mayer’s warnings about “the precarious and uncontrollable situation the world finds itself in.” 

Mayer was shot and killed by police when he started up the truck, which was found free of explosives.

“It does strike me that incidents like this were the beginning of a progression toward what we’ve seen today,” Komarow recalled in a 2015 interview about the steady rise of similar incidents. “It’s just like gun violence, you’ve seen from going from really isolated incidents to such a common thing.”

‘Intelligence and drive’

After graduating from George Washington University, one of Komarow’s first jobs was as a news assistant for The Baltimore Sun, where he displayed “intelligence and drive in doing even menial things,” recalled Carl P. Leubsdorf, a colleague there who went on to be Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. 

Komarow was covering the District of Columbia for the AP during the Washington Monument standoff and, after a stint as AP’s Washington metro editor, he was dispatched to Capitol Hill, where he covered the ethical travails that forced Jim Wright of Texas to become the first House speaker forced by scandal to resign in 1989. Three years later he was AP’s chief congressional correspondent and was elected by all the Hill’s print and wire service reporters as chairman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, the panel that handles press access and credentialing issues.

He covered the presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992 before joining USA Today in 1993 as a defense correspondent. He accompanied the first U.S. ground troops into Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti. And he was the first reporter to cover a cruise missile launch from inside a B-52 bomber.

“One of the best Pentagon reporters of his generation, during an historic time,” recalled David Lapan, then a Marine Corps press officer and now spokesman for the Bipartisan Policy Center. “He was unfailingly curious, dedicated and good-natured.”

In 2000 Komarow opened a bureau for USA Today in Berlin. He wrote mostly features from across Central and Eastern Europe before taking the lead in covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that defined American foreign policy after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11. (He watched the World Trade center fall on a TV while covering an auto show in Frankfurt, telling a colleague: “I have the feeling that our next three years are all going to be about this day.”)  

“When I showed up in Kabul about six weeks after the Taliban were routed, Steve could have resented the arrival of a greenhorn columnist in a war zone,” recalled Walter Shapiro, then with USA Today and now a columnist for Roll Call. “Instead — as should be no surprise to anyone who knew him — he was gracious, funny, intrepid and a hell of a reporter. His sense of bravery mixed with nonchalance wasn’t always called for in a Washington newsroom, but I saw it firsthand in Afghanistan.” 

Embedded with the Army during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he went on to cover the capture and trial of Saddam Hussein (he was among the first reporters to explore the “spider hole” where the dictator was finally caught by U.S. forces) and then the first post-invasion Iraqi elections and the subsequent insurgency.

“He was adventurous — who else would want to try the marmot for lunch in Macedonia? — and he was wise,” said Dan Rubin, a senior editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer who was based overseas with Komarow. “He always wore a sport coat when flying in case the airlines were overbooked and needed to upgrade someone for business class. He counseled: ‘Always look like you belong there.’ And of course he always did.”

In 2006, he returned to the AP as deputy international editor in New York, and two years later returned to Washington as deputy bureau chief, helping to manage coverage of the 2008 presidential elections. 

“The most decent person you’ll ever meet in Washington,” the current bureau chief, Julie Pace, who joined the wire service to help cover that election, wrote on Twitter. “Even when I was the greenest reporter in the @AP DC bureau, he was exceedingly generous with his time for story help or career advice.”

Over the Khyber Pass

Two years later, Komarow joined Bloomberg to direct its defense coverage and was eventually put in charge of coverage of the Obama White House, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

“Was fortunate enough to call Steve my boss and editor for 2 yrs,” tweeted CNN congressional reporter Phil Mattingly, hired by Bloomberg from CQ in 2008. “Unflappable. Patient (no matter how often I tested it.) Smart. Sharp editorial eye. Obsessed with his family (and the annual Bark Ball for rescue dogs, from which he had the best photos ever.)”

Reflecting his love of canines, Komarow viewed among his finest moments as a war correspondent the smuggling of a rescue dog out of Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass.

He became the top editor on the CQ side of this newsroom in December 2015, and was quickly credited with boosting morale and stabilizing staff retention.

“Steve understood what people needed to do their best work: He minimized distractions and lowered the drama,” said Kris Viesselman, editor-in-chief and senior vice president of CQ Roll Call.

“Even though he was a badass (yet benevolent) war correspondent during his own reporting career, he was a subtle but effective leader as an editor. Steve could course correct with a nudge in the right direction, never breaking people’s spirits,” she said. “He was a generous and thoughtful partner to me in leading the newsroom. We shared the opinion that creating a good environment was one of the most important things we could do to foster quality journalism.”

Hawkings had known Komarow since 1988, when the former sought the latter’s advice on his first congressional reporting assignment.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.