David Maraniss reflects on his journalism career

Alexa Bussmann, Content Development Director

“It’s in my blood,” David Maraniss said.

For the Maraniss family, writing is a family affair. Maraniss’ grandfather was a newspaper printer in Brooklyn, New York, his father was an editor and journalist, and David Maraniss is an associate editor for the Washington Post, presidential biographer and current seminar instructor at Vanderbilt. His son Andrew is the author of Strong Inside, the biography of Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, and the Class of 2020 Ingram Commons Reading.

Maraniss was born in Detroit, but his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin when he was eight years old. His earliest memories are in Detroit, but Maraniss feels more connected to Wisconsin because he spent his formative years from fourth grade through college there.

While attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Maraniss worked at a local newspaper where he wrote about student protests and sports.

“On Friday nights I’d go out to some small town outside of Madison and cover their football or basketball games.” Maraniss said, “And then during the week there might be a protest on the campus and I’d cover that.”

Maraniss credits his first job out of college with giving him many of the writing skills that he still uses today. He worked at a local radio station covering city hall during the week and anchoring the news on the weekends. Instead of simply reading what the Associated Press had written, like many radio news anchors did, Maraniss would rewrite each report for his fifteen-minute newscast.

“Writing for the radio taught me a lot about the rhythm of writing, and how to write in a way that has a natural rhythm that not only you can read out loud but that makes sense to the reader,” Maraniss said.

The Watergate scandal was at the forefront of American news while Maraniss worked in radio.  Maraniss often rewrote stories by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post journalists who broke the Watergate scandal story. Years later, Maraniss and Woodward became close friends through their work at the Washington Post.

“You know, before you even knew me I was rewriting you,” Maraniss once told Woodward.

Maraniss and his wife moved to New Jersey when he was hired by the Trenton Times, which had just been bought by the Washington Post. After working for the Trenton Times for two years, Maraniss was hired by the Washington Post.

Maraniss initially covered Maryland politics as a journalist for the Washington Post. A favorite story was about when Maryland had three governors within one day- an acting governor was replaced by the original governor when his corruption charges were overturned before a new governor was sworn in at three that afternoon. According to Maraniss, this story characterizes the lively nature of Maryland politics at the time.

In 1985, Maraniss and his family moved to Austin, Texas because Maraniss was named southwest bureau chief for the Washington Post. He was in charge of covering Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and northern Mexico.

Maraniss became acquainted with Bill Clinton through several stories that he did in Arkansas. In 1991, Maraniss wrote a note to his editor asking to spend an entire year writing about Clinton because he thought that Clinton would become the next president.

In that year, Maraniss wrote about Clinton from angles of race, religion, ethics and other viewpoints. Maraniss won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for this collection of stories.

“The morning after the election, in 1992, I woke up at 5 in the morning in some hellhole motel in the outskirts of Little Rock and realized that I had to write a biography about him,” Maraniss said.

That would be Maraniss’ first book. He would go on to write several others, including a generational biography of Barack Obama titled Barack Obama: The Story.

“That book took me all over the world,” Maraniss said. “It was really quite an experience to go not just to Hawaii and illinois, but to Kenya and Indonesia and different places of his international life. “

Maraniss also wrote large profiles on many presidential candidates, including Jesse Jackson, Bob Dole, Al Gore and George W Bush.

After living in Washington DC for several decades, Maraniss and his wife, Linda, decided to move to Nashville in 2013 to be closer to their grandchildren. Andrew Maraniss attended Vanderbilt as an undergraduate, so David Maraniss knew that it was an academically elite school. The elder Maraniss contacted current Vice Provost John Geer and and former Dean of the Martha Rivers Ingram Commons Frank Wcislo about the possibility of teaching at Vanderbilt, and was offered a position teaching seminars for one semester every other academic year.

In 2013, Maraniss taught a seminar on sports and society and in 2015 he taught a seminar on Vietnam and the 1960s. This semester, Maraniss is co-teaching a course called “The McCarthy Era in Politics” with Professor Robert Barsky. Each semester that Maraniss is at Vanderbilt, he co-teaches a course on political biography with Professor Bruce Oppenheimer.

Besides seeing his grandchildren and teaching, Maraniss also enjoys trying new restaurants in Nashville. His favorites include Fido, the Grilled Cheeserie and Barcelona Wine Bar. Because he and his wife live near campus, Maraniss also frequently eats at the Commons Dining Center.

“The luxury of this place, with its nearly gourmet cafeteria, is a far cry from what we had when I was at University of Wisconsin,” Maraniss said.

Currently, Maraniss is spending time with his grandchildren and working on his next book, which features his father as one of the central figures. Maraniss’ father was an editor for the Michigan Daily, so Maraniss is reading through the five hundred and thirty-seven articles that his father wrote.

In writing and researching for his books, Maraniss enjoys learning about almost any topic.

“One of the great things about what I do is that I’m always learning, it’s like a perpetual graduate school,” Maraniss said.

Coming from a family of writers, Maraniss is carrying on the tradition of journalism within his family. He adds a knack for storytelling and a perpetual sense of curiosity to that legacy.

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