31 Jul David Von Drehle: Journalist, Boettcher Scholar and Bestselling Author
Twice a week, David Von Drehle does exactly that.
David, a 1979 Boettcher Scholar, is a columnist for The Washington Post who writes about national affairs, politics and mid-American life from his home in the Kansas City area. His recent articles include a reflection on the Apollo 11 mission, an analysis of the emerging meat substitute market, and praise for Chief Justice John Roberts’ balancing role on the U.S. Supreme Court.
While David often diagnoses critical issues in American culture, he doesn’t underestimate his unique opportunity to influence problem-solvers through one of the nation’s most widely circulated and influential newspapers.
“I try not to take for granted writing for one of the most influential outlets in the world, seen by many people who are in a position to do something. That space is worth really thinking hard, really learning, and exploring the world with an open mind.”
Prior to joining The Washington Post for the second time in 2017, David worked for the Miami Herald, The Washington Post, and TIME magazine, where as editor-in-chief he wrote more than 60 cover stories over the course of a decade. His love for thoughtful writing and journalism, however, began when David started the fall of his senior year at Gateway High School in Aurora.
He was hired as a part-time reporter in sports for The Denver Post, the youngest reporter in the paper’s history. After being the second in his family to win a Boettcher Scholarship, he attended the University of Denver, which then propelled him to study at Oxford under a Marshall Scholarship.
It was at Oxford that David truly appreciated the impact of the Boettcher Scholarship. “I was put in a milieu of students from the most exclusive colleges in the United States and Europe,” he said. “However, my undergraduate education gave me opportunities not as available at elite schools. Because of that I was able to thrive in graduate school.”
While his career and graduate studies not only prepared David for a career in journalism, it also gave him the inquisitive skillset to be an award-winning history author.
Walking around his New York City neighborhood in the early 2000s, he saw a historical plaque where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took place and began to dig into the story. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America was a critical and commercial success when published in 2003. The book opened doors for him to author Rise to Greatness, a detailed biopic of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in 1862, a project David called “The best thing I’ve done.”
David is currently working on a study of a neighbor in Kansas City who lived to be 109. “I follow the life of a man born in 1905 and analyze the tremendous change he lived through, how to deal with change, be resilient, and thrive through such transformation.”
Transformation and change are often painted as threats to American life and politics, and David is concerned by how the digital communications revolution is changing politics, government, and foreign policy.
“The technology we carry in our pockets has completely upended how we choose our leaders, how we set the agenda for nations and for policies that affect the world,” he said. However, as a historian-journalist, he is squarely positive and rejects the “doomsday” narrative.
“The older I get, the more big-picture optimistic I am,” he said. “Every generation of Americans has felt the country was going to hell in a handbasket. Only in the nostalgic rearview mirror do we tell the story of progress.”
David believes a critical part of progress is making change on the local level, a mindset he finds more readily in middle America. He volunteers at his kids’ schools, is involved with a workforce readiness initiative for under-resourced high school students and is on a steering committee for economic development in the Kansas City metro area. Additionally, he serves on the board of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum in Independence, Missouri.
When asked to share advice with current Boettcher Scholars about where to begin their paths to making progress, David shared some practical advice.
“Show interest in class, attend office hours, and get to know your professors. They are willing and eager to give of themselves for you! That’s an experience that you can’t match at the Ivy’s. And it will prepare you for a lifetime of engagement and impact.”