You may have read that Peter David, The Economist's Washington bureau chief and author of the paper's Lexington column, died in a car crash on Thursday night.
Peter was a superb journalist, one of the best The Economist ever hired. His range was stunning. He was recruited in 1984 to write science articles (he was working for Nature at the time), and did that with distinction. Later he became the paper's main authority on the Middle East. He wrote the Bagehot column on British politics. He ran the business sections of the magazine; then, as foreign editor, he ran the international sections. In many of these jobs he was, in The Economist's tradition, both editorial manager and senior writer. In both roles he was respected for his knowledge. As a boss he was known for his kindness and generosity, as a writer for his wit, even-handedness and unaffected elegance.
He was a brilliant man--but also wise, a rare combination. In argument, he was razor sharp, yet gentle. Gentleness was his most salient trait. He had no taste for stamping on opponents he had defeated. He would sometimes win arguments almost imperceptibly, guiding his challenger to the right answer. He took his work most seriously, worried about it more than he let on, and thought it mattered to be right, yet always took himself unseriously. He was funny, specializing in jokes at his own expense. The result of these perfectly balanced contrasts was a completely irresistible man.
He was the least demanding and most rewarding of friends. He never tried to charm, but never failed to. Everyone he met thought he was wonderful, and they were right.
One of the cruelest things about his death is that he had struggled with health problems and overcome them, and was looking forward to retirement as a new chapter with fresh opportunities. But he wouldn't want me to be mawkish about this. Some years ago, recovering from multiple coronary bypass surgery, he wrote to the office to say he was doing well, and included an account of his operation in the form of a recipe from a cookbook. (I'm paraphrasing from memory.) Cut sections from veins in the thigh; remove and reserve. Take a saw, cut boldly through the breastbone; crack and open...
The only thing about Peter that ever came close to annoying me was his modesty. This wasn't false: that is, it wasn't calculated. But sometimes it ran to the absurd. I often wondered if he knew how clever he was, and once or twice told him you could take self-effacement too far. He just laughed. He said he was annoyed by my inability to read and respond promptly to emails. "Clive, you surprise me. It's just good manners." Not long ago, he sent me an email with the subject line: "I loved your column". Opening it immediately, I read the text: "Now I have your attention, would you and Lori like to come over for dinner on Thursday?"
Peter had no particle of self-importance and no desire whatever to be well known. His professional ambition was to do his job as well as he could, without making a great fuss about it. Happily for him, and for The Economist, he found a home that recognized his talent and let him flourish. They were a perfect match. In a way, as I think Peter would have agreed with a smile, he had a marvelous career thrust upon him--and he loved it.
This will take some getting used to. Peter had wonderful stories, and since he was the kind of man whose approval you crave, you'd make a habit of saving stories for him. I find I'm still doing it. Knowing he won't hear them is very hard to bear.
My heart goes out to Celia and the children. I am so terribly sorry for your loss. Your husband, your father, was a remarkable and much-loved man.
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