Michael Berman, Political Strategist who Revealed Private Struggles, Dies at 84

Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post
Michael Berman in March 2006.

Michael Berman, a political strategist who came to Washington as a top aide to Vice President Walter Mondale and built a career as an eclectic insider who helped organize Democratic conventions, lobbied lawmakers and wrote a heartfelt book about his struggles with obesity, died Jan. 12 at a Washington hospital. He was 84.

Berman was under medical care after a stroke, said his wife, Debbie Cowan.

For decades after the Carter administration, Berman was a prominent member of two distinct Washington castes: the behind-the-scenes political operatives and the well-connected lobbyists whose respective powers come from their access to the powerful.

At the Clinton White House, Berman had what he called “roaming rights” that allowed him to pop into offices and meetings as part of his unofficial Mr. Fix It portfolio. That included helping prep nominees for Senate confirmation hearings, including future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. During President Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment proceedings over issues including alleged perjury about his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Berman assisted with White House messaging.

At Democratic National Conventions since 1968, he was the “undercard” guru, setting the mood and tempo of speakers building up to the presidential candidate. In 2004 in Boston, the last convention Berman worked, he helped set up the keynote speech from an Illinois state senator who was little known outside his home state, Barack Obama. “Quite an orator,” Berman remembered thinking.

At the same time, Berman wore another hat as co-founder of the Duberstein Group, a lobbying firm where his network among Democrats was paired with the deep GOP alliances of Kenneth Duberstein, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. The group’s clients – which Berman called a roster of “overdogs” – included Time Warner, Anheuser-Busch, General Motors and oil giants such as BP.

Berman became a walking Venn diagram. His political and lobbying worlds overlapped – and at times could seem at odds. Perhaps most striking was the 1993 Senate confirmation hearings for a Florida environmental official, Carol Browner, who was President Bill Clinton’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Berman helped coach Browner’s successful nomination process. The Duberstein Group, meanwhile, was pressing lawmakers for more oil-friendly regulations on behalf of its client, Shell.

Berman said it took “fine tuning” to keep a balance. Sometimes his choices were unexpected.

Beginning in the late 1980s, he threw support behind LGBTQ+ rights initiatives spearheaded by the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group that backed measures such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military. Berman later became the first non-LGBT member of the group’s board.

Hilary Rosen, a Democratic lobbyist who served as interim director of the Human Rights Campaign in 2008, said in an interview that Berman made a groundbreaking statement as a “privileged, straight, White man.” Rosen believed that Berman’s lifelong battles with obesity, and prejudices he perceived, “added to his empathy level.”

Berman had publicly chronicled his challenges with weight – once reaching 332 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame – and the humiliation and frustration he felt every time a diet failed. His 2006 book, “Living Large: A Big Man’s Ideas on Weight, Success, and Acceptance,” was part raw testimonial and part meditation on human frailties.

“I could not control my appetite because something was driving me,” he wrote, “something that was beyond the reach of willpower, outside the realm of reason.”

Berman described, in searing detail, how he once found himself stuck in a rocking chair because of his girth, or how he spent $2,100 on three bespoke suits in 1986 and had grown too big for them when they were finished 10 weeks later. Yet he also recounted how he learned to accept his size and find contentment. Some of his favorite restaurants in Washington knew to leave bread off his table and prepared him special plates of steamed vegetables.

“The most difficult thing about a food addiction,” he once told The Washington Post, “is that you can’t give up food.”

So it seemed no surprise that Berman found a way to mix politics and his love of dining out. The newsletter he started in 2007, “Mike’s Washington Watch,” was a hodgepodge of news clips, musings and statistics. He added tales of his meals at restaurants with friends. His posts might also be the most extensive source for information on eatery restrooms in Washington and beyond.

Berman gave exacting observations of every sink, commode and soap dispenser. At Parlour Victoria, a seafood taverna, he told readers the restrooms were small and the door is “particularly heavy.” (The lobster roll was excellent, he added.)

At Berman’s regular breakfast spot, the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, the staff set up a table on Jan. 13 in his memory with one of his usual meals, including a waffle topped with a fried egg and slices turkey bacon, and a triple iced espresso.

Rose with Mondale

Michael Stewart Berman was born on April 9, 1939, in Duluth, Minn. His father ran a dry cleaner; his mother was a homemaker. When Michael was young, his parents hosted a boy from Hibbing, Minn., named Robert Zimmerman while he went to Hebrew school in Duluth. The couple became the godparents of the boy, who became the future folk music superstar Bob Dylan.

Berman graduated in 1960 from the University of Minnesota in Duluth. He received his law degree from the University of Minnesota’s law school in 1964. That summer, he took a job with Mondale, then Minnesota attorney general, who was leading the state’s effort in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s successful run to remain in the White House.

Berman was by Mondale’s side after he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1964 (filling the seat recently vacated by Vice President Hubert Humphrey) and then as President Jimmy Carter’s vice president, serving as Mondale’s deputy chief of staff and counsel. A photo Berman saved as a memory of his tight bonds with Mondale show him sewing a cuff button on Mondale’s shirt as the vice president, on a deadline, looked over some papers and puffed a cigar.

After Carter’s election loss to Reagan in 1980, Berman joined a Washington law firm before creating the lobbying firm with Duberstein in the late 1980s.

As American politics grew more divided and bitter, Berman said he increasingly felt like a relic who still believed in bipartisan compromise. He blamed the rapid-fire news cycles for some of the rifts. There was no longer time, he said, to try for common ground.

“I can go this far. You can go this far,” he told NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 2011. “These kinds of negotiations – which made legislation much better, I think – just don’t exist anymore.”

His wife of 42 years, Carol Podhoretz, died in 2007. He married Debbie Cowan in 2012. Survivors include two stepsons and a stepdaughter; and two sisters.

Berman was often credited being a mentor for dozens of people in politics and diplomacy, including Tom Nides, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from December 2021 to July 2023.

Nides was a senior in 1979 at Duluth East High School, the same school Berman attended. Nides reached out to Berman with an audacious request: Could Mondale speak at the high school commencement? Somehow, Berman made it happen.

Berman helped Nides get an internship in Washington in 1980 and played a helping hand in Nides’s career for decades. “Every time I got a new job, I’d call Mike and tell him it wouldn’t have happened without him,” Nides said in an interview. “He was a real Washington institution.”