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Leo Rennert, former McClatchy D.C. chief who escaped Holocaust, dies at 87 — ‘He was a reporter’

Longtime McClatchy reporter Leo Rennert interviews Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Longtime McClatchy reporter Leo Rennert interviews Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Leo Rennert, who after escaping the Holocaust and emigrating to the U.S. devoted nearly 40 years to reporting on politics in Washington, D.C., for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy’s other newspapers, died Thursday. He was 87.

Rennert, a highly respected journalist who helmed the company’s Washington Bureau until his retirement in 2000, passed away in hospice care in Bethesda, Maryland, where he lived, his daughter, Sharon Rennert, said.

As the Washington Post wrote in 1978, “Journalists in and outside California regard him as one of the best regional reporters in the capital.”

“While he plugs away at localized topics just as the other regionals do, Rennert is one of few who have shown a good regional reporter can break national news,” wrote the Post.

Rennert joined McClatchy, The Sacramento Bee’s parent company, as a reporter in 1956. He covered the California congressional delegation for The Bee. He became a White House correspondent during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and eventually ascended to bureau chief.

Sharon Rennert described her father as a serious man dedicated to the newspaper business.

“I think he found the word ‘journalist’ a little highfalutin’ – he was a reporter,” she said.

Leo Rennert was born May 29, 1931, in Vienna, Austria, and was a survivor of the Holocaust. He and his family adopted fake names and papers while hiding in the small Belgian village of Burdinne, according to his daughter. His father died at Auschwitz. His daughter said that up until Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass”, in November 1938 when Nazis raided Jewish communities, her father had lived a fairly normal childhood as the son of two grocers.

But after Kristallnacht, Rennert’s life changed dramatically. He and his remaining family members fled Austria for Belgium, where Sharon Rennert said that “literally the kindness of strangers,” who helped hide the family, saved their lives.

A Catholic priest, Jean Cottiaux, made sure not only that the family was protected, but that Rennert kept up on his Hebrew studies. Rennert and his younger brother had to pretend they didn’t know any German to fully blend in with the villagers.

Rennert and his family emigrated to New York in 1947 following the end of World War II, eventually settling in Los Angeles. He studied at UCLA and served in the Army before becoming a reporter.

His daughter said Rennert started out covering local education and politics at The Bee, and one of his most important reporting experiences was covering the civil rights movement, traveling to Selma, Alabama, where the need for eyewitness accounts of the news resonated deeply with him.

But Sharon Rennert said her dad always had his eye on a job in Washington, D.C. Rennert believed that newspapers should send correspondents to Washington to report for local communities. There they could ensure those communities were aware of national matters that affected those readers.

Rennert got the job to report for McClatchy in Washington, D.C., in 1966.

“Leo was a journalist of the old school,” said Mort Saltzman, a former Sacramento Bee editor. “He was brimming with confidence at all times.”

Saltzman said that Rennert was a sharp writer who could easily file two or more stories a day. He wanted to be called about his reporting at any time, day or night, Saltzman said, and always expected his stories to appear on the front page.

“I enjoyed sparring with him,” Saltzman said. “Leo had a distinct voice. He had a high range, so when he called, you knew instantly, he didn’t have to say who he was.”

Rennert held the Washington correspondent position until Ronald Reagan won the presidency, when he became the company’s White House correspondent. Reagan came from California, and Rennert’s roots there helped him become a key player in building McClatchy’s coverage.

His stories were carried in McClatchy’s newspapers from Alaska to South Carolina – and in hundreds of other newspapers in between throughout the 1980s – and he believed strongly in McClatchy’s mission of holding the powerful accountable and for the newspapers to act as “tribunes of the people,” as he told the American Journalism Review.

“We’ve fought over the years for stronger recognition for what we do,” Rennert told the Post of D.C. coverage by regional papers like McClatchy.

“When I first arrived at the D.C. bureau in 1988, people would say, ‘Oh, you work with Leo!’ Everyone knew Leo,” said Mike Doyle, a reporter for E&E News. Doyle worked as a regional and trade reporter for Rennert when he was the bureau chief.

“Leo was a great newsman,” he said.

Doyle arrived at the D.C. bureau in 1988. Rennert was a bureau chief who was deeply invested in growing his team, Doyle said.

“For me, he gave me endless opportunities,” Doyle said. “He had an eye for what should be covered and for the development of the reporters who were doing the covering.”

David Lightman, now a national political correspondent for McClatchy’s Washington Bureau, was the bureau chief for the Hartford Courant while Rennert was the top Washington editor for McClatchy.

“As a young bureau chief, he was one of the people I would look up to,” Lightman said. “I would always appreciate his wisdom.”

He was serious man who often wrote about his experiences during the Holocaust, Sharon Rennert said. She described her father as someone people loved to talk to but who reserved his more humorous side for close friends and family members.

“He loved to tell really corny jokes, and I mean really corny,” she said. “The rest of the family rolled their eyes, but he knew I would always break down and laugh.”

In addition to his daughter Sharon, Rennert is survived by his wife of 62 years, Patricia, and brother Jack. Services will be held Sunday in Chevy Chase, Maryland.