(plus, a bonus seven-year-old essay on David Broder)
There's a new Think Again column, "No Substance, Please. We're Journalists," here, and a new Nation column, "Liberalism's Lost Libretto" about The Coast of Utopia, here. And The Atlantic has my 2004 Hollywood piece up again too.
"How to Use Weasel Words to Imply Things on the Front Page of The New York Times That You Know You Cannot Support With Facts" by Adam Nagorney, here:
But when it came to tallying the final score on the most intense engagement so far in the 2008 presidential race, even Mr. Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, seemed to acknowledge that he may have been outmaneuvered.
Take out the weasel words "seemed to" and "may have" and it reads:
"But when it came to tallying the final score on the most intense engagement so far in the 2008 presidential race, even Mr. Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, acknowledged nothing at all, including the entire premise of this piece."
Remember, when you read the words "seemed to" -- Hamlet: "Seems, Madam? Nay, it is. I know not 'seems' " -- you can be pretty sure the writer is just making s**t up.
Try it at home:
"But when it came to tallying the final score on the most intense engagement so far in the 2008 presidential race, even Mr. Nagorney, the political reporter from The New York Times, seemed to acknowledge that he may have been Anna Nicole Smith's half-space alien love child ..."
Just as true ...
(Oh and I'm buying dinner at The Ivy in Santa Monica if you can make a credible case about just what the hell this has to do with who would make a better president ...)
I've got a soft spot for Peter Beinart; so young, yet he manages to manifest decades of TNR's best and worst qualities simultaneously. The magazine is going (or has gone) biweekly. Beinart says his war-apology piece is his last TRB. Amazing how powerfully Kanan Makiya appealed to the sentimentalism of would-be liberal hawks. George Packer fell for him hook, line, and sinker, going so far as to misportray a meeting at the New School in order to give Makiya's pitch for war far greater force than the eyewitnesses to the meeting believed it had -- something I think Packer today would be forced to acknowledge, even though he included his misrepresentative account in both The New York Times Magazine and his book on the war. Now we learn Beinart fell for it too. I don't know Makiya, but I find the entire pitch embarrassing. If there was a five or 10 percent chance of freeing Iraq at the cost of the blood and treasure of America's men and women, to say nothing of all the other costs, I say, "Sorry, bub." That's not sufficient justification to take this nation to war. Anyway, Beinart has offered up the best of the liberal hawk apologies for being wrong, but still owes an apology to the people he attacked who were right, given the names his magazine called them (as Mike Tomasky has pointed out, repeatedly).
Meanwhile, remember, I both love and hate TNR, but either way I find it indispensable. Pieces like this one by Alan Wolfe in repsonse to Peter Berkowitz in response to Alan Wolfe in response to Dinesh D'Souza remind me of why. I recalled Wolfe's treatment of Carl Schmitt, which -- like any sensible intellectual, including particularly Mark Lilla on the topic -- was serious and respectful. Berkowitz completely misportrayed it in a fashion that can only be purposeful and -- I'm sorry to have to say this -- is all too typical of the thuggishness of William Kristol's Weekly Standard. (TNR displays a similar thuggishnes sometimes -- but not nearly so often and only with regard to foreign policy.) There is simply no way Berkowitz could have read Wolfe's essay to imply what he insists it does if he were being honest.
The escalation is working out great, huh, Mickster?
Baby, better come back maybe next week ...
Even them dance hall hacks from the west side of the tracks move in close to catch her time ...
Person I feel sorriest for in the world: Tie between Bobby Bandiera, the great guitarist in this song who was Patti S.' boyfriend before Bruce, and who got beat out at the last minute to replace Steve Van Zandt in the E Street Band afterward and (I was informed, though perhaps it's not true ...) spent the 1999 reunion tour as Patti's guitar tech ... and The Edge's brother ,whom the kid informed me -- after doing her first-ever school report, on U2 -- founded the band and then left it. So not only did he quit what became the most successful band of the past quarter-century -- and perhaps the richest -- but damnit to hell, his brother's in it.
Name: LTC Bob
Hometown: Capitol Hill
Mr. Silberman misses the point. I did note, in one paragraph, both the history of disease as being the major killer of war, but I also noted that this US-created super-drug-resistant bug is domestic, or at least common to major hospitals across the US and Europe. Two lines, two ideas.
But something struck me about this in re-reading his article. In four years, he relates to us, seven soldiers have died of these US-civilian-hospitals-created "superbugs." Meanwhile, 90,000 civilians apparently die of the same (cited as "fatal infections" in the article) every year, for a total of 360,000 dead civilians in four years.
Accordingly, and I may be off-base here, but I'm not sure that the focus should be on the military in this story. Seven seems like a much smaller number than 360,000. Why did he choose to focus on seven instead of on 360,000? I do not understand that decision.
Personally, at this instant I am more pissed about the situation at Walter Reed, the failures there, and the culture (both military and medical) which permitted these failures. Now THAT story was a perfect example of magnificent reporting (by The Washington Post) resulting in dramatic change for the good. It is a great illustration of all that is good about American investigative journalism.
Keep in mind that the superbug is not just a problem in field hospitals. It is a major problem in all U.S. hospitals and little to nothing is being done about it, unlike in Europe and Canada. An American admitted to a hospital in most Westernized countries today will be considered a biohazard.
Read this for more.
I find it abhorrent that Oprah Winfrey would include Bill O'Reilly on a panel discussing child abuse. Painting him as an expert on the subject is akin to inviting Rush Limbaugh to participate in a discussion of how to improve race relations. What a sham! O'Reilly had disgraced himself with comments about the the Shawn Hornbeck case to the point that he was "fired" by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as the keynote speaker at its upcoming convention. Oprah had a chance to question O'Reilly about his outrageous Hornbeck comments but instead chose to give him recognition that he doesn't deserve by allowing him to preach on a topic he knows nothing about. She sure wasn't the same Oprah who skewered the author she endorsed who later said he made up most of the information in his bestselling book. Oprah, can you spell "pander"?
The antidote to Wikipedia is in the library -- the Association of College and Research Libraries calls it information literacy/competency, and the Association of Higher Education has endorsed their standards for college and university students. Instruction librarians are very good at what they do!
So the British royal family can go to Iraq -- we say "send the twins"!!
Your link to the Times article about history professors not allowing students to cite Wikipedia was worthwhile, excepting its all too typical portrayal of students being allowed this sort of behavior in high school, an inference not easily justified by the facts. Currently, the students in my high school English class are learning about source scrutiny, reputability, bias, loaded words, et al. The lure of Wikipedia, along with the endless book summaries, cheating sites, and papers for sale may be too strong to ignore, but a normal, condoned high school behavior it is not.
There's been a lot of talk about David Broder following his remarkably silly essay about how Bush was poised for a comeback last week. I thought it might be useful if I offered up some background on the man, his career, and the unique space he's occupied for decades within the Insider Establishment. So here is a 5,500-word essay on Broder I published somewhere -- I can't remember where -- in late 2000, I think. I must have incorporated much of it into What Liberal Media?, but I don't remember how much.
Eric Alterman's profile of David Broder from either late 2000 or early 2001
At a moment when all journalistic roads seem to lead to ever more corporate control over "content," and the reporter's job description falls somewhere in between a Chris-Matthews-type carnival barker or a Drudge-like gossip/smut peddler, Washington Post columnist and political reporter, David Broder stands out as an island of uncompromised integrity amidst a darkening sea of sludge. The veteran of nearly a half-century of political reporting and punditry is not simply the most admired print reporter in America. After Walter Lippmann, and perhaps James Reston, he almost certainly the most widely admired political reporter of the century. Testimony to this effect comes from every corner of the profession and has been building steadily for nearly three decades. A complete digest of these testimonials could fill this entire article. Here, however, are some random, representative examples:
- October 29, 2000: Broder causes a car accident while driving and taking notes on his interview with passenger, Washington Senator Slade Gorton, and driving at the same time. The victim, a young Gorton staffer, whose car was damaged, declines to pursue the matter, asking how in the world he could find fault with his "idol."
- October 28, 2000: William Kristol, perhaps the most supremely self-confident man in all Washington, DC, begins a sentence on NBC's Meet the Press with the following preface: "Well, I disagree with David Broder on this, which means I'm probably wrong...."
- December 1996: Asked by Brian Lamb on C-SPAN if there were any pundits "you respect enough to read on a regular basis." President Clinton replies, "I read David Broder and I respect him... I think he's an honest fellow that tries to call it like sees it."
- 1990: Washingtonian Magazine surveys the editors of the country's 200 largest newspapers. Broder is chosen to be the best columnist, hardest working columnist, and least ideological columnist, of the 123 being considered.
- 1973: Broder wins Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary
- 1972: Broder bets Hunter Thompson $100 that Hubert Humphrey would win a crucial Democratic primary. The gonzo McCarthy partisan keeps the bet a secret for fear that if Broder's judgment became known within the traveling press corps, it would tilt their reporting of the race in favor of Humphrey and against his candidate.
The son of a Chicago dentist, the 71-year-old Broder has been a political junkie almost as long as he has been alive. He published his own weekly newspaper as a teenager and peddled it around the neighborhood. As a student at the University of Chicago, he led the liberals to victory over the Communists and gained control of the campus newspaper. After ten years of journeyman reporting for various publications, he was hired at The New York Times in 1965 but resigned a year and a half later to go to work at the Post. (For this act alone he is revered by his colleagues.) He has covered politics there for the past thirty-four years, without a break.
Broder's position inside Washington is absolutely unique. In the mind of the Washington insider establishment, David Broder is virtue itself. He is a sacred cow in a business of professed beefeaters. Ted Koppel might be equally respected, but nobody knows his opinions on anything. Broder's opinions are influential on both the center-right and center-left. He has occupied the position of "high priest" of political journalism -- as named in Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus -- since 1972, because, not in spite, of his opinions. To examine Broder's career is to examine just what it is Washington insiders and top-flight political journalists admire in a reporter. He sets the standard for what a fair-minded, honest, and non-ideological reportage would look like, if only everyone were so fair-minded, honest and non-ideological.
When asked what they admire most about Broder, his colleagues invariably point to his common sense and implacable level-headedness. In a loving profile in the second issue of Brill's Content, then-editor in chief Michael Kramer waxed romantic about the pundit he called "the class of the field." "There are those the rest of us seek out for guidance," he sang. "They are the calm, sober, voices we reference to test our own theories and check our own tendency to hyperventilate. This is particularly true in political journalism where one person stands out -- David Broder." Later in the piece, Kramer explained that Broder's "influence derives from the entirety of his non-hysterical work, an oeuvre that has conferred on him an authority no journalist has enjoyed since James Reston wrote for The New York Times." LA Times Bigfoot Ronald Brownstein concurred: "I don't agree with all of his conclusions, but many of us take Broder into account, and particularly in times of crisis, like now, because he never loses his head." So, too, did the so-called Washington "Wise Man" Robert Strauss: "It's hard for people who don't follow his work or who aren't in politics to understand how important Broder is to the political discourse. He is the calming influence in journalism, something we need now more than ever." [November 1998]
Recently, during the post-election crisis, Broder's beloved colleague at the Post (and before that, the Washington Star), Mary McGrory, felt compelled to write: "Dear reader: Be warned. I am about to commit heresy. The consequences could be unspeakable and any interdiction that falls on me might extend to you. It is not too late to turn back. I'm about to tell you that David Broder is wrong." But even so, she spent most of the column singing his praises, noting, "David Broder, the ultimate professional, admired for his judgment, fought over by talk show hosts, heeded more than anyone at The Washington Post. When he is saying something at the Post lunch table, the most inveterate natterers fall silent and listen. His devotion to his craft is awesome."
Broder's meticulous dedication to the nuts and bolts of his craft, along with his disdain for the Washington social scene, are indeed both admirable and unusual. The man is a famously hard-working reporter, and in the ten years I spent in Washington, I never once saw him at a party. Broder's Post column is syndicated in more than 300 papers and he appears frequently on Meet the Press, "PBS' Washington Week in Review, and CNN's Inside Politics. But unlike most pundits, he does not pimp inside skinny from the political prostitutes on either side of partisan street. Rather he makes a conscious effort to focus on the arguments the campaigns make and the views he understands the voters to hold. He defines his technique with the modesty that makes him pretty much unique among well-known reporters: "I am not a terribly interesting or fluid writer and I don't have any deep philosophical thoughts ... so if I didn't do the reporting, I couldn't do the column."
When Broder is asked to make the kinds of predictions that make most pundits look like such clowns, he usually tries genially to duck the question. When that proves impossible, he plays along, but under duress. At a speech where he was being honored at the Kennedy School at Harvard in 1999, he went so far as to issue a public mea culpa, explaining that when Tim Russert asked his guests to issue predictions about the 1998 Congressional races, "we ended up looking like a bunch of jerks because none of us knew what was going to happen in any of these elections and it wasn't a reporter's kind of a role."
The cause of the reporter's "role" and identity has been a pet cause of Broder's for more than a decade. At the same lecture, he complained that "[j]ournalists, and particularly the more visible in our business are being subsumed," he complained when delivering the Theodore H. White lecture at Harvard in 1999, "into a larger and bigger category called Washington insiders. And it's not done great wonders for our credibility." These comments echoed ones he made back in 1988, at a black-tie dinner in his honor given by the National Press Club in his honor, Broder took to the podium and lashed out at "a new hybrid creature, an androgynous binding of politician and journalist called 'The Washington Insider.' One day, he or she is a public official or political operative; the next, a journalist or television commentator." Broder worried that if "the people ... see us as part of a power-wielding clique of Insiders, they're going to be resentful as hell that they have no way to call us to account." The guest of honor concluded his speech with the observation that he could not fathom why journalists would want to become Insiders, when "its so damn much fun to be outsiders -- irreverent, inquisitive, impudent, incorrigibly independent outsiders -- thumbing our nose at authority and going our own way."
Alas, the pundit was operating from a decidedly exaggerated notion of just how impudent he and his incorrigibly independent colleagues had been during the previous decade. After all, it was at the very same dinner that then-Secretary of State-designate James Baker read a note from then president-elect, George H.W. Bush, noting that Broder had "come a long way" since the Bushes, the Broders, the Bakers and others spent weeks touring China together in 1977 "as a kind of private, bonding experience. Read my lips," concluded Bush, employing the phrase that during the presidential campaign signaled an approaching lie, "David, you're a pro."
The fact is, while Broder has managed to avoid many of the ethical, personal and social pitfalls that tend to trap most Washington journalists over time -- he may be the only man to walk of out of an interview with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rather than allow Henry to go off the record -- he has not been able to escape the disease of Washington Insiderism. In fact, in his sixth decade of reporting, his work frequently evidences some of its most virulent strains. More than just a prisoner of the Inner Beltway, Broder is, in fact, a signifier of it. This, in part explains the reverence he inspires, as his conscientious reporting and self-effacing style help to reflect back to Washington a more flattering profile of itself. While Broder reports conscientiously from far and wide across the nation, he cannot escape the Beltway and the intellectual bondage it both inspires and demands. Nor is he immune to the side effects it produces -- in this case some unavoidable professional hypocrisy and an occasionally dangerous degree of contempt for the views of everyday Americans.
Broder himself says he considers all ideologies anathema, and finds the accusation of bias against journalists in general, to be "laughable. There just isn't enough ideology in the average reporter," he insists, "to fill a thimble." Most reporters say this, but it is pernicious nonsense. Many reporters and editors are deeply ideological. It's just that as part of their ideology, they feel compelled to deny -- particularly to themselves -- that they have one. Broder is no different. Nor is he quite the Buddha of unruffled equanimity that his admirers believe him to be. His trick -- if an unconscious devotion to what he certainly believes to be high-minded principles can be called a trick -- is that his lapses of judgment and temper almost perfectly reflect the shifting sands of conventional wisdom inside the Beltway.
Like Reston before him, Broder is a man of the floating center. His deepest beliefs are process, rather than substance-related. Broder believes with all his heart and soul in professional politicians and in successful political parties, and is willing to subordinate virtually all matters of substance to this belief. He believes the system should be made to work, almost regardless of what purposes toward which it might be pointed. And he believes in taking almost all politicians at their words. Broder goes so far as to admit that in recent years, he has tended purposely to shy away, "maybe more than is justified, from writing stories that I know will add to the depth of an already deep public cynicism about what's going on in this country."
Broder has remained remarkably consistent to these ideological principles during the life of his high-profile career, on occasion at considerable cost to the accuracy of the story he was attempting to report. He has little patience with politicians who do not honor the role of the permanent establishment, like those anti-war Democrats who challenged Lyndon Johnson in 1967. The anti-war activities of the likes of Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy, he believed were "degrading ... to those involved" -- as if ending the horrific Vietnam War might not be worth a little indigestion in the system. Like most of the establishment Broder soured on Nixon during Watergate and treated the humble, homiletic Gerald Ford as a kind of God-sent gift to the nation following Our Long National Nightmare. Jimmy Carter's anti-Washington populism, not-surprisingly, won little favor with him.
It was during the Reagan era, however where the considerable costs of searching for solid, centrist ground became an island of intellectual quicksand for Broder. Like nearly all of his colleagues in the mainstream media, he could not bring himself to accept the obvious conclusion that America's Emperor was a serial self-exposer. Edward R. Herman did a study of Broder's writing back then and found any number of sloppy journalistic attempts to mask Broder's pro-Reagan biases. When the president decided to bomb Libya in 1986 in order to try to kill Muamar Khaddafi, Broder assured readers (4/20/86) that "Reagan has been insistent that every possible step be taken to spare the innocent." Just how was that tidbit of hard news checked out?. Broder repeatedly lauded Reagan his "presidential" qualities and "national leadership of a high order," while dismissing the his pathetic intellectual abilities and blatant dishonesty as being "overshadowed by the grace with which he functions as chief of state in moments of national tragedy and triumph." (12/22/85) Reagan's opponents, however, tended to receive the back of Broder's hand, like the "quick-lipped liberals" who "pop off in opposition" to the Supreme Court nomination of right-wing extremist Robert Bork. (8/14/87).
Broder was certainly aware of the lengths to which the Reagan administration was willing to go to mislead the public, but he apparently thought better of mentioning these lies, deceptions, and false assertions in his column. This led to some impressive -- and one might say depressing -- cognitive dissonance in his work. Consider the confusing conflict evidenced in the Washington Post Outlook section of March 22, 1987. On page one, the newspaper carried a thoughtful article by the author of a new book, Beyond the Front Page, named David Broder:
The White House propaganda machine has... enhanced the power of the communicator-in-chief. And it has raised to even greater importance the unmet challenge for the press to provide an alternative, non-propagandistic view of the presidency. This is a challenge we in the Washington press corps -- and our editors and bosses cannot afford to ignore.
Yet on the last page of the same section, the Washington Post pundit Dave Broder apparently found himself helpless before the very same phenomenon. Of Reagan's speech earlier that week, during which the president continued to adhere to his preposterous notion that he had not intended to trade arms for hostages, nor to encourage his administration to contravene any laws on behalf of the contras, Broder spin himself silly on the lying president's behalf:
The White House has repaired the damage from the Iran affair explosion and reopened for business. President Reagan's news conference on Thursday night provided the strongest evidence yet that the proprietor of the shop has regained a good measure of his emotional balance and is ready to reclaim his role at the center of government. The president did not change his story -- or add much to it. But he showed the steadfastness and confidence that had been so conspicuously missing in the final months of 1986. Now Reagan can begin refocusing the nation's attention on his policy agenda without being accused of trying to avoid That Painful Subject.
Note that Broder does not actually claim that Reagan offered any coherent explanation for Iran-Contra, nor for his own role in it. Neither does he explain what has changed inside the White House to prevent such occurrences from taking place in the future. Instead he merely endorses Reagan's attempt to downgrade the importance of the administration's willful subversion of the Constitution and its conduct of an illegal proxy war against Nicaragua. In fact, the only thing Reagan demonstrated in his press conference was that after five months of hiding, he could collect himself sufficiently to play the role of president for approximately forty minutes without lapsing into gibberish. Casting himself in the role of protector of the system, and hence, the president who headed it, Broder considered the Iran/contra revelations to be not just a well-deserved comeuppance for a group of politicians who behaved contemptuously toward the Constitution, but a "disaster ... and calamity for the nation." Thus he was particularly eager to sweep the entire matter under the rug. He did so again during the trial of Oliver North, as he wondered aloud in his syndicated column why, "we are going through this expensive legal exercise" when "clearly the courts do not lack work." Ignoring both the importance of completing the historical record on Iran-Contra as well as any "debt to society" owed by North for his crimes, Broder wondered "what more could be gained by sending [North] to Allenwood or one of the other federal prisons for white-collar prisons?" Historians might wish to examine that statement when searching for reasons why Ronald Reagan and George Bush consistently managed to evade responsibility for the actions of their own administration.
Broder proved no less indulgent to George Bush than he had to Reagan. During the 1989 Panama invasion, he referred to the signatories of (1/14/90) a letter to President Bush denouncing US violations of the U.N. Charter and OAS Agreement, as "69 left-wing politicians and activists"--which would have been news to former the late J. William Fulbright. Their arguments, he insisted were mere "nonsense" and "static on the left." Similarly, during the debate on the Gulf War, Broder mocked the Democratic opponents' "usual spectacle of disarray" in failing to give Bush immediate authority to fight (1/11/91), and continually accepting the Bush administration's phony pretenses of seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis. (8/19/90, 1/18/91, 4/10/91).
Bill Clinton, you may have guessed, enjoyed little such indulgence. While Clinton is leaving office as one of the most popular presidents of the past century, he is almost universally reviled among Beltway insiders. Broder's hatred and contempt for Clinton was slow to grow, but signs were evident even before the Lewinsky scandal eventually put him over the top. In co-authoring a book on the Clinton health care program with Haynes Johnson, in 1996, called The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point, Broder found himself angered and perplexed by what seemed to be the perpetual chaos that underlay almost everything the administration did. It was not an orderly White House like the ones that embarked on the Iran/contra scandal or engaged in the Panama and Persian Gulf wars.
Reflecting the innate conservatism of the insider establishment, Broder regretted that that "the Democratic Congress pulled Clinton to the left in 1993-94, to the detriment of their party." And while his observation was, in insider circles obvious as to be axiomatic, it was also false. Clinton dropped the stimulus package he promised in his campaign immediately upon taking office at Alan Greenspan's bequest with nary a peep from Congress. He pushed the costly ban on assault weapons in the crime bill over the objections of most in the party caucus. True, he pursued health care before welfare reform, which turned out to be a political error, but he was being pushed by the liberal senior Democratic senator from New York to do just the opposite. (Hillary was undoubtedly responsible for the timing of health care.) Clinton shoved NAFTA down the Democratic Congress's throats against their objections. And the debacle over gays in the military was hardly a sop to Congress but was foisted on Clinton by Sam Nunn and other conservatives in the military in order to undermine it. And for goodness sakes, Congress was hardly eager to embrace the tax increase upon which Clinton risked his political life approach. It passed by just one vote and cost many members their seats. It also turned out to be one of the most responsible and successful pieces of economic legislation in recent American history.
Broder also engages in some intellectually indefensible rewriting of history when he tried to blame Bill Clinton, rather than Newt Gingrich and the Republican congress for the government shutdown of 1995-1996. (8/26/98) According to Broder's interpretation, noted on The Daily Howler website, "Clinton forced exactly that kind of government crisis. He convinced the public he was fighting to save Medicare from the new GOP majority on Capitol Hill, and saddled the Republicans with blame for the shutdown." But "the dean" surely knew, when Congress and the White House can't agree on a budget, the problem is usually solved by a Continuing Resolution to keep the government running at current levels. But it was the Republicans, not Clinton, who refused to accept the traditional CR process. Instead they attached the entire text of their proposed new budget to it and simply invited Clinton to capitulate to program that would have cut Medicare funding by $240 billion as it gave the well off a tax break equal to approximately $270 billion. Contrary to Broder's false Republican spin, Clinton stood firm on behalf of the higher interests of the nation and was rewarded for it by a skyrocketing approval rating in everywhere, it seems, except in the Washington Beltway.
Though famous for his calm, cool demeanor, Broder's distaste for Clinton boiled into irrational anger during the Lewinsky Affair. Much of his ire, seemed to derive from a belief, implicit in a comment he made to Sally Quinn in The Washington Post, that Bill Clinton had no right to be in Washington as president, despite his having been elected to serve there twice by his fellow countrymen. "He came in here," Broder told Quinn, "and he trashed the place, and it's not his place." What right, the dean of pundits seems to be asking, does a mere president have to upset the comfortable mores of the establishment that has ruled the city virtually undisturbed for decades?
Broder was so enraged what he learned of the president's behavior that it led him to make arguments that are genuinely offensive to common sense. At one point, for instance, he tried to argue that Clinton's consensual sex with Monica and resultant dishonesties were somehow "worse" than Richard Nixon police-state tactics during Watergate. "Nixon's actions," he reasoned, "however neurotic and criminal, were motivated and connected to the exercise of presidential power. He knew the place he occupied and he was determined not to give it up to those he regarded as 'enemies.' " In other words, if a president uses state power to destroy his enemies, his behavior is ipso facto more honorable than one who falls victim to a personal weakness with no public implications whatever -- save those that derive from his desire to protect his honor and that of his family. Broder's argument is both morally and logically indefensible. His point seems to be that personal failures in a president are inexcusable, but the use of the means of the state to carry out his purpose, no matter how evil or nefarious, well, that's what politicians do. If you replace the word "Nixon" with the word "Stalin" or the word "Hitler," the meaning of his sentence would be unchanged.
Broder's energetic coverage of the 2,000 election reflected many of the same ideological biases and professional lapses that had characterized his writings about Clinton. Here again, he reflected an establishment bias toward George W. Bush. Any candidate who runs for president by promising, however generally, to "unite" people in Washington and "end the bickering" is shooting an arrow directly into the pundit's heart that could hardly be better aimed by Cupid himself. "The public has had it with stalemate in Washington," failing to posit any evidence.
While Broder may have had a few concerns about Bush's relative lack of experience, but these vanished with the naming of a Broder hero, Dick Cheney, to the ticket. (July 26, 2000; Page A27) Again, Broder insisted on dismissing the substance of anything Richard (or his wife, Lynne) actually said, in favor of the genial Reaganesque style in which he said it. "Democrats will have no difficulty finding rhetoric and policy stands by both Cheneys that will raise liberal hackles," he noted. "But his manner gives him immunity from the extremist label. Voters who saw his televised briefings during the Persian Gulf War remember the calm voice and thoughtful expression that are his natural style." By choosing a man whom Broder considered a "a grownup," to be his vice president, Broder wrote, Bush "gave evidence of his own sense of responsibility."
Repeatedly during the campaign, Broder filed as if dictating from Bush/Cheney talking points. Broder also accepted at face value Bush's claim that "in a Bush presidency, abortion would not be outlawed ... until a lot of people change their minds." But how to square that with Bush's desire to appoint justices who emulate his heroes Clarence Thomas and Anton Scalia? Perhaps wisely, Broder does not bother to try. "Bush makes no more verbal mistakes than most of us do," Broder also insisted, though the falsity of this statement literally speaks for itself. "("Reading is the basics for all learning"; "It is not Reaganesque to support a tax plan that is Clinton in nature''; "I understand small business growth. I was one.") Meanwhile the famously conscientious reporter repeated the hoary old chestnut about Gore that he grew up in the "swank Fairfax hotel." In fact there was nothing "swank" about this extremely modestly priced residential hotel when the Gores levied there. Broder attacked Gore's campaign for allowing "a man with a genuine history as a New Democrat to appear, at times, an old-fashioned liberal," and for "exploiting the hoariest of Democratic arguments: Don't let Republicans take your Social Security away." Never mind the fact that Bush's plan really did constitute a serious threat to the future of Social Security, owing to its double-counting arithmetic. Once again, substance has no place in these discussions. (11/03/00)
Broder also demonstrated a surprising sloppiness in his convention coverage that would not have been accepted from any cub reporter on the Post's staff. In a front-page story on the closing of the convention, Broder reported said of the "mostly liberal delegates," that, "most will leave Los Angeles cautiously optimistic that the election can be won. But they are not kidding themselves that the fight will be easy." Here Broder is engaging in that age old pundit trick of attributing his own views to thousands of people -- though he is doing so in the news pages, not the editorials. But whatever page it was on, for his statement to be journalistically defensible, Broder would have had to interview a representative sampling of all the delegates for whom he claimed to speak as they left the convention. He would have had to question them in some depth about a) whether they were mostly liberal; b) whether they were cautiously optimistic; and c) whether they were fooling themselves. While such a massive reportorial undertaking is at least theoretically possible, I would be willing to be a year a year of my salary against a year of Broder's that it did not happen. In fact, Broder quoted only one delegate to back up his assertion; former governor of Tennessee Ned Ray McWherter, who does not exactly fit the "mostly liberal" label, I would imagine, even by Broder's own definition, though he did appear 'cautiously optimistic.'
To be fair, Broder was, if anything, overly generous to the insurgent Green campaign of Ralph Nader, paying tribute to this "collection of oddballs," as having run the single best campaign of 2000. This sounds surprising, but it was hardly a unique position within the establishment. After all, no less a personage than George Will advised conservatives to support the Nader campaign in the hopes of destroying the Democratic party as a force in future elections for years to come.
During the election crisis, Broder made a few more gaffes that, again, almost perfectly reflected Washington's own house of mirrored wisdom. An alarmed Broder wrote, "This nation has rarely appeared more divided than it does right now," going so far in another column to compare the election counting crisis to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, making this Broder's "saddest Thanksgiving in 27 years." (Nov.21) The facts were, however, that while Broder's sadness was no doubt genuine, the rest of the country was doing just fine. Nobody seemed to care much for Bush or Gore in the first place. It was only the denizens of the inner Beltway who seemed unable to stand the suspense. Opinion poll after opinion poll at the time of Broder's writings, emphasized the public's desire for an "accurate" result over a "fast" one, and demonstrated no particular concern over the delay.
Broder's primary complaint about the 2000 election crisis was that of the typical Washington fixer. "All that was needed," he wrote, "was an agreement between the rivals on how the tie would be broken. But that never happened. The necessary phone call was never made. Instead, both of them immediately began deploying the unholy trinity of contemporary American politics -- lawyers, campaign consultants and media advisers -- and set out to win it for themselves." Broder does not bother to explain just what that agreement might have contained had the phone call been made. Rather he just assumes that all such differences between the two parties can be worked out by the pros regardless of their substance, which in this case, encompasses who will be the next president. (What's a few hundred votes between gentleman, anyway?) This argument, moreover, ought to cause Broder more discomfort than he evinces. After all, a man who has been crusading for strongly identified political parties as the primary vehicles to conduct American politics can hardly be surprised when those political parties act like political parties -- that is, putting their own self-interest before that of the nation as defined by nonpartisan pundit/wise men like David Broder.
In any case, nobody is saying that David Broder is a bad man or a bad reporter. He is neither. It's just that no one (save the late, great Izzy Stone) is immune to the ideological virus that strikes long-time denizens of Insiderdom. Not even someone like Broder who conscientiously reports around it and publicly rails against it. Speaking at Harvard, Broder took a moment at the close of his remarks to praise his recently deceased colleague at the Post, White House reporter Ann Devroy. Devroy was a wonderfully old-fashioned reporter who smoked and cursed and took no crap from anyone. She was also a terrific journalist. Borrowing from another tribute to his friend, Broder spoke movingly of the tough-talking journalist's "persistence required to strip the bark off the White House publicity tree," but also her "avid interest in understanding the institution she covered, including the rhythms of its operations over time. She respected the people who worked there, including the president. But she never let that respect turn into awe that prevented her from putting real pressure on them to disclose what they were thinking and doing."
In fact, while Ann Devroy was undoubtedly a great reporter, she also felt free to violate the most basic rules that David Broder would insist separate reporters from "Insiders." In an incident reported in George Stephanopoulos' memoirs, Devroy -- no doubt out of charity and human kindness -- intervened in a story to help the White House from screwing itself. When, following his own grand jury testimony on Whitewater, Stephanopoulos told Devroy that the White House was planning to issue a statement giving him, and aide Harold Ickes its "full support," Devroy responded in a decidedly unjournalist-like fashion. "Don't do that, George," she advised her subject. "It's going way too far; you'll pop this story out of control." Again, if Devroy, who like Broder, was clearly the class of her field, feels free to trample over this line, then just imagine what interventions are being undertaken by journalists with less scruple and devotion to their craft.
Broder's own tenacity in sticking -- against all evidence -- to the schoolboy myths of American politics provides much of the attraction of both his personality and his prose, but also its fatal flaw. A large portion of the split between the Beltway insiderdom and the rest of the nation on the impeachment crisis might be explained by the fact that most Americans do not expect much from their politicians in the way of personal morality in the first place. Insiders like to think of themselves as the representatives of a genuinely democratic nation that lives up to all the propaganda about the American system. Of course this is nonsense. The power of money alone is enough to ensure that democracy does work too effectively to mess up the cozy game of politics inside the Beltway, but so too do personal ambition, duplicity, mendacity, inertia and in some cases, plain foolishness. When, in 1996, Broder completed his in-depth investigation of the inner workings of Congress works for his 700 page tome, The System, he was asked by C-SPAN's Brian Lamb about what surprised him the most about what he learned. Broder responded, "Very prominent committee and subcommittee chairmen who were nominally trying to move this process forward, but were actually so opposed to what the president of their party had offered that they were quite willing to see it sabotaged. That came as a surprise to me."
Here is a reporter who has covered presidents and Congress since the Eisenhower administration. He is the most admired, respected and emulated man in the entire business and yet, after more than four decades into the job, he admits to being shocked over the fact that politicians say one thing publicly and do another privately. Such naivete in the face of a half-century of evidence may be a rather attractive quality in a human being. But it is rather odd -- not to say inexplicable -- in a man who is the leading light in a profession that holds the constitutional charge of official watchdog of the integrity of our political system.