The "best of the best"?
Washington Post reporter and columnist David Broder is widely known as the "dean" of political journalists. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has been named "Best Newspaper Political Reporter" by the Washington Journalism Review, and ranked as "Washington's most highly regarded columnist" by editorial page editors and by members of Congress in a Washingtonian magazine survey.
According to his Washington Week biography, Broder "has been called 'the high priest of political journalism' by author Timothy Crouse, 'the unchallenged "dean" of what many political reporters like to think is their "priesthood" ' by U.S. News, and 'probably the most respected and influential political journalist in the country' by columnist Richard Reeves. Esquire said Broder 'has few challengers as the most influential political journalist in the country,' and media critic Ron Powers on CBS-TV said 'Broder is not famous like Peter Jennings, he's not glamorous like Tom Brokaw, but underneath that brown suit there is a superman.'"
The accolades for Broder have shown no sign of slowing down in recent years: his colleagues routinely speak of him in the hushed, awed tone they typically reserve for John McCain and Joe Lieberman. NBC's Tim Russert -- himself often described as the nation's most influential journalist -- calls Broder "the most objective and respected reporter I know in this town." In 2005, Russert praised Broder's "superb" analysis and noted that he had appeared more often on Meet the Press than any other guest -- nearly 400 times in all. Just this week, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza placed Broder alongside the late David Halberstam as "titans of journalism." Conservative pundit Bill Kristol says things like "I disagree with David Broder on this, which means I'm probably wrong..." While still working at The Washington Post, Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei wrote "Broder is the best of the best. His columns are fair and illuminating."
It is clear what political journalists say about Broder. But what does Broder's exalted position atop the media food chain say about the state of political journalism?
Broder's assault this week on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid touched off a new round of criticism of Broder's work. Twice this week, Broder lashed out at Reid over Reid's comments about the Iraq war. On Monday, Broder suggested that Senate Democrats might dump Reid as their leader, telling XM Radio listeners that "the Democrats are gonna have to have a little caucus and decide how much further they want to carry Harry Reid," accusing Reid of a "bumbling performance," and saying Reid is an embarrassment to the party. Broder went on to claim that "every six weeks or so there's another episode where he has to apologize for the way in which he has bungled the Democratic case."
As Think Progress noted, "It's apparently irrelevant [to Broder] that Reid's views are shared by President Bush's regular military adviser Henry Kissinger, or senior U.S. military officials, or the majority of the American people."
And Greg Sargent reported, "[I]t looks as if Broder completely butchered his facts in asserting that Reid has had to apologize 'every six weeks.' I just checked with Reid's office, and they told me in no uncertain terms that Reid has not apologized for any of his remarks during his first four months or so as majority leader. He certainly hasn't apologized for the 'war is lost' comment."
But Broder was just getting started. In his April 26 Post column, Broder compared Reid to embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, claiming that Reid, like Gonzales, is "a continuing embarrassment thanks to his amateurish performance" and asserting that there is a "long list of senators of both parties who are ready for these two springtime exhibitions of ineptitude to end."
But Broder didn't name a single senator of either party to support his contention. Indeed, the entire Senate Democratic Caucus responded by sending a letter to the Post in which they praised Reid as an "extraordinary leader who has effectively guided the new Democratic majority through these first few months with skill and aplomb."
In claiming that Reid is as much an embarrassment as Gonzales, Broder cheated a bit: He not only distorted Reid's comments, he glossed over Gonzales' failings -- a complete description of which would have made the comparison laughable. Broder made only passing mention of Gonzales, downplaying his involvement in the scandal surrounding the Bush administration's purge of federal prosecutors, and omitting any mention of other Gonzales controversies.
In fact, Broder has written nearly nothing about Gonzales since he became attorney general, despite his involvement in several high-profile controversies. In his March 29 column, Broder wrote that Gonzales "has given his president plenty of reasons to fire him," noting "the Justice Department ... has been reduced in stature and has lost the trust of both the public and its career employees under Gonzales." But Broder didn't bother to explain what Gonzales has done to reduce the DOJ's stature and erode public trust in the Department. Instead, he took a stroll down memory lane, devoting the bulk of the column to Ronald Reagan's decision not to fire his budget director.
And that was the first column Broder had written that so much as mentioned Gonzales in more than a year.
This "dean" of the Washington Press corps, this "titan of journalism," this "superb" analyst, this "most influential political journalist in the country," this "superman" thinks that the attorney general of the United States should be fired; that he has reduced the Justice Department in stature and caused both the public and career DOJ employees to lose trust in the Department.
But this superman won't tell you why. He believes the attorney general -- one of the most important public officials in the nation -- has violated the public trust and should be fired. But he won't use his influence and credibility to explain his case. He won't tell his readers what one of their most powerful government officials is doing wrong. Not even a hint.
On October 7, 1969, The Washington Post published a lament by David Broder that the nasty anti-war activists were out to "break" an unfairly maligned president named Nixon:
The likelihood is great that they will succeed again, for breaking a President is, like most feats, easier to accomplish the second time around. Once learned, the techniques can readily be applied as often as desired - even when the circumstances seem less than propitious. No matter that this President is pulling troops out of Vietnam, while the last one was sending them in; no matter that in 1969 the casualties and violence are declining, while in 1968 they were on the rise. Men have learned to break a President, and, like any discovery that imparts power to its possessors, the mere availability of this knowledge guarantees that it will be used.
It may seem unfair to take advantage of the benefit of hindsight to note the absurdity of defending Richard Nixon from unfair attacks. But that probably wasn't the first time Broder displayed highly questionable judgment, and it certainly wasn't the last.
One of the most revealing statements Broder -- or, perhaps, any political journalist -- has ever made came in 1998. In November 1998, after nearly a year of public opinion polls showing, basically, that people liked Bill Clinton and wanted the Lewinsky investigation to just go away, and of the Washington journalist/pundit crowd vehemently disagreeing, the Post published an article by Sally Quinn attempting to explain the disconnect (which lives on to this day).
Quinn famously quoted Broder explaining why the "Washington Establishment" -- which under anybody's definition includes both Broder and Quinn -- was so angry at Clinton: "He came in here and he trashed the place ... and it's not his place."
Broder's implication -- that Washington was his place, not the president's -- is arrogant enough. But Broder's other comment speaks volumes: "The judgment is harsher in Washington. We don't like being lied to."
Try to imagine what would happen if, say, John Kerry made a comment like that. Just try. Try to imagine what the nation's pundit class and political reporters would say about John Kerry if he said that, unlike those immoral rubes out in the rest of the country, Washingtonians don't like being lied to. He would be relentlessly flayed as an arrogant elitist. And Broder would likely lead the charge, declaring that Kerry's "arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself."
But John Kerry didn't say it. David Broder did. That's what Broder thinks: He and his Beltway buddies, unlike the rest of you chumps, don't like being lied to. Keep that in mind the next time Broder criticizes a politician for being "arrogant" or "elitist."
You won't have to wait long. Broder can't seem to resist portraying progressives as arrogant elitists. Last year, for example, he described anti-war Democrats as "elitist" -- despite a majority of Americans agreeing with the stance. Being against a war that a majority of your fellow citizens also oppose isn't "elitist." Suggesting that you and your Beltway pals are uniquely offended by lying -- that's elitist.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Broder used his perch at The Washington Post to heckle Al Gore for telling the American people, in detail, what he would do as president. No, we are not making this up. Broder described Gore's convention speech as "a request to step inside a seminar room, listen closely and take notes," adding, "Never has a candidate provided more detailed information on his autobiography and the program initiatives he plans. One more paragraph and he would have been onto the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. ... [M]y, how he went on about what he wants to do as president. ... For all his Washington experience, Gore does not seem to have grasped Bush's point that a chief executive is smart to focus on a few key reforms, rather than dissipating his leadership on a crammed agenda. Or perhaps Gore just felt it necessary to throw a bone to every one of the constituency groups in the Democratic Party."
Broder did write of his "hunch" that Gore's "approach was highly effective -- for what Gore wanted to do." (Indeed, as Bob Somerby has noted, the speech was a success, and Gore's standing in the polls improved afterward.) But Broder also made clear his lack of interest in Gore's details and plans: "I have to confess, my attention wandered as he went on through page after page of other swell ideas, and somewhere between hate crimes legislation and a crime victim's constitutional amendment, I almost nodded off." Even the headline on Broder's column -- "Gore tells all" -- seemed to be a shot at the vice president.
By contrast, Broder had nothing but praise for George W. Bush's 2000 convention speech:
Lifted by an acceptance speech of exceptional eloquence and powered by a party enjoying unusual unity, Texas Gov. George W. Bush embarks on the final stage of his quest for the White House with prospects that almost measure up to his brimming self-confidence.
[T]he acceptance speech he delivered Thursday night was a success.
It contained almost everything good political rhetoric can provide -- humor, personal warmth, effective jibes at the opposition and glimpses of what his father, the former president, used to call "the vision thing." And Bush had rehearsed it enough to make it his own.
Reading Broder's reaction to Bush's speech, you wouldn't have known whether Bush made mention of a single policy, proposal, or issue in his speech. You would, however, have learned that "Bush is seen by the public as a stronger leader -- and, by almost any measure, a man more likely to help cure the poisonous partisanship of the capital city."
With a superman like David Broder leading the fight for less substance and fewer details, nobody should have been surprised by Thursday night's Democratic debate, in which moderator Brian Williams asked candidates about haircuts and horse-race polls, and repeatedly dumbed down the debate with questions instructing the candidates to raise their hands in response, or to "say a name or to pass." No details, please -- our titans of journalism might nod off. Just raise your hand and move on.
For those (progressives, at least) who do dare offer details and facts, Broder is quick to deride them as know-it-alls. "Gore tells all," Broder mocked in 2000. Then, in 2006, he wrote, "Bush was elected twice, over Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, whose know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself." That same year, he similarly took Hillary Clinton to task:
For those who remember the former first lady's effort at comprehensive health-care reform in 1993-94, the scope of her energy initiative is a throwback to those days. She called for the creation of a Strategic Energy Fund, financed in part by taxes on oil company profits, and a National Institute of Energy, with a multibillion-dollar bankroll for financing innovative conservation and efficiency plans.
She offered her proposal with the same self-assurance that she had brought to the health-care debate -- a tone that suggested that "if you just listen carefully to all the things I can tell you on the basis of the study I have given this subject, you will know exactly what to do."
Well, at least Broder is consistent: he doesn't like "know-it-alls"; too many details, and he's bound to fall asleep.
Well, maybe "consistent" isn't the word. Earlier this month, he wrote:
Obama's soaring rhetoric has left some of his audiences hungry for more substance from the senator. That was the case at a March 24 health-care forum in Las Vegas, where Obama promised to achieve universal coverage as president but had to admit that -- unlike former senator John Edwards of North Carolina -- he had not yet formulated a plan for getting there. And it was the case again Wednesday, when he was one of seven candidates addressing several thousand members of the Building and Construction Trades, AFL-CIO, at their convention in Washington.
Got that? Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton? Know-it-alls. Barack Obama? Light on substance. George Bush? Just right.
Like Brian Williams, we're running short on time, so we'll move to the lightning round:
- In 1998, Broder suggested President Clinton should resign, apparently because he "he may well have lied to a federal grand jury." Read that again: Broder wasn't even sure if he thought Clinton lied to a federal grand jury, but thought he should resign. Because maybe he lied. About an affair.
But in 2006, Broder wrote that President Bush "has proved to be lawless and reckless. He started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt and repeatedly defied the Constitution." Did he think this "lawless and reckless" president who "repeatedly defied the Constitution" should resign? If he thought so, he did not tell us. Broder believes his president is a lawless man who repeatedly defies the Constitution -- yet this superman, this titan, this great and influential man will not say it is time for the president to step down. Now, if Bush "may well have lied" about sex ... then, perhaps this titan would be stirred to speak out a little more boldly.
- Broder has repeatedly and disingenuously defended his window-peering coverage of the Clintons' marriage, despite having previously denounced such journalism. He hasn't entirely abandoned his earlier stance, though: when asked if he would write a similar article about Republican candidates, Broder replied: "Why would I write such an article? I know of no occasion for that." He is, however, "the most objective and respected reporter" Tim Russert knows.
- In 2002, when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a prominent leader in the Republican Party, was forced to step down from his leadership position after suggesting the country would have been better off had we elected a segregationist president in 1948, David Broder explained that the "losers" in the matter were ... Democrats, because four years earlier, they hadn't impeached President Clinton.
- In 2005, Broder blamed Democrats -- who were in the minority in both the House and the Senate -- for Congress' failure to conduct oversight hearings. Which, of course, they didn't have the power to do, being in the minority and all. Then, in March 2007 -- just two months into Democratic control of Congress -- Broder complained that the House had "slowed to a crawl," doing little other than "filling time with investigations." Later that month, Broder claimed "Democrats find it easier to investigate than to legislate. ... Accountability is certainly important, but Democrats must know that people were really voting for action on Iraq, health care, immigration, energy and a few other problems. Investigations are useful, but only legislation on big issues changes lives." In yet another March column, Broder warned, "It seems doubtful that Democrats can help themselves ... with more investigations ... At some point, Democrats have to give people something to vote for. People already know what they're against -- the Republicans."
So, when Democrats didn't control Congress, David Broder thought that oversight hearings were good, and blamed Democrats -- who lacked the authority to conduct such hearings -- for their absence. Now that Democrats control Congress, Broder warns Democrats not to conduct oversight investigations.
- In 2005, Broder actually touted President Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina. 'Nuff said.
- In December 2006, Broder praised Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as "stalwarts of economic and national security policy." No, really.
- In 2006, he called on journalists to apologize to Karl Rove for suggesting he was part of the campaign to out Valerie Plame, despite the fact that ... Karl Rove was part of the campaign to out Valerie Plame.
- In August 2006, Broder warned that if Joe Lieberman was defeated in the Connecticut Senate primary, it would portend general election disaster for the Democrats. Lieberman lost that primary, and yet the Democrats thoroughly trounced the GOP in the fall.
- In June 2006, Broder criticized Hillary Clinton for her "shortsightedness" after she had criticized the media for kowtowing to the Bush administration. In arguing that Clinton was off-base, Broder noted a "front-page story" in that morning's Post about the Downing Street Memos, concluding, "Who does she think is doing this work if not investigative reporters? Give us a break." Broder's invocation of a Washington Post article about the Downing Street Memos as evidence that the Post has aggressively reported stories that are bad for Bush seems disingenuous given that even Post Ombudsman Michael Getler and reporters Howard Kurtz and Jefferson Morley acknowledged that the paper was slow to cover the Memo story.
- Last September, Broder wrote a column ostensibly about the "moral scale" of the debate over torture that somehow managed to avoid his own newspaper's report, three days earlier, that the U.S. had "secretly whisked" an innocent Canadian citizen to Syria, where he was beaten, forced to make a false confession, and "kept in a coffin-size dungeon for 10 months." Instead, as we explained at the time, "while paying lip service to the 'moral scale,' Broder suggested to the reader that he is kept awake at night by the 'loud' and 'vituperative' statements of bloggers and Democratic congressmen -- rather than by the thought that the Bush administration's pro-torture stance not only results in inhumane treatment of those we torture, but increases the risk of our own troops facing similar treatment from foreign regimes." In that column, as he so often does, Broder expressed confidence that the likes of Joe Lieberman and John McCain -- "these are not ordinary men," Broder stressed -- would step in and put an end to U.S. torture.
- Earlier this year, Broder claimed that The New York Times is "not normally solicitous of Republicans' feelings." Broder's attack on the Times was not only a pitch-perfect rendition of a common GOP talking point, it was also clearly false: The Times actually has a "conservative beat" ... but no "progressive beat." That's small change, however, compared to Broder's recent slur that Democrats have little "sympathy for" the military. If this whole "dean of political reporters" thing doesn't work out, Broder can always start a new career as a speechwriter for Vice President Dick Cheney.
- Earlier this month, the Post was criticized for running an op-ed by Liz* Cheney in which she echoed attacks on Nancy Pelosi made by her father, the vice president, without disclosing the relationship between the two. Despite the fact that the lack of disclosure was apparently a violation of Post policy, Broder declared that it would have been "gratuitous" to include such a disclosure.
- In mid-February, Broder predicted a political comeback by President Bush, declaring "he is demonstrating political smarts that even his critics have to acknowledge." Instead, Bush's poll ratings (28 percent approval in the latest Harris poll) remain so dismal that conservative columnists have taken to arguing that the fact that Bush has spent a year in the mid-30s is a good thing, as it demonstrates consistency. No, really. On March 30, Broder was asked about that prediction during an online discussion:
Seattle: Remember your column about President Bush being on the verge of regaining his political footing? Isn't it about time you revisited that tidbit of political prognostication?
washingtonpost.com: Bush Regains His Footing (Post, Feb. 16)
David S. Broder: I remember that column well. It is time to revisit and revise. Stay tuned.
Bush remains as popular as a kick in the head, but rather than revising his absurd prediction, as promised, Broder declares Harry Reid a political incompetent.
Think about where the Democrats were when Harry Reid became their leader in the Senate. Think about where they are now. Think about David Broder's recent prediction of a Bush comeback; his touting of Bush's response to Katrina; his praise for Cheney and Rumsfeld; his claims that journalists should apologize to Karl Rove for saying he did something he did; his call for fewer details and less discussion of policy from candidates; his defense of Richard Nixon; his prediction that if Joe Lieberman lost his primary, Democrats would perform poorly in the general election; his double standards in his coverage of candidates personal lives; his suggestion that Bill Clinton should have resigned because he "may well have lied" about sex; his unwillingness to say that a "lawless" president who "repeatedly defied the Constitution" should step down; his elitist and arrogant statement that he and his pals care more about being lied to than you do; his hypocritical statement that Kerry's and Gore's "arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself."
Think about all that, and ask yourself: If you were David Broder, wouldn't you -- just maybe -- think twice before accusing someone else of "bumbling" and "ineptitude"?
Correction: The original text of this column incorrectly stated that Mary Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney's other daughter, had written the Washington Post op-ed. In fact, Liz Cheney was the author of the op-ed. Media Matters for America regrets the error.