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Broader, Not Broder 
Published: Jan 20 2004

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

As the campaign season heats up, one can't help but wonder: do we really need David Broder to referee events?

Recently, the Washington Post reporter and muller, covering what must be his 7,865th presidential primary, did what he so often does: he got in an ever-so-polite tizzy about someone not following protocol. His target: none other than Howard Dean, who of course worries a lot of conventional people.

Broder filed a dispatch that read like a warning to the Democrats—that this particular grey sheep was straying too far from the flock. The following is typical. "Dean has found so many ways in a short time to set people's teeth on edge—with his comments about the Confederate flag, about his struggle to bring himself to talk religion in the South, about his variant positions on Medicare and trade and other issues—that this is clearly a pattern."

Well, so too can a pattern be evinced in the coverage provided by Broder—and, for that matter, so many of his jaundiced colleagues on the campaign bus. Instead of celebrating candor, they censure it. The United States is supposed to be a place where we say what we mean, even if we sometimes offend a few sensibilities. Instead of reminding us that an unrehearsed president would be refreshing, Broder and company call for better self-control and more scripting.

Broder's personal approach involves a lot of quotations from both political insiders and supposedly thoughtful men- and women-on-the-street—who often repeat judgments they heard from the media in the first place. He quotes a Des Moines lawyer: "It bothers me that [Dean] says he is for open government, but he closes up the records of his own administration. I think, too, he's got that small-state psychology of thinking what works well there will work well everywhere. The country is not like Vermont."

Broder doesn't explain that the records flap has never revealed any scandal about Dean, that Dean has offered credible explanations for not releasing correspondence and that the whole issue pales beside the Bush administration's unsurpassed zeal for keeping its own truly crucial decision-making out of the public eye. By quoting this lawyer, he recycles and reinforces this so-far inconsequential stain. Besides, is New York City like America? Arkansas? Georgia? By this standard, would Rudy Giuliani, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter be automatically disqualified for national office?

Even when Broder ostensibly is just "reporting,"—letting people speak for themselves—he often leaves you with a bad taste for Howard Dean. He introduces us to Sally Troxell, who"first heard Howard Dean being interviewed on a Sunday morning TV show while cooking bacon in her kitchen." She describes how she was struck by Dean's 'realness', and how she was impressed when she later engaged Dean in a face-to-face discussion of how to treat stock options on corporate books. The denouement comes with Troxell's revelation that Dean evokes a feeling she hasn't had in 35 years:

"Yes," she said. "Since SDS," referring to the Students for a Democratic Society, the New Left campus organization of the 1960s.

Though Broder closes with a declaration of delight with Iowa voters' candor, the reader surely comes away with this thought: Howard Dean's supporters are old radicals, i.e., he's George McGovern redux. The most troubling thing is this: what Broder mentions but does not focus on is how Dean and the woman disagreed—on guns (he had a more conservative position) and even on those stock options. Dean had a more conservative, more pro-business stance and he justified it by explaining how crucial stock options were for start-up ventures. Actually, that nuanced position was really interesting—possibly revealing the kind of logical, balanced thinking and ability to explain things to people of all philosophical stripes that makes someone a great leader. This, however, was a conclusion Broder did not take care to draw.

I enjoy reading Broder's columns. They're full of admiration for the common person, full of wisdom-spouting donut-dunkers and earnest steelworkers. This is enjoyable color reporting, but it in no way begins to approximate the kind of sophisticated analysis from a venerated and privileged essayist that America needs as it lurches from crisis to crisis.

In a recent column, Broder paid tribute to "the great liberal columnist" Mary McGrory, who on account of ill health has finally unpacked her campaign suitcase. He correctly labels her "surely the most elegant newspaper writer Americans have read over the last half-century."

Broder, to be sure, is a pleasant fellow and a competent reporter, but he is certainly no Mary McGrory. Almost exactly four years ago to the day, Mary McGrory was out there on the hustings. But her pieces, though they too featured the voices of ordinary voters, felt fundamentally different from Broder's.

Out of the presumably hundreds of comments she sifted, we heard from a man who said that Gore was "terminally tarnished by Clinton, " Bush "attractive, but I don't believe a lot of what he says," McCain likable but perhaps not the best at building consensus, and Bill Bradley "well intentioned but na¤ve." Another told her that McCain's political reform platform "doesn't ring true" given the candidate's own acceptance of corporate funding, and that Bush gave him "the feeling of being steamrolled." One voter who had met Bush several times seemed to have cottoned on to Bush's highly selective charm, declaring that "with all his money and all his big-shot backers, when he shakes hands with you, he's looking elsewhere."

McGrory had no trouble reminding readers of the fundamental choices. "New Hampshire's dilemma was poignantly expressed in a [voter's] question.: 'Should we vote for the very best man or one we think can win?'" McGrory wrote like someone who understood what her job was. Not just handicapping a race, but really helping us understand which contenders—the underdogs, the troublemakers, the short-tempered, the lot—most deserve our cheers.

 




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