Broader, Not Broder
Published: Jan 20 2004
|New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning
journalist who covers politics and
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
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.