Can we stop the David Broder hagiography before it starts?

I suppose not. Much like when Tim Russert died, the encomia come in quick and heavy, the deceased being by all accounts basically nice and decent men, friends of and to the establishment. But this makes neither of them into more than perfectly good conveyors of consensus. There’s no shame in that, particularly, but let’s not make either into more than they were.

From Richard Kaiser’s panegyric in the Post, a Broder quote: “the American people don’t always have all the information in their hands, but their judgment is just about always sharp. You’ll find that they don’t make a hell of a lot of mistakes.” To which one can only reply, “Aw, shucks.” I mean, Norman Rockwell’s great, and let’s all Leave it to Beaver, but the American people make a hell of a lot of mistakes (as do people everywhere). For someone as well-informed as Broder supposedly was to suggest otherwise is pure pandering. Kaiser paints this as a refreshing lack of cynicism. But soft-minded praise of the American people is supposed to be a politician’s job, not a reporter’s.

Here are a few bits from “What it Takes”, Richard Ben Kramer’s epic of the 1988 political campaign. Kramer can stake a legitimate claim to being the best political reporter of his generation, and had this to say about Broder:

Wait—who was everybody? Well, when you talk about the pack, you first have to mention the Leader of the Pack, David Broder, who had attained that status by thirty years’ work as a Washington reporter, and lately as a columnist for the Post. He was the biggest of the big-feet … balding, bespectacled, soft-spoken, kindly, a thoroughgoing gentleman, well informed, hardworking, fair-minded, and, in general, exemplary—which is exactly the point.

Because that was the year Broder wrote the book Behind the Front Page, and the very first story in that book was about campaigns—how mistakes in coverage are made. Specifically, the story was about 1972, when Ed Muskie cried (or didn’t cry) one day in Manchester, New Hampshire, and his campaign slid straight into the shithouse after that. Part of the story was missed. Broder said, because no one knew until the next year that the whole scenario was launched by a Nixon campaign “dirty trick.” But at the same time, Broder defended his coverage (and that of his friends), which concentrated on the crying, the way Muskie came apart at the seams. Why was it right? Why was Broder so sure? Because everybody (secretly) knew that Muskie was wound too tight—the guy was weird!

All of us suspected that under the calm, placid, reflective face that Muskie liked to show the world, there was a volcano waiting to erupt. And so we treated Manchester as a political Mt. St. Helens explosion, and, in our perception, an event that would permanently alter the shape of Mt. Muskie.”

(Alter it they did—they took the sorry sonofabitch down!)
In the summer of 1987, while Bush reck-reated, David Broder wondered in print whether Bush was too much “an innocent” to survive the slaughter of a campaign. The Karacter Kops weighed in with profiles—mostly following the lead of the Chief Majorette: Is George Bush Too Nice to Be President?” … They all stressed the privilege, the security of his youth, all the friends he made at school …

None of this is to take away from the fact that a man died today, a man who had a family who loved him, and to whom condolences are due. But, if he was as scrupulous a reporter as his burgeoning legend has him being, he would want us to point out a couple of episodes from his later days:

He was, in Kramer’s words, the “biggest of the big-feet”. But let’s not make him out to have been anything more than that.

One Response to Can we stop the David Broder hagiography before it starts?

  1. konstantin says:

    Incidentally, “The System” was required reading for my high school civics class, and though I haven’t re-read it since then, I remember the book as being very good.

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