The PJ Tatler

Broder Redux

I think the passing of one of the 20th century’s most influential columnists deserves a little more than a link pointing to his obit. So I will pick up where my friend Charlie Martin left off and add a few reflections on the death of a great man.

Indeed, there are no more “influential” columnists. The democratic and leveling nature of the internet killed that idea. While we gained much with this seminal change, too often, we fail to ask what we lost.

David Broder could kill a political career with a word. He could make one the same way. Some will rightly criticize that any one man should have that kind of power, but that was the way the media universe functioned for much of the 20th century. There were three TV networks and a handful of syndicated political columnists who shaped the nation’s agenda, policed the Congress, refereed elections, and in their own way, believed they were being fair to all. Compared to the shrieking harpies who write for the Post and the Times today, they seem the model of sobriety and balance in retrospect.

In Broder’s defense, he took this awesome responsibility with great seriousness — as did the other high priests of the political column who joined Broder at the top.

Broder at the Post, Reston at the Times, Evans-Novak, Anderson, Rowan, — at the height of their power in the 1970’s, they brought down a president, broke stories of national import, acted as a sounding board for the great and powerful, and wrote columns of such penetrating insight and skill that they were the first read every morning for political junkies all across the United States. Those that followed these giants — the Krugman’s, the Dowd’s, the Cohen’s — are a pale echo of their talent and stature.

Broder’s influence waned and he went into semi-retirement. But like all great columnists, he could still rip off a 750 word gem, saying twice as much in that restricted medium as any blogger writing today using 3 times the verbiage. Clarity of thought, economy of words, and sharp, incisive commentary is a difficult task to accomplish 2 times a week but Broder pulled it off with seeming ease. He was able to master the idiom of the column while contributing to the national conversation on the issues of the day.

In the charged up, poisonously partisan atmosphere of today, Broder was like a fish out of water. Reasonableness didn’t fit the temper of the times. Despite his 5 decades of contributions to the political conversation, David Broder, at the end of his life, found himself getting little or no respect from his putative successors. He wasn’t partisan enough, bombastic enough, mean enough to fit into what the political commentariat has become. A pity that. More Broders and fewer Kos’s would go a long way toward getting us to begin to address the enormous problems facing the country today.

Broder had this to say at his Pulitzer acceptance speech in 1973:

Instead of promising “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, I would like to see us say – over and over, until the point has been made – that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past twenty-four hours – distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias, by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour. If we labeled the product accurately, then we could immediately add: But it’s the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected and updated version.

Such honesty and integrity will be missed.