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Remembering David Broder

Thursday, 10 Mar 2011 07:23 AM

By Lowell Ponte

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On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that its longtime reporter and columnist David Broder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dean of the Washington press corps, had just died from diabetes at age 81.

Broder began his capital career in 1955 with the Congressional Quarterly, but his Chicago-bred liberal establishment views quickly found favor with The New York Times, where he did freelance work. In 1966 he moved to The Washington Post, which became his journalistic home for the rest of his life.

Broder was never "relentlessly centrist," as The New Yorker's far left commentator Hendrik Hertzberg once described him. He was an old-fashioned liberal who perfectly embodied the values of one-party Democratic congressional control in an earlier Washington, D.C.

He shared the values of Democrats, not out of today's cheap partisanship or leftist ideology but simply because to him it seemed to be the ordained order. Democrats and liberalism were to rule, but "Democrat lite" Republicans could also be respected.

David Broder wanted things run by career professionals, by an establishment. He was an elitist. He believed that a liberal elite should control our politics, and a liberal elite should control the news.

What he hated was to see his liberal friends shoved aside by an upstart conservative movement, first under President Ronald Reagan and more recently by Newt Gingrich and by today's tea party movement. And what David Broder hated most of all was something created a century ago by the progressive movement: the power of the people in many states to bypass the ruling political elites via ballot measures, initiative, referendum, and recall.

In his last book, published in 2000, "Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money," Broder described ballot initiatives as "almost an alternative form of government . . . at odds with the system of checks and balances, the constitutional republic that our founders had given us."

Broder never voiced such concerns about the unconstitutional power grabs of left-wing Democrats Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Barack Obama. But Broder was upset that the people could overturn the ruling elite's confiscatory taxes via California's Proposition 13.

Revealingly, he called such power in the hands of the people "democracy derailed," both because he wanted government to run on rails, and because his values were ultimately those of an age when trains were the highest technology, not uncontrolled news via the Internet.

Thank God that David Broder's politics of buttoned-down elitist rule are passing. Yet I miss him, perhaps because my own journalist training in Washington, D.C., came before the end of the one-party, one-media-elite era he embodied.

That era cemented Democratic power for generations, but it was a less hostile, more collegial time when I could work as a conservative journalist during the week and picnic on weekends with the editors of left-liberal magazine The New Republic.

It was an era where journalists of the right like myself would be invited to sit in at Meg's Washington Post editorial meetings and hang with folks from The New York Times. And since Broder favored the side that ruled during, and because of, this tame era, he of course was sad to see it undermined by genuine democracy.

I miss Broder, too, because he had a gentlemanly lack of pretension and a refreshing lack of illusion about his or the press's self-importance.

In his 1973 Pulitzer speech, David Broder put it thus: "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."

We shall not see his like again. Godspeed, David Broder.

Lowell Ponte's latest book, co-authored with Craig R. Smith, is "Crashing the Dollar: How to Survive a Global Currency Collapse," available at crashingthedollar.com

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