David Broder: Eyes Wide Shut

More than eighty years ago, in his argument with Walter Lippmann about
the proper role of the press in a democracy, John Dewey warned that "a
class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to
become a class with private interests and private knowledge."

It would be difficult to imagine a more telling--and
disturbing--manifestation of Dewey's prediction than the current torture
debate in Washington. Even after the disgraceful performance of so many
armchair warriors during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, who would
have dared predict the willingness, nay, eagerness, of respected
journalists and pundits to argue in favor of purposeful ignorance?
Sadly, many of them have shown less interest in potential war crimes
committed by the Bush administration than little Misha Lerner, the
Jewish Primary Day School fourth grader who quizzed Condoleezza Rice
about her inability to explain the legality of these policies to a group
of Stanford students.

While many have made the case to varying degrees, Peggy Noonan made it
most explicitly: "Some things in life need to be mysterious," she said
of America's role in torturing terrorist suspects. "Sometimes you need
to just keep walking." And while defenders of the insider establishment
may note, as a mitigating factor, that Noonan is less a journalist than
an ex-Reagan flack who plays a journalist on the Wall Street
editorial page and ABC's This Week, what, then, to
say about David Broder? The "dean" of the Washington press corps sets a
tone for many of his colleagues and represents a goal to which many if
not most of them aspire. He, too, advises his colleagues to keep
walking, eyes wide shut.

Broder mocked his colleagues following the 2004 election for writing
that "the forces of darkness" were taking over the country, chortling
that America did not face "another dark age." He's changed his mind, but
not his tune. Yes, the dean admits, it turns out that we have just
passed through "one of the darkest chapters of American history." But
never mind that. Anybody interested in just what took place during this
period is guilty, according to the apparently telepathic pundit, of "an
unworthy desire for vengeance." Sure, Broder admits, that old-fashioned
notion of democratic "accountability" offers a "plausible-sounding
rationale" for an investigation. But Broder wants none of it. He worries
that it would lead to "endless political warfare." He says the torture
memos "represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy
decision, made in the proper places." And most of all, he is afraid that
if George W. Bush is a "man of honor," he will ask to be indicted rather
than allow his underlings to take the fall. (I swear I am not making
this up.)

Much can be said about the assumptions that underlie these words. First,
we note that the dean's fear of "political warfare" trumps the rule of
law, to say nothing of the results of a democratic election. As for
Broder's eagerness to embrace torture as the result of "internal"--that
is, secret--"debate," well, he might be interested to learn that not
even the Bush Justice Department has his back on this one. Five days
before Obama took office, the department issued a memo disavowing its
own arguments. Pointing to the atmosphere of panic in which they were
written following 9/11, department spokesmen announced that those memos
not already (secretly) withdrawn should be considered inoperative.
(Frank Rich has argued, persuasively in my view, that it was the
administration's obsession with an imaginary Saddam-Osama connection
that drove its torture tactics.) As for Bush being a "man of honor" who
cannot abide his underlings taking the fall for his bad judgment, I'm
afraid words fail me here...

Sadly, Broder's decision to avert his eyes from the distasteful and
potentially criminal actions of his government is not exceptional; it's
how he defines his job. Forty years ago he scolded those in the
Democratic Party who challenged Lyndon Johnson's lies about Vietnam as
"degrading...to those involved." Twenty years ago he attacked
independent counsel Lawrence Walsh's investigation into criminal
wrongdoing in the Iran/Contra scandal. (Reagan had mused that he would
likely be impeached should his extraconstitutional actions ever be
discovered.) Broder supported Republican efforts to impeach Bill
Clinton, whose behavior he deemed "worse" than Richard Nixon's
police-state tactics during Watergate because Nixon's actions, "however
neurotic and criminal, were motivated and connected to the exercise of
presidential power." There is a pattern here, obviously. When a
president abuses his constitutional warmaking powers, he can depend on
Broder not only to defend his crimes but to attack those who would hold
him accountable. This, in the eyes of perhaps the most honored and
admired journalist today, is the proper function of the press in a

Back in 1988, at a black-tie dinner in his honor given by the National
Press Club at which he was feted by James Baker, among others, a famous
journalist--sounding a bit like Dewey--worried that if Americans were to
come to view the press as just another "power-wielding clique of
insiders" they were going to end up "resentful as hell that they have no
way to call us to account." It was a good thought. Unfortunately, the
honoree--one David Broder--should have added, "But do as I say, not as I
do." Thank goodness scrupulous journalists like Jane Mayer of The New
, Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane of the New York Times,
Mark Danner of The New York Review of Books and Marcy Wheeler, a
blogger for Firedoglake.com, among others, chose to take Broder's advice
on this story as they ignored his example. Perhaps it's not too much to
say they also helped rescue the honor of their profession in the

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