Did David Broder "prop up" the Bush presidency?

Broder's claim that he has been a consistent Bush critic does not withstand scrutiny of his punditry record.

Published February 17, 2007 11:45AM (EST)

In The New Republic, Rick Perlstein recently examined the trend by which elite national pundits are facing much greater scrutiny of the accuracy and reliability of their punditry as a result of the work of bloggers. Perlstein cites the recent exposure of multiple factual errors in a post by Jay Carney, the Washington Bureau Chief of Time Magazine, by Atrios and several of his commenters. Whereas pundits like Carney could previously opine without challenge, they are now frequently forced to account for what they write by bloggers and their readers, and most of them (such as Carney) react quite poorly, often petulantly, to these challenges.

There are actually countless examples where previously unchallenged national journalists have been confronted by the work of bloggers, and one such incident occurred yesterday when The Washington Post's David Broder hosted an "online chat" and one of the questioners read from a post I wrote critiquing Broder's column yesterday. The following exchange ensued:

New York: Mr. Broder, care to respond to Glenn Greenwald's comment regarding your column in Salon today? "Beltway pundits have long been petrified of the reality that most Americans have turned against the President permanently and with deep conviction. Because the David Broders of the world propped up the Bush presidency for so long, they are deeply invested in finding a way to salvage it." Agree or disagree?

David S. Broder: You will find no one in the White House or on the Republican side of the House or Senate who thinks I have been propping up the Bush presidency. I have been a persistent critic of him and his policies. The notion that I am invested in him is bizarre--unless it is meant to suggest that anyone who would rather see his country and his president succeed than fail is "invested" in him.

I have numerous points to make in response to Broder's claims, but in deference to his status as the highly, highly esteemed Dean of the Washington Press Corps, I am going to turn the floor over to Broder himself, from columns he has written during the Bush Presidency (all via LEXIS):

January 23, 2005

Inaugural speech echoes Bush's conviction that the quest for freedom is a universal truth

In his brief but eloquent inaugural address, President Bush dedicated the balance of his time in office to the same sweeping goals he set forth at the start of his first term -- the worldwide realization of the ideals of freedom and democracy. . . .

On this cold, clear Jan. 20, as a president tested by war and terrorism and renewed in power, Bush pledged to seek "the greatest achievements in the history of freedom," the liberation of oppressed people everywhere and the end of all tyrannies.

If that seems a wildly ambitious agenda for a country whose citizens are increasingly discomfited by the unfinished effort to liberate one country - Iraq - it is.

But it reflects one essential truth we have learned about Bush: His faith that the quest for freedom is a universal truth, rooted in human nature and intended by God.

He reached out to Lincoln for his language and his metaphors, paraphrasing one of the Great Emancipator's famous phrases and saying that "no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave."

But in the sweep of his ambitions to make the United States the driving force for democratization of the world, he resembles no president as much as the idealistic Woodrow Wilson.

In effect, Bush put authoritarian regimes throughout the world on notice that human rights and civil liberties will determine their relationship with America.

In his first term, Bush used military force to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq only after he decided that their regimes harbored direct threats to the United States.

He said that the quest for freedom "is not primarily the task of arms," but I think it would be a mistake not to believe him serious in saying it is a central purpose of his administration.

He has described himself memorably as "a plain-spoken fella," and these words could not be plainer: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

November 14, 2004

Some of my colleagues in the pundit business have become unhinged by the election results. The always diverting Maureen Dowd of The New York Times wrote the other day that "the forces of darkness" are taking over the country. . . .

George Bush was re-elected by 51 percent of the people. His first significant action following Election Day was to retain Andrew Card, a Massachusetts-based business moderate, as his chief of staff.

His second was to accept the resignation of John Ashcroft, the hero of the religious right and the favorite bogeyman of civil libertarians, as attorney general. Ashcroft's replacement, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, will receive close scrutiny from Democratic senators but almost all of them who commented said they welcomed the choice. . .

Republicans hold 55 of the 100 seats in the Senate. Among them are many, including such conservatives as Pat Roberts and Thad Cochran, I would trust to defend my journalistic freedom -- or Dowd's -- no matter how much they disagreed with what we wrote. I can count two dozen Senate Republicans who have experienced with their own families and friends the pain of mental or physical illness, poverty, racial or sexual discrimination.

Do you think they would stand silent while a vendetta against any of those groups was carried out? . . ..

Republicans won 53 percent of the seats in the House. Their caucus is dominated by conservatives, but -- this may come as a shock -- all conservatives are not of one mind. Freed from the constraints of a presidential election year, some of them will pester Bush to get serious about budget deficits. Some will urge him to take a cue from Arnold Schwarzenegger and rethink his restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research. And some self-described "real right-wingers" from states as red as Idaho will insist on changes in the USA Patriot Act before it is renewed, because they take their right to privacy seriously. . . .

Bush won, but he will have to work within the system for whatever he gets. Checks and balances are still there. The nation does not face "another dark age," unless you consider politics with all its tradeoffs and bargaining a black art.

November 1, 2004

Today, with enduring memories of Sept. 11, the threat of terrorism hangs over everything . . . Logic would suggest that the incumbent (Democratic) administration should have easily elected its candidates for president and Congress under the circumstances of 2000, while the dominant Republicans could be very vulnerable to conditions today.

But that does not account for either the emotional or the inertial forces that shape politics. At the personal level, it was clear in 2000 that more Americans liked Bush than his opponent, Al Gore.

The same is true in Bush versus Kerry, reinforced this time by the powerful emotional bond formed between millions of Americans and their president in those scary days after the terrorists struck New York and Washington. . . .

In this sense at least, the betting is that the country is truly conservative. Everything changes, the insiders say, except the votes.

August 7, 2003

Anyone who compared the frequency of their news conferences -- and their fondness for such encounters -- would automatically place George W. Bush and Franklin D. Roosevelt as polar opposites. Where FDR enjoyed sparring with reporters and invited them into the Oval Office twice a week, Bush has made such sessions so rare that each one becomes a special event.

But as last week's Rose Garden news conference demonstrated, there is one respect in which Bush and Roosevelt were very much alike. In both of them, self-confidence was overflowing. As a counterpuncher to criticism and as a doubt-free exponent of his own beliefs, the current president is right up there with the inventor of the New Deal.

In a remarkable feat of journalistic prescience, the cover of the July 26 issue of National Journal, a highly esteemed Washington weekly, depicted Bush as FDR, electronically placing the Democrat's pince-nez and trademark cigarette holder on the Republican's face in a pose that emphasized both men's jut-jawed readiness to take on the opposition.

The photo illustrated an essay titled "The Accidental Radical," by Jonathan Rauch, one of the most insightful journalist-authors in the capital. His thesis, which I found convincing, is that the two men, who came to the White House after relatively short stints as governors of New York and Texas, respectively, lost no time in shattering the widespread misapprehension that they would, as good Establishment aristocrats, do nothing to rock the boat.

Instead, FDR created the modern welfare state and forged the New Deal political coalition that largely dominated American politics from 1932 to 1968. Bush, Rauch argues, is pressing forward major structural changes in both foreign and domestic policy, revising the doctrine and reputation of conservatism and aiming for long-term political dominance by the GOP.

Roosevelt made his changes under the spur of the Great Depression and World War II. Bush has the impetus of 9-11 to thank for the doctrine of pre-emptive wars, used to justify the attack on Iraq, and for the creation of the Homeland Security Department, one of the biggest restructurings of government since the New Deal. But many of Bush's other innovations, such as his sweeping tax changes, his education initiative and the pending expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs, are rooted in nothing other than his own sense of what the times require.

The real similarity, Rauch says, is the daring Bush and FDR both displayed -- and the size of the policy and political gambles both were willing to take.

April 7, 2003

It appears that 9/11 did for Bush what the assassination attempt that Ronald Reagan survived and almost laughed off did for his reputation, barely two months into his presidency in 1981. That event formed an indelible impression of Reagan in the minds of millions of voters and gave him an almost mythic dimension that withstood recession, scandal and controversy.

Almost everything Bush has done since becoming president has been designed to create a similar sense of steadfastness. His pursuit of adversaries in Afghanistan and Iraq is of a piece with his persistence in pressing for passage of big tax cuts and confirmation of conservative judges here at home.

Implicitly, he also seems to be saying he is a different breed of cat than his father, who had to fight "the wimp factor" as a candidate in 1988 and was savaged by many in his own party in 1992 for allegedly caving in to the Democrats on taxes.

Today's Democrats are pounding on the second George Bush, as befits an opposition party. His economic policies provide plenty of ammunition for the assault Kennedy outlined on his chart.

But there is little the Democrats can do to shatter the reputation for strong leadership Bush has built, and not much their presidential candidates can do to win equal reputations for themselves.

May 18, 2003

Let me disclose my own bias in this matter. I like Karl Rove. In the days when he was operating from Austin, we had many long and rewarding conversations. I have eaten quail at his table and admired the splendid Hill Country landscape from the porch of the historic cabin Karl and his wife Darby found miles away and had carted to its present site on their land.

In the spring of 1996, when Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution and I were assembling a cast of American politicians to address a group of 40 emerging political leaders from Western Europe, the former Soviet bloc, Asia and Africa, I suggested we invite Karl Rove to be one of the instructors.

The purpose of the Salzburg Seminar in Austria was to illuminate the emerging forces in U.S. politics. Rove, though hardly a celebrity (as compared to Susan Estrich, former Dukakis campaign manager, or Ralph Reed, then of the Christian Coalition), clearly qualified on two grounds.

One was that he had recently guided George W. Bush to his first-ever political victory in the Texas gubernatorial race. I thought there was a reasonable chance that the international players would be hearing more from Bush and Rove in the years to come.

The other reason for inviting Rove was his wealth of information on the forces shaping the biggest single change in American politics -- the emergence of the Republican South. I had heard him discourse on this topic over coffee in Austin and I knew he was, in odd hours, working on a Ph.D. thesis on that subject at the LBJ School at the University of Texas.

He did not disappoint. Probably the least well known of the "faculty" members, his lectures and discussion sessions were among the best-rated.

Our contacts continued after that, with great frequency during the 2000 primaries and general election, and much less frequently since he moved into the White House. Even now, he generally tries to return calls in the same week -- if not day -- they are placed.

March 19, 2003

It has been a long road to this moment of decision on Iraq, but the inevitability of the destination has been clear. When historians have access to the memos and the diaries of the Bush administration's insiders, it's likely they will find that President Bush set his sights on removing Saddam Hussein from power soon after the 9-11 terrorist attacks -- if not before.

Everything the president has said publicly -- everything that Vice President Cheney reiterated in his Sunday television interviews -- confirms that the impact of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was to steel Bush's determination to disarm any ruler who plausibly might collaborate in a similar or worse assault. And to him, disarming clearly meant dislodging that potential assailant from power.

Skeptics may argue that the United States has yet to produce convincing evidence of a link between the Baghdad regime and the al-Qaida terrorists. But the link exists in the mind of the commander in chief and he is prepared to act on that conviction.

March 12, 2003

It appears that the president chose to hold a news conference, a rarity in his tenure, in order to show the American people and the world the logic that has led him to the brink of war. Whatever he was asked, Bush reiterated the almost formulaic set of propositions that leave him convinced, as he put it, that if Saddam Hussein "should be disarmed, and he's not going to disarm, there's only one way to disarm him" -- war.

The antecedents of that simple, three-step syllogism are almost as bare-bones as the proposition itself. The United States was a victim of a devastating terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. He, George Bush, has sworn an oath to protect his country from another such attack. Saddam Hussein, if left unchecked, could execute or facilitate an even more damaging assault with weapons of mass destruction. Saddam has defied repeated United Nations calls to disarm. His continued defiance is unacceptable. If the United Nations balks at removing him, the United States, for its own security, must do so.

The logical force of that argument is so compelling that it is no wonder Bush is described by everyone who deals with him as being completely convinced of the rightness of his own position.

The logic has been there in all of Bush's speeches on the subject, going back to his United Nations address last autumn. What the news conference revealed was his extraordinary capacity to reject any efforts to put this matter in any broader context -- his ability to simplify what otherwise would be a wrenching decision.

February 13, 2003

With President Bush's declaration that we have reached the "moment of truth" in the showdown with Iraq, it behooves us to ask how we got here and what, if any, options remain for avoiding war.

How did Saddam Hussein become such a menace?

Basically, by brutally exterminating and intimidating his internal enemies. He also had the advantage of controlling a significant slice of the world's oil resources, and he received military supplies and equipment from both the Soviet Union and the United States, which feared (for different reasons) Iran becoming the dominant regional power.

Could he have been dealt with earlier?

Yes. When his armed forces were routed during the 1991 Gulf War, he was extremely vulnerable. But the first Bush administration halted military operations after Kuwait was freed, in part to reassure the other Muslim countries in the alliance and, in part, because it believed Saddam would be either overthrown or easily contained by an inspection regime.

Seven years later, when the international inspectors were ordered to leave, the Clinton administration could have forced a showdown, but its actions never matched its hard-line rhetoric.

Has the president decided what to do?

Disclaimers notwithstanding, all the evidence suggests that Bush made up his mind soon after 9/11, if not before, that "regime change," i.e., the removal of Saddam Hussein, was the only certain answer to the Iraqi threat. With great skill, he has orchestrated resolutions from both Congress and the U.N. Security Council which he can legitimately claim sanction that policy. As his implied deadline approaches, there is some "buyers' remorse" in both bodies, but not enough to deter him from carrying out his intention. . . .

The price of oil is increasing and could tip a shaky U.S. economy into trouble, jeopardizing his re-election. Because he is convinced that failure to deal with Saddam now would lead to greater danger down the road.

November 11, 2002

Call it affirmation or reaffirmation, the midterm election has given a powerful boost to President Bush, the conservative agenda and the long-term prospects of the Republican Party. By retaking the Senate, increasing their majority in the House and strengthening their grip on their Electoral College base in the South, the Bush-led Republicans achieved substantially more than most observers - myself included - had thought likely.

For the past two years, ever since he won the White House while losing the popular vote and having to turn to conservative justices on the Supreme Court for confirmation of his victory, Bush has struggled against the label of an "accidental president."

But the support he won by his sterling performance after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has endured, and he showed on Tuesday that he could convert that popularity into votes for his fellow-partisans. That is the most powerful leadership tool any president can possess. . .

There may not be a presidential contender among these governors, but they are potentially a pool of leadership for a party desperately in need of that commodity. The fecklessness of congressional Democrats - who lacked the nerve to say what most of them really believe about either the Bush tax cuts or his path to war with Iraq - made it easier for the president to look like the rare politician with the courage of his own convictions.

And that is why he is in command today.

October 16, 2002

Rumsfeld pulled out a pencil and drew me a simple chart - a downward sloping line tracing the erosion of Iraq's conventional military strength in the decade since the Gulf War, and an upward sloping line showing its growing store of WMD - weapons of mass destruction.

Given Saddam's brutal and bloody history, Rumsfeld said, "the stronger he gets, the greater the likelihood he will attempt to use that strength."

This operating assumption - that capacity is equal to intent - would explain why President Bush has consistently argued that "time is not on our side," and that pre-emptive action is not only justified but necessary.

If Saddam sees himself in danger of being removed by an American force, would he not then use WMD against our troops? "I think that's a possibility our military has to consider," Rumsfeld said. "But he can't use them himself. He has to have other people use them, and that means somebody has to obey orders. And already word has gone out that anybody who goes near those weapons or follows such orders ... would be tracked down and charged with war crimes." . . . .

Overall, Rumsfeld left me with the impression that he is aware of the risks of war with Iraq, but confident they can be handled.

October 10, 2002

All this would make the situation difficult enough for the Democrats, heading into a midterm election. But it is the echoes of Vietnam that inflame passions and raise political risks. You could hear them in the mutterings among other Democrats about Reps. David Bonior and Jim McDermott, who turned up in Baghdad and sounded as if they were saying that Saddam Hussein's history of recalcitrance should be overlooked in weighing the credibility of his current promises to cooperate with weapons inspectors. It was all too reminiscent of Jane Fonda in Hanoi or antiwar protesters marching under Viet Cong flags.

December 27, 2001

The public will has strengthened our leaders. President Bush has been converted from the hesitant partisan he seemed to many before Sept. 11 into a broadly accepted symbol of national unity and a reliable wartime commander in chief, whose judgment is reinforced by an exceptionally strong national security team.

I think that record speaks for itself. To be fair, a few caveats are necessary:

(1) As is true for even the President's most loyal followers, Broder has been critical of specific Bush policies, particularly his propensity to cut taxes in the face of large deficits and his failure to reform domestic programs.

(2) Broder has made some good points in some of his columns, including protesting the analogy between the 9/11 attacks and Pearl Harbor, and warning -- even in 2002 -- that the occupation of Iraq would likely be far lengthier and costlier than was being suggested.

(3) Broder's reverence for all things diluted, unprincipled and ambivalent -- what he calls "bipartisanship" -- means that he rarely makes any points stridently or emphatically. One searches in vain, for instance, for any clear statement -- at any point -- whether Broder favored or opposed the invasion of Iraq. Thus, even with the above-excerpted praise of the President, it is sometimes diluted slightly be qualifiers, and sometimes the balancing comments in some of the above articles ought to be examined.

Nonetheless, Broder repeatedly re-inforced the image of George Bush as the strong, decisive, principled Commander-in-Chief protecting our country in pursuit of his genuinely held commitment to freedom, democracy and battling the Terrorists. He never raised his voice, metaphorically speaking, in criticism of any of the gross excesses committed by this administration, almost always reserving his truly aggressive attacks for anti-Bush critics for alleged rhetorical excesses in opposing the Leader.

As Matt Yglesias pointed out several months ago, most Americans are too busy or distracted to pay close attention to political matters, and therefore rely upon trusted pundits to alert them if things are going terribly awry or if our political leaders have become genuinely radical and threatening. Broder (like most Beltway pundits) failed profoundly in that responsibility, and plainly did the opposite: helped to build up George Bush's image as the Strong and Powerful Leader whose flaws were merely standard and outweighed by his powerful leadership.

That is why Broder is so invested in ensuring that George Bush's presidency is not recognized as the profound failure that it is. From his extremely influential perch, Broder did nothing to combat those radical failures that have harmed our country in truly incalculable ways, but instead aided and abetted the Bush presidency in countless ways.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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