All you need to know about the Beltway journalist mind

Tom Edsall echoes Beltway conventional wisdom and proclaims David Broder to be "The Voice of the People," while Mike Gravel chuckles in astonishment.

Published May 9, 2007 8:22PM (EDT)

(updated below - updated again)

Radar Online has a new profile of presidential candidate Mike Gravel. The article recounts what happened when the reporter, Jebediah Reed, basically followed Gravel as he was profiled by The Today Show.

The article is amusing in general, but Reed recounts this unbelievably revealing incident along the way:

Beaming after the Columbia event, Gravel walks with [Newsweek's Jonathan] Alter to a nearby Cuban restaurant for a late lunch. On the way they encounter a gray-haired gentleman in owlish glasses. Alter greets him very respectfully. "This is Tom Edsall," he says. Edsall was a senior political writer for the Washington Post for 25 years. He retired from the paper in 2006 and now writes for the New Republic and teaches at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Gravel smiles broadly and says, "Hey, can you straighten out David Broder?" Broder, an influential columnist at the Post and the unofficial godfather of the D.C. press corps, has been a target of much criticism from liberal blogs for seeming to provide political cover for Bush on Iraq, even with a majority of Americans now opposing the war. "He doesn't believe in the power of the people!" Gravel says.

Edsall blinks and looks perplexed. "David Broder is the voice of the people," he replies matter-of-factly. Gravel starts to smile, assuming Edsall is making an absurdist joke. But Edsall is not joking. The two men look at each other in awkward silence over a great gulf of unshared beliefs, then Gravel chuckles and walks ahead into the restaurant.

I would be willing to wager that the vast majority of Beltway journalists agree with Edsall -- that Broder is a real, true, salt-of-the-earth representative "of the people." That's more or less what Joe Klein said recently in praise of Broder:

No, what I most like about Broder as a reporter is that he has taken pains over the years to talk at length with the sort of people who don't go to protests, and even to folks who don't go to political meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire. He'll actually go door to door, or convene a group of neighbors, to find out what's important to them.

See, Broder knows how the "ordinary people" think because he leaves the Beltway and goes and studies them real up close like farm animals and then comes back to Washington and publishes his findings about the behavioral patterns of this odd species known as "the people."

Beltway journalists want to believe that Broder is "the voice of the people" because that means that they are, too. After all, he is their Dean, their representative, and by convincing themselves that he has legitimacy with "the people," that he speaks for the "real, ordinary Americans," it means that they do, too. Just marvel at the drooling praise they heap on the platitude-spewing Broder:

The accolades for Broder have shown no sign of slowing down in recent years: his colleagues routinely speak of him in the hushed, awed tone they typically reserve for John McCain and Joe Lieberman. NBC's Tim Russert -- himself often described as the nation's most influential journalist -- calls Broder "the most objective and respected reporter I know in this town."

In 2005, Russert praised Broder's "superb" analysis and noted that he had appeared more often on Meet the Press than any other guest -- nearly 400 times in all. Just this week, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza placed Broder alongside the late David Halberstam as "titans of journalism." Conservative pundit Bill Kristol says things like "I disagree with David Broder on this, which means I'm probably wrong..." While still working at The Washington Post, Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei wrote "Broder is the best of the best. His columns are fair and illuminating."

The greatest and most fictitous conceit of the Beltway media class is that they are the real voice of What Americans Think. Man of the People Rick Stengel of Time will simply take his own personal views and falsely claim that this is "what voters want to see." David Brooks does that constantly, as do people like Andrea Mitchell. And the painfully self-conscious obsessions which Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, and Maureen Dowd (among others) have with trying to demonstrate what salt-of-the-earth regular people they are is depressingly familiar, not to mention glaringly false.

And the idea that David Broder is the "voice of the people" is particularly ludicrous given that the crux of David Broder's worldview -- to the extent that he has such a thing -- is that whatever else happens in Washington, the top priority is that our elegant and elevated power centers be shielded from the wild passions and uncontrolled fervor of the lowly, rambunctious, impetuous masses. Broder is the "voice of the people" in the most condescending manner possible -- he loves them like his misguided and ignorant children, innocents and vulnerables who need to be protected by the sober and wise adults who know best.

The disconnect between, on the one hand, what Beltway media stars think about and care about, and the lives of most Americans on the other, is so vast that it is difficult to describe. One could argue that the complete disconnect between our Beltway power centers and the lives of most Americans is the single greatest deficiency in our political culture. Yet the preening, insulated pundits of the royal court think the opposite.

They think that they are the real representatives of The People, and that their King, David Broder, is the Real Voice of the People. Mike Gravel apparently "chuckled" in Tom Edsall's face after Edsall bestowed Broder with that title, thinking that he had "made an absurdist joke."

But most national journalists would almost certainly walk away exactly the way Edsall did -- deeply confused and disoriented over the fact that someone did not perceive David Broder as the Man of the People. They live in a different universe and -- especially for the ones who have been there for so long, as well as for the ones who are most desperate to rise within it -- they cannot and do not recognize that any other exists.

UPDATE: Jane Hamsher recalls another revealing incident involving Tom Edsall's probing insights about how the Real People think, one he shared while chatting with -- and, in that highly disturbing needing-to-please/Mark Halperin-sort-of-way, cravenly confessing to -- Hugh Hewitt.

UPDATE II: Last week, it was announced that Tom Edsall "is joining The Huffington Post news site/group blog as political editor. He'll oversee HP's 2008 election and political coverage, as well as write for the site." That seems like an odd hiring decision. I wonder if Richard Cohen was the first choice.

UPDATE III: See clarification here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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