Posted tagged ‘We Need a Better Press Corps’

A Sad Note Sent to Mr. David Broder

February 10, 2010

Here is a slightly edited text to an email sent to David Broder, on the occasion of reading his thoughts (sic) on Sarah Palin’s ascent to political heavyweight status.  (h/t Josh Marshall)

Dear Mr. Broder,

I know it will pain you to hear this from a 51 year old reader, but I grew up on your political writing.  You were the best, and I learned a great deal that I’ve put to use in a writing career of my own.

But you share this with another former champion who fears the effects of too many more blows to the brain, Kurt Warner.

It’s time to retire.

Speaking, no doubt, as one of the elitists — or at least, certainly, as a member of an elite — excoriated by Ms. Palin, your assessment of the half-term governor missed on three levels.

1)  You got the affect wrong.  You have a sense of what is off in Palin’s presentation in your remark that she wore poorly in the suburbs in the last election.  Hers is not a populism of the mass against the few, but rather of one pissed-off minority against the many…and that’s what wore so ill last time out.

Her line “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for you” is not how Huey Long rallied his supporters, nor John Edwards, nor the best high-low campaigner of a generation, Bill Clinton.  Rather, it’s the language of the mean-girl clique in high school, striking out at those less fashionable than they, whom they yet suspected might win the marathon of life, however many high school sprints they lost.  Those who were stung by such jibes then haven’t forgotten, and there were a lot of them/us.

That’s why Tina Fey was so destructive to Palin — she has that vibe pitch perfect, and she knows why it grates….that you don’t suggests your ear is going…and that’s death for a columnist of the zeitgeist.

2)  You underestimate the meaning of seemingly minor slips.  That handprompter stuff matters for the same reason that Gerald Ford’s stumbles did, or Quayle’s “pototoe” gaffe did.

No one thought those were essential to the quality of either man, but they reinforced already present impressions:  those guys were dumb.  The dominant perception of Palin at the end of the campaign was of someone with enormous performance skills who was out of her depth as an actual prospective leader.  She’s already compounded that by her inglorious exit from a governorship that was already, within Alaska, seemingly taxing her powers.

Now, seemingly, she needs to be reminded that she is supposed to be able to talk about energy.  It may seem trivial to you…but when those Americans not overwhelmed by her ability to read a prepared speech think about Palin not as a kind of political entertainment — a role at which she undeniably excels — but as an actual leader tasked with, say, dealing with the Iran nuclear buildup or ensuring that FEMA doesn’t blow the next Katrina, then stuff like this matters. And it does, as I know you once knew, for reasons the “dean of the Washington press corps” shouldn’t need reminding:  because it reinforces what we already, as an electorate, think we know about Palin, which is that however rousing she may be on the stump, she’s a lightweight.

3)  You underestimate the American voter.  You quote her (and I’m editing the quote a bit) as saying:

“And then I do want to be a voice for some common-sense solutions. I’m never going to pretend like I know more than the next person. I’m not going to pretend to be an elitist. In fact, I’m going to fight the elitist, …I want to speak up for the American people and say: No, we really do have some good common-sense solutions.”

Well, fine.  But even if the Republican Party is putting this notion to the test, still, in bad times even more than in good, there comes a point in any campaign when you have to say more than you will provide common sense solutions.

You actually have to say something about what those solutions are.

In fact, Mr Broder, if you approached the job the way you once did, you’d wonder:  what would a President Palin do about the fiscal ramifications of the status quo in health care and pensions?  What does Palin plan for Iran and Afghanistan and relations with China., or salaries for Wall St. execs…and so on.

And you’d find out either that she wouldn’t tell you…which, over time, becomes an enormous vulnerability that a candidates as sophisticated as, say, Mitt Romney would exploit with glee..or that she would, which is, as you know, death to a persuasive populism, (and would give a debater as thoroughly expert as President Obama an enormous opportunity).

So — what I’m trying to say is that this column is both wrong and sad.  Wrong, because you have no idea what Palin sounds like outside the circles in which you already know all the changes to be rung.  You take a speech to 1,200 paying customers as an indication of her ability to transcend enormous real and atmospheric limitations…and you don’t ask if there is any other source of insight beyond your own gut feeling, and those of the same people you’ve hung with for way too long.

And that’s what makes it sad. You used to be a contender.  Hell, you used to be the champ — and that for years.  But this is tomato-can stuff.  There is no actual reporting (which is what made your old punditry so strong, that base of actual non-obvious information and experience sought from the ground up), there is no actual analysis, there is no thought given to whether Palin’s attempt at populism is modeled on the same lines as successful populist insurgencies of the past.  There’s nothing, in fact, except some guy’s response to an energetically delivered nasty speech.

You used to be good.  You could be still — but only if you put in the same kind of effort and distilled the insight captured in the arc that connects the two artworks I’ve chosen to illustrate this post.  But you’re not even trying anymore.  It’s time to go fishing.

Sincerly, and regretfully, from someone who’s read and admired you for the better part of four decades.

Tom Levenson.

Images:  Tintoretto, 1518-1594, “Self Portrait as a Young Man,

Tintoretto, “Self Portrait,” 1588.