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 Journal 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 democracy.
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 Yorker, 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 process.