David Broder's decades of political insight, in his own words

The dean of the Washington press corps, David Broder, died last week at 81.
The dean of the Washington press corps, David Broder, died last week at 81. (Kim Arrington)
Sunday, March 13, 2011

David S. Broder covered every presidential election since 1968 for The Washington Post. He believed fiercely that the voter had the power and the politician had to serve. Winning required governing, with care and rigor. When those values needed reemphasis, Broder, who died Wednesday at 81, turned to the pages of Outlook. Here are a few excerpts from three decades of his contributions:

Dec. 4, 1988

We all know these people: The journalists who go into government, become State Department or White House officials and then come back as editors or columnists. Or the editors who become ambassadors and the ambassadors who become columnists. Or managers of presidential campaigns who turn up as television analysts of their successors' tactics. Or the columnists who coach their favorite candidates and mobilize campaigns to purge the Senate of people who vote against their favorite Supreme Court nominees. Or the White House spiritual advisers who turn up next as moderators, if that is the word, of political talk shows where the meek not only do not inherit the earth, they never are heard on the air.

Oh, I've got a little list, and they never will be missed - no, they never will be missed.

Jan. 14, 1990

It's the start of another political year, and the question that demands an answer is: Will the 1990 campaign serve the voters or sicken them? . . .

So how do we find out what they have on their minds? We ask them. . . . There is no substitute for shoe-leather reporting, walking precincts, talking to people in their living rooms. Editors need to get their reporters out into neighborhoods early in the political year to ask people what concerns them the most. In all the years my colleagues and I have done that at The Post, we have never come back uninformed - or uninspired - by the experience. "Issues" may be abstractions, but when you ask people what concerns them, they tell you - in clear and often passionate voices.

April 25, 1993

Reformers couch their proposals in terms of eliminating pernicious influences on politics and government, but they rarely acknowledge that the process changes they push would also redistribute power - in the direction of themselves and their social-economic peers. . . . Sooner or later, voters will figure out that they have been bamboozled. And when that moment comes, you will see a genuine populist revolt.

Jan. 23, 1994

The reality is that we do not have two parties in Washington. We have 536. The president, the 100 senators and the 435 representatives are each a political party of one. Every one of them picked out the particular office he or she wanted, raised the campaign funds, hired the pollster, the media adviser, the consultants, recruited the volunteers, chose the issues - and ran as if it were the only office on the ballot. Once in office, they quickly discovered that governing is a lot tougher than campaigning, that without genuine bonds of party loyalty, coalitions are hard to build. . . .

The other recipient of the power that has flowed out of the governing institutions is the press.

We are ill-equipped for the job. Reporters are instinctively fight promoters. Consensus-building is not our forte - or our job. Launching and carrying through public policy requires sustained effort. The press in all its forms is episodic. We flit from topic to topic. We hate repetition. Our attitude toward institutions is cavalier. All this hobbles our ability to substitute for political leadership - even if we had any claim to do so, which we do not.

Jan. 5, 1997

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the great challenge in Washington in 1997 is whether a weak government can summon the strength to deal with truly tough challenges. . . .

That means that all of the major systems in this country - from the Pentagon to the neighborhood public schools, from the hospitals and nursing homes to the border patrols, from job-training to affirmative action to the tax code - cry out for reexamination. Indeed, the structure of government itself - from the financing of our elections and the two-party duopoly to the division of labor among national, state and local officials - urgently needs work.

What we are likely to get is just the opposite - a weak government led by insecure officials, looking over their shoulders and seeking easy compromises that avoid hard choices.

Nov. 2, 2008

I remember the precise moment when I became convinced that this presidential campaign was going to be the best I'd ever covered. It was Saturday afternoon, Dec. 8, 2007. I stood in the lobby of Hy-Vee Hall, the big convention center in Des Moines, watching an endless stream of men, women and children come down the escalators from the network of skywalks that link the downtown business blocks of Iowa's capital. . . .

Sen. Barack Obama had imported Oprah Winfrey from Chicago to make the first of her endorsement appearances. . . . It was startling that almost a year before Election Day, 18,000 people had given up their Saturday shopping time to stand (there were no chairs) and listen to an hour of political rhetoric. . . . I' d never seen voters so turned on since my first campaign as a political reporter, the classic Nixon-Kennedy race of 1960.

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