Rick Santorum had just finished stumping in a senior center the other night when Claira Monier, a veteran Republican party official in New Hampshire, found herself being interviewed by a Post reporter. She blurted out: “I miss David Broder!”
Broder: The Dean.
This was the first primary in half a century when Broder wasn’t tramping through villages, buttonholing voters, courting county chairmen, and crafting what would instantly become the mainstream narrative of who was winning and who was tanking. This was Broder’s primary. These were his people.
Broder passed away last year and his era of journalism, dominated by a few establishment media sources, has given way to one with many more voices and a much faster metabolism. Even before he left us, his style of journalism had become antiquated. He knocked on doors. He believed in the wisdom of the voter, in grassroots politics, in the political process that leveraged individual interactions between citizens and would-be leaders.
He loved this primary because, thanks to its intimate geography and highly motivated electorate, it amplified small-d democracy. At least, that’s the reputation of the place.
John Sununu, the former governor, took a moment after a Mitt Romney event Friday to explain the unusual nature of New Hampshire politics. ”Politics is one of the great indoor sports in New Hampshire,” he said. He noted that there are 400 state legislators. Every county board of supervisors position, every school board or tax board seat, every imaginable government job, is an elected post, with elections every two years. Plus there are the partisan posts, the county chairmanships for the Democrats and the GOP. There are, he said, 5,000 elected positions in his state. That means at least 10,000 people running for office at any given time.
“One percent of the state is running for office every two years,” Sununu said. “Either you or your spouse or one of your neighbors has run for office.”
In Sununu’s estimate, the primary is not (as many believe) an event that takes place over the course of a week prior to the vote. It’s a year-long event. The voters do their homework. They meet candidates early on, when the aspirants are doing their see-me, touch-me, feel-me campaigning, as Sununu puts it.
But is that how it works, still?
Partly it was simply a lack of energy, with only one contested race, and the Romney Factor — the strange way the former governor of Massachusetts can simultaneously dominate a contest and suck much of the life out of it.
But Claira Monier said something in introducing Santorum that would have pricked Broder’s ears:
“This election seems to be more media-driven, more debate-driven, rather than grassroots-driven,” she said.
Consider the latest bulletin: A Las Vegas casino owner gives $5 million to a super PAC associated with Newt Gingrich to run attack ads on Romney. It’s all free speech, says the Supreme Court. Broder, I’m guessing, would be appalled.
You couldn’t help but notice that the candidates didn’t flood the zone here. Rick Perry only showed up for the debates. Ron Paul didn’t show up until Friday. Romney left Thursday for a day to fly to South Carolina. Santorum fled the state Sunday. Only Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich had full calendars here.
What would Broder think?
His style of journalism didn’t wear well in the age of blogs, and he was the recipient of an extraordinary amount of invective for his ultra-centrist attitude. He seemed to believe that the adults in the room could be counted on to solve problems in a bipartisan manner even when it became clear that they would rather light each other on fire.
He was always collegial, generous, kind. And humble, considering his lofty status. I asked my friend David Von Drehle, a former Postie now at TIME magazine, to sum up what made Broder so important to the rest of us. He wrote:
“Even though he had a successful syndicated column and appeared more than anyone at the Meet the Press table, he really was NOT a pundit. He was a reporter. And like a lot of the best reporters, not terribly colorful, because he was happiest blending into the background.
“It was the combination of the big brain and the monkish devotion to reporting that made him the Dean. Other reporters deferred to him long before he was an old guy, because when he said something people knew there was some basis behind it. He wasn’t just blowing smoke or repeating what some smooth operative poured into his ear.
“The fact that there’s no one like him is not JUST a function of technology, although that’s part of it. It’s also a function of the fact that his combination of brainpower and self-effacing personality—the personality that suppresses one’s own thoughts in order to be genuinely open to the thoughts of others—is very rare. That’s why, on the rare occasion that he would speak up at a table full of reporters, everyone would shut up and listen.”