Banal Outrage

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: May 06, 2007 12:01 AM
Banal Outrage

Veteran political columnist David Broder set off a firestorm recently when he called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid an ``embarrassment'' for declaring the Iraq War ``lost.''

From the assault subsequently directed at Broder -- from other journalists, political operatives, left-wing bloggers and even the entire 50-member Senate Democratic Caucus -- you'd have thought Broder had had an intimate encounter with an intern.

Or, in the spirit of bipartisanship, had broken into Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Broder committed no such dastardly deed, but merely did what he has done for the past 35 years. He called it as he saw it -- just as Reid claims to have done, and that his defenders seem to find so refreshing.

Nevertheless, the 50 Democratic senators felt compelled to respond. Doesn't the U.S. Senate have more important matters to attend to than David Broder?

In a letter to The Washington Post that had the unmistakable whiff of a powder room manifesto, otherwise known as a hissy fit -- as opposed to a ``bed-wetting tantrum,'' as Paul Begala described Broder's column -- the senators asserted that their leader is a ``good listener,'' who has an ``amazing ability to synthesize views and bring people together,'' and who also demonstrates a ``mastery of procedure.''

It is perhaps admirable, and certainly reassuring to Reid, that his fellow senators came to his defense. But this kind of overreaction to a columnist is rare, if not unprecedented, and betrays a disturbing hostility to legitimate criticism.

Though Broder is a great political writer, he is not the president of the United States. He doesn't command an army or meet routinely with heads of state to negotiate planetary alignment or even global heating and cooling. He's a commentator.

And what, exactly, is a commentator supposed to do if not comment? When he or she makes a point -- from the perspective of an observer with more than 50 years' experience in Broder's case -- does disagreement necessitate a movement?

Outrage has become such a predictable response to any difference of opinion that it's lost its heat. When everything is outrageous, nothing is.

In fact, what Broder said was not remotely outrageous. It's hardly crazy to think it inappropriate when the leader of the most powerful governing body in the world declares in the midst of a war that the war is lost.

Broder's point, provocative but hardly incendiary, was that American lives are on the line and that Reid's remark didn't help matters. Rather than provide encouragement to our enemies, Broder suggested that the Senate leader might do better to heed the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report and seek common ground toward both military and political solutions.

Broder needs no one to defend him. His record, which includes at least equal numbers of columns criticizing Republicans as Democrats, speaks for itself. But the Reid-Broder dust-up reveals the degraded state of public debate today. People don't disagree; they brawl. Punditry has become a free-for-all -- and mutual respect is locked in the attic with Aunt Sadie.

Part of this devolution in discourse has been brought about, no doubt, by the volcanic explosion of the blogosphere, which has democratized free speech in a way that is not always positive or pretty. Everybody can type, but not everyone can write. Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone comes equipped with the same skills and experience.

The disinhibiting effect of anonymity, meanwhile, has unleashed something dark in the human spirit that seems to have infected the broader culture. It isn't enough to say that Broder is all wet; instead he's ``foaming at the mouth,'' a ``gasbag" and a ``venomous'' bloviator,'' borrowing again from Begala.

Begala, who came to punditry via the Clinton White House, isn't anonymous, of course. But many other lesser-knowns have taken Broder to task in what has become the typical blog-inspired pile-on.

One wonders where these same thin-skins were when Broder was leveling his sights at the Bush administration. Was Broder a gasbag when previously he lambasted the Bush budget deficit, the tax cuts for the rich and the mess in Iraq?

A fair treatment of Broder's recent column would consider the broader context of his body of work, but fairness is missing from this debate. Also is respect for those, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broder, who have toiled long in the fields to earn the kind of forum others merely feel entitled to.

The absence of fairness and respectful dissension -- and the decline of civility wrought by our nation's unhinged narcissism -- now there's something worthy of outrage.