David Broder on candidates' personal lives: Now OK with public "choking on a surfeit of smut"


In a column titled "The Shadow of a Marriage," The Washington Post's David Broder discussed press interest in the personal lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton, asserting that, should she run for president, the Clintons' marriage will be a "hot topic" and stating that a recent New York Times article on the same topic was "anything but unsympathetic" to the Clintons. But Broder's interest in the intimate details of the Clintons' personal relationship is inconsistent with his own previous writing, in which he has argued that journalists focus too much on candidates' personal lives and that, as a result, the "public is choking on a surfeit of smut."

In his May 25 column titled "The Shadow of a Marriage," Washington Post columnist David Broder devoted his column to press interest in the personal lives of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, asserting that, should she run for president, the Clintons' marriage will be a "hot topic" and stating that a recent New York Times article on the same topic was "anything but unsympathetic" to the Clintons because it "touched only lightly" on tabloid gossip on "the former president's friendship with Canadian politician Belinda Stronach." But Broder's interest in the intimate details of the Clintons' personal relationship is inconsistent with his own previous writing, in which he has argued that journalists focus too much on candidates' personal lives and that, as a result, the "public is choking on a surfeit of smut."

Broder's May 25 column followed Patrick Healy's May 23 New York Times article about the state of the Clinton's marriage. Healy conducted interviews with "some 50 people" for the article, in which he detailed the frequency with which the Clintons spend time together and revived a baseless tabloid rumor that the former president has or had a relationship with Canadian politician Belinda Stronach. As Media Matters for America has detailed, other news outlets pounced on the story. Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy noted "how little time they [the Clintons] actually spend together"; his co-host Brian Kilmeade noted the Stronach rumor and cited concerns that the former president could "derail" Sen. Clinton's political ambitions. Fox News DaySide host Mike Jerrick wondered if the Clintons are "bedfellows"; CNN's Wolf Blitzer, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, NBC's Norah O'Donnell, and others also leapt at the chance to discuss the Clintons' marriage yet again.

The Post's David Broder might have seemed to some an unlikely participant in the leering examination of the Clintons' personal lives. His Washington Post Writers Group biography notes that he "has been called 'the high priest of political journalism,' by author Timothy Crouse, 'the unchallenged "dean" of what many political reporters like to think is their "priesthood,"' by U.S. News, and 'probably the most respected and influential political journalist in the country,' by columnist Richard Reeves. Esquire said Broder 'has few challengers as the most influential political journalist in the country.' " Broder has previously used his perch atop the media food chain to argue against the kind of treatment given to the Clintons' marriage this week, writing on January 28, 1998: "the press ought to exercise some restraint and try harder to put these matters [candidates' personal lives] in perspective. The public is choking on a surfeit of smut."

Not so this time. In "The Shadow of a Marriage," Broder wrote:

The two sides of Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the opposites that make her potential presidential candidacy such a gamble -- came into sharp focus Tuesday morning at the National Press Club.

For the better part of an hour, the senator from New York held forth in a disquisition on energy policy that was as overwhelming in its detail as it was ambitious in its reach.

But the buzz in the room was not about her speech -- or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit -- but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of that morning's New York Times.

The article, by Patrick Healy, was anything but unsympathetic. It touched only lightly on the former president's friendship with Canadian politician Belinda Stronach. It documented that despite their busy separate schedules, the Clintons had managed to spend two-thirds of their weekends together during the past 18 months.


But for all the delicacy of the treatment, the very fact that the Times had sent a reporter out to interview 50 people about the state of the Clintons' marriage and placed the story on the top of Page One was a clear signal -- if any was needed -- that the drama of the Clintons' personal life would be a hot topic if she runs for president.

Broder's assertion that "the drama of the Clintons' personal life would be a hot topic if she runs for president" seems to ignore the probability that, if it is indeed a "hot topic," it is precisely because David Broder and his colleagues have decided make it one. Rather than focusing on the substance of Clinton's speech, Broder and his colleagues focus on "her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit" and the "state of the Clintons' marriage" -- then justify doing so by calling it a "hot topic."

Broder's apparent appetite for salacious details about the Clintons' personal lives is evident in his suggestion that Healy could have explored "the former president's friendship with Canadian politician Belinda Stronach" in greater detail -- never mind that there has never been any indication that there is anything noteworthy about the friendship. After noting that Senator Clinton's energy speech was followed by three questions about energy policy and one about the Iraq war, Broder seemed to lament the fact that "the elephant in the room" -- the Clintons' marriage -- went unmentioned.

The following is a look back at what David Broder, "high priest of political journalism," has previously written about the media's focus on personal lives.

  • "What We Need to Know," The Washington Post, December 15, 1999:

In the past week, John McCain and Bill Bradley have been pushed into revealing parts of their medical history in order to deal with adverse developments in their campaigns for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. The two friends, who will join hands in New Hampshire tomorrow to promote campaign finance reform, also have a lesson to teach on the tricky question of privacy in presidential politics.

In the public forums and roundtables I've attended this year, nothing seems to bother people more about today's journalism than the blurring of lines between the public records of candidates and their private lives.

Such a concern is to be expected after the horrendous experience families had in being subjected to the grossest details of President Clinton's liaisons with Monica Lewinsky. Voters clearly are determined to buy themselves an insurance policy against that kind of embarrassment when they choose a new tenant for the Oval Office next year.

But the aftereffects of the Clinton scandal are much broader. Time and again, on college campuses and at town halls, reporters are being asked to justify what the questioners call "invasions of privacy" and to weigh the impact of such "trespasses" on the willingness of able men and women to offer themselves as candidates.

The implicit--and occasionally explicit--question is: "Why would anyone run for high office, knowing that you people (the press) will rummage through everything in their backgrounds and expose every human weakness you can find?"

It is certainly the case that reporters at times have pushed their examinations of candidates' personal histories beyond decent limits. I wrote months ago, when Texas Gov. George W. Bush was being subjected to a blitz of questions about his possible use of cocaine in earlier years, that absent any evidence of drug abuse, such rumor-based interrogation was "harassment."

I still believe that. And I also believe that other generic "have you ever?"-type questions should be out of bounds. They are lazy shortcuts, not the serious reporting that needs to be done on presidential candidates' formative experiences and professional careers. Too often, they have no purpose other than providing a quick tabloid headline or satisfying someone's prurient curiosity.


On the available evidence, neither McCain nor Bradley has a medical problem that should cause any concern. But the lesson of their experiences for other candidates is clear: Disclose your medical records early. And then fight like hell to keep private those other aspects of your life that are nobody else's business.

  • "A Little Perspective, Please; 'The question is: How illuminating of character is knowledge of sexual behavior?'" The Washington Post, January 27, 1998:

Whether the Monica Lewinsky affair ends in vindication for President Clinton, resignation or something in between, the press and the people of this country need to ask themselves some questions. Once the matter is settled, we need to think about the really murky issue of when the private sexual behavior of presidents and presidential aspirants deserves to be a matter for public scrutiny.


[T]common thread to all these scandals is sex, and that subject has appeared with growing frequency in recent presidential campaigns. Gary Hart was driven from the race by exposure of his dalliance. George Bush's son wrote a letter to the editor denying charges that his father had an extramarital affair. Even Pat Robertson was confronted with questions about premarital sex.

If the calls and comments I have received the past week are any guide, many in the public are saying "enough is enough." Geneva Overholser, The Post's ombudsman, who has more contact with readers, has been inundated with the same message.

Maybe, when this is over, we need to ask ourselves if "the French solution" of ignoring bedroom behavior has some merit, if reporters and politicians ought to adopt a variant of the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell."


Under the circumstances, journalistic efforts to explore presidential character have become a necessity. The question is: How illuminating of character is knowledge of sexual behavior?


Presidential character clearly involves more than sexual purity. By probing so persistently into that one aspect of their lives, the press may force candidates to proclaim a degree of virtue which few in their profession -- or ours -- sustain. When those claims are debunked, their overall credibility suffers, and cynicism grows.

Perhaps a cadre of candidates of impeccable morals awaits. Until then, the press ought to exercise some restraint and try harder to put these matters in perspective. The public is choking on a surfeit of smut.

  • "Odd Way To Choose a President," The Washington Post, January 28, 1992:

When the Democrats set the calendar for their 1992 presidential nomination contest, they thought the process would begin with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. They hadn't planned on the Super Bowl Sunday "60 Minutes" showdown between the Star supermarket tabloid and Bill and Hillary Clinton preempting the whole procedure.

Even by the bizarre standards of late 20th century American politics, this is an unbelievably weird way to choose a potential president of a nation with the world's largest nuclear stockpile, its biggest but badly spluttering economy and most serious international responsibilities.

Millions of people, most of them besotted by hours of beer, pizza, party snacks and John Madden trap-play diagrams, watched as the loving young couple from Little Rock tried to convince CBS's Steve Kroft that the checkout-stand tabloid's story of Clinton's alleged 12-year extramarital romance was just an example of checkbook journalism run amok.

Is this any way to choose a president? No. Is it responsible journalism? No. Then what the devil is it?


It's equally unfair, as Clinton points out, to hold up his past conduct to microscopic scrutiny because he is still in his marriage, while divorced politicians and unmarried ones (such as Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown) are given broad leeway when it comes to the details of their past lives. Surely those issues -- if any -- are of more import to the family members of these candidates than to the public at large.

Gary Hart was different. The conduct that drove him from the race in 1987 was current, it was flagrant, it violated the promises he had made to his closest political associates -- and it suggested a reckless imprudence and disregard of consequences that clearly did raise questions about his fitness for the presidency.

When the press is confronted by such behavior in a presidential candidate, it has no choice but to report it. But the press has no such obligation to go rummaging in the closets of White House contenders for any past indiscretions that may fall out. As the Clinton case and others show, it is terribly difficult to resolve the issues of motivation, evidence and conflicting recollection that attend such past relationships -- and politicians are easily victimized by people seeking to settle old scores.

More important, the ransacking of personal histories diverts journalism from what is far more important -- the examination of past performance in public office and the scrutiny of current policy positions.

It's a whole lot more useful to voters to understand why Bill Clinton has won the trust and admiration of people in both parties over his 20 years in politics than to know the details of his private life. And it is much more important to test how he can possibly reconcile his promise of new policies with his headlong wooing of the old power-brokers and interest groups of the Democratic Party than to know the names of his old girlfriends.

Enough is enough.

  • "The Press is on Shaky Ground," The Washington Post, November 15, 1987:

A similar cocoon of protectiveness was extended to the candidates, whose private foibles also went largely unreported. It was a cozy, comfortable arrangement all around, but it is gone now, and it is not likely to return.

Today, we have moved to the other extreme. Political reporters swoop down, reflexively, on any possibility of moral dereliction and ask presidential candidates at random whether they ever committed the ''sin of the week.'' Did you ever womanize? Did you ever plagiarize? Did you ever inhale an illegal substance?

The interrogation reflex has reached the point that whenever a particular moral transgression hits the news, as marijuana smoking did recently in the aborted Supreme Court nomination of Judge Douglas Ginsburg, politicians rush forward to confess their own record in that regard. They fear that if the information is not volunteered, but has to be wormed out of them, the press and public will judge them even more harshly.

Thus, the extraordinary spectacle last week of the grandfatherly, patrician, 68-year-old chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, affirming that years and years ago he had puffed on a marijuana joint and had not enjoyed the experience.

You have to wonder what this disclosure will add to the store of knowledge of Rhode Island voters or of the senators and State Department officials who deal with Pell every day. It's surprising and mildly titillating information, but that is a marginal justification for the breach of Pell's privacy.

For long years, we in the press accepted the general notion that the private lives of public officials were not our concern. Increasingly, we have erased that line, arguing that some private matters raise important questions about the individual's fitness for public responsibility. But we know we are on shaky ground.


[R]reporters have to be aware that the cumulative effect of all these stories is to deepen public cynicism about both politics and the press. Voters increasingly believe that reporters will not rest until we have pursued the real or imagined scandal in the private life of everyone holding or seeking high office.

Political journalism is not a way of satisfying the random curiosity or the voyeuristic inclinations of reporters or readers. It has to advance the dialogue on public issues or aid voters in fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens, including their judgments of the capacities and character of would-be presidents.

By that standard, the recent round of stories on past pot smoking by presidential candidates was miles off base. It's time to slow down and take another look at what we're doing, before more damage is done to the reputations of candidates and the credibility of the press.

Broder's admonishments about excessive focus on personal relationships have not been limited to his colleagues in the media. On August 1, 2000, he wrote: "The Republican Party has this hang-up about sex. Every time it tries to act like a modern, 21st century institution it stumbles over its Victorian morality and ends up looking absurd."

The Washington Post
David Broder
Propaganda/Noise Machine, Media Ethics, Hillary Clinton, 2008 Elections
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