Years ago, I read the autobiography of James (Scotty) Reston, the renowned Washington bureau chief and columnist of the New York Times during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Somewhere about the book's mid-point occurred a shift so sudden it shocked. Proceeding directly from a dozen or so chapters about a nice, unassuming sort of fellow with a justifiable pride in his golf game, the story turned into the lordly recollections of a counselor to Presidents and Secretaries of State.
Even back then, when I was a liberal Democrat, I wondered: Was there something in the water coolers at the Times that accounted for this abrupt Pentecostal self-anointing?
The book is old, so old Amazon doesn't even list it any more. But the tendency to self-exaltation persists. On the Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section for June 29, David Broder, today's pretender to the Reston title, "Dean of the Washington press corps," wrote a column that comprehensively stank. Of course, most columnists cannot write. Their sentences do not sing, their efforts evince no joy nor love of language, their prose plods like a man on a treadmill. But this was worse. Broder could not even think.
"The Scalia Model," he called his column, or "piece," as we writers say. In it, Broder warned President Bush not to nominate any candidates for the Supreme Court like Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia's dissent in the Michigan affirmative action case was "sarcastic, dismissive, polemical and smug." Scalia's rhetorical style, Broder concluded, "is not a model Bush should seek to clone."
But let's read Broder in mid-column, summarizing views of which he approves:
"(Justice Sandra Day) O'Connor's (majority) opinion readily acknowledged that, as a general and vital principle, the Constitution bars favoritism or discrimination based on race. Only if there is a 'compelling state interest' can race be considered, she said, and even then, its use must be minimal.
"The 'compelling interest' of the Michigan law school, she found, lies in having 'a critical mass' of qualified minority applicants in each class, so that all students can encounter the widest variety of backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints as they prepare for their careers in a world brimming with diversity."
One looks for any trace of argument here, any hint of what Bertrand Russell said of Descartes's "I think, therefore I am" -- that it is "resoundingly proved." Forget it. This is bald assertion, nothing more.
Any real reporter would have at least raised a brow at "compelling state interest." That phrase should get to a Supreme Court decision in only one fashion, via the government claiming it in some way unconnected with the common defense or the national currency, and the Court telling the government to go doodle in its hat. "Critical mass" is meaningless gasbaggery. "Diversity," of course, has no definition as used here. (That's the point.)
Against this blat of the rhetorical kazoo, Broder quotes Scalia's clear trumpet tones sparingly and inaccurately. To wit, "Just three days later, dissenting again from the decision overturning the Texas anti-sodomy law, Scalia railed against 'the so-called homosexual agenda.'" No, he didn't. He said that such an agenda, or any other, could be legitimately pursued by legislative means.
Broder objects, in short, to calling things what they are, a curious position for a journalist. He is aghast that Scalia should have asked, in oral argument, why the Michigan law school didn't simply lower its admission standards if it wanted more minorities in the student body. "Stunningly patronizing and insulting," huffs Broder, ignoring the fact that Michigan does exactly that under another name. Scalia's coruscating observation that "mutual understanding and tolerance…(are) more appropriately learned by 'people three feet shorter and 20 years younger than the full-grown adults at the University of Michigan law school, in institutions ranging from Boy Scout troops to public- school kindergartens'" Broder dismisses as "ridiculous." Scalia's concern for those applicants discriminated against in affirmative action schemes elicits from Broder the non sequitur of a comparison to a Jesse Helms campaign ad. This is known as the "booga-booga-booga" technique in Washington journalism. Other names than Helms's may be substituted, like that of Richard Nixon.
"Sarcastic, dismissive, polemical and smug" indeed. One wonders what bothers Broder more, Scalia's opinions, or that the Justice writes so much better than he does. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mr. Broder?
The next day, Andrew Sullivan mentioned Broder's column approvingly. Ah, well. That is another unclothed emperor for another time.