Columnist Watch: The Washington Post’s David Broder Playing Fast and Loose with History: the 1979-1980 Iranian Hostage Crisis

–Richard E. Vatz

As readers with the bad judgment to follow my writings over the years know, I am fascinated by the rhetoric, or persuasive discourse, in major newspapers, perhaps especially by their columnists. They are given free rein to opine to significant decision-makers, as well as the general public, with little pressure to support or prove their points of view.

I have written positively about many such columnists, articulating my admiration for the writing of politically disparate denizens of the op-ed pages such as The Washington Post’s George F. Will, Richard Cohen, Charles Krauthammer and Ruth Marcus. There is also one of my all-time favorite exquisitely thoughtful and interesting columnists, The New York Times’ late, great William Safire.

There are some generally respected writers whose columns I literally detest because they are often without any evidence and supporting materials or because they are consistently without serious insight whatsoever, such as Garrison Keillor, carried by The Baltimore Sun. There are those whom I revile because they are highly intelligent columnists who take cheap shots when they know better, such as The New York Times’ Paul Krugman.

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And then there is David Broder, a generally bright, clear writer who is always referred to as a “centrist” by his colleagues at the Post, but whose left-of-center general leanings are really indisputable.

Last week, Mr. Broder went further in lazy writing than is typical of him, even on his bad days, and the subject matter was historically critical: one of the most consequential foreign policy issues in recent American Presidential history, the 1979-1980 Iranian Hostage Crisis.

Mr. Broder’s article [“Is President Obama’s Carter Moment Nearing?,”] June 3, 2010) implies that President Barack Obama could become an innocent victim of the British Petroleum oil spill, just as President Jimmy Carter was an innocent victim of the hostage crisis.

Mr. Broder depicts President Carter’s crisis as one in which “the United States was helpless to free [52 American hostages].”

Helpless? The fault is not in the stars, dear Brutus, but in our leadership.

The Post columnist largely rescues Jimmy Carter from the responsibility for prolonging the crisis, stating that the president had “found himself” in another “ordeal” and was “confined to the White House…by the hostage crisis.” Further, according to this account, the crashing of helicopters in President Carter’s “rescue effort” was “final proof that he (Carter) was cursed in anything he tried to do.”

In fact, in one of the most ill-conceived presidential rhetorical strategies in history, President Carter chose to announce to the world that he would not leave the White House until the hostages were freed, thus giving the hostage-takers a major victory: a president held hostage.

Then, after the president’s helicopter rescue plan failed and the hostages were dispersed, making rescue then impossible, he announced mysteriously that the situation had “stabilized” and left the White House to campaign for president.

Gov. Ronald Reagan, a more, shall we say, rhetorically sophisticated and take-charge leader, stated forcefully that the hostages had better be released by the time he became president.

They were released on his inauguration day. No one doubted that President Reagan would take action, certainly not the Iranian leadership.

You wouldn’t know about the denouement from the Broderian article or that irresolution breeds enemy confidence.

President Obama, take note: this outcome was one of the best arguments against weakness and for resolve in the American presidency.

Too bad we no longer have leaders like President Reagan.

Mr. Broder: you can do better — much better.

Professor Vatz teaches Media Criticism at Towson University

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