Skip to main content

The Torch Is Passed

ISSUE:  Winter 1981
Changing of the Guard: Power and Leadership in America. By David S. Broder. Simon & Schuster. $14.95.

David Broder is America’s foremost political journalist, and his syndicated columns are read as avidly as the election returns by political devotees. Broder’s new book, Changing of the Guard: Power and Leadership in America, essentially takes up where his last book, The Party’s Over, left off. Assuming the continued decline of the political party system, Broder asks: whence does leadership in America come and in what patterns?

Broder tries to analyze America’s political change and forecast future leadership in generational terms. The core of research for his study was a series of interviews with 300 young American leaders, “the ones who are going to be running the country,” at least in the author’s estimation. Noting that from Jack Kennedy to Jimmy Carter, each American president since Eisenhower was a uniformed man in World War II, Broder sees the stage set in the 1980’s for the inevitable transfer of power to those too young to have served in the war of national consensus. Instead, the thoughts of the new generation on the edge of power were shaped by national crises and divisive traumas: Korea, Vietnam, the Kennedy and King assassinations, riots, the civil rights struggle, and Watergate. All the while, television, suburbanization, and other technological and social forces were reshaping the means and methods of electoral politics. These events and trends, contends Broder, have profoundly altered how young Americans view government and politics and how they approach problem-solving.

Indeed, there are striking similarities in the outlooks of Broder’s interviewees, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, in the vanguard of the New Right or the young Left, in labor’s ranks or businessmen, active in the women’s movement or the anti-abortion league. Compared to their elders of the New Deal generation, for instance, they are much less convinced that government (any government) has the answers to the nation’s difficulties; rather they feel that there are severe limits to what can be accomplished by Washington. The younger leaders, depressingly, also reflect the decline of American institutions like the political parties. They are demonstrably more independent and assertive than their activist mothers and fathers but more fragmented and special-interest oriented as well. Since they no longer rely on parties to bind them together with like-minded individuals, they form networks of association. Broder focuses on groupings like the New Right, for instance, demonstrating how a diffuse ideological network first established in 1960 could grow in ferocity and intensity until it captured the soul of one of the political parties.

Some of Broder’s vignettes of activists are particularly fascinating. There is, for example, the Marxist judge in Detroit who says he is part of “the system of injustice,” who was ordered by a higher court to wear a robe and display the Stars and Stripes, yet is acknowledged to be one of the very best jurists in his area. Youthful organizers of senior citizens and gays, anti-war activists, consumerists, environmentalists, balanced-budget enthusiasts, and political agents of all stripes are given their due by the author, although every category seems a bit too heavily laced with Ivy Leaguers and Rhodes Scholars.

After a number of excellent chapters parading the new leaders among women, Hispanics, blacks, public-interest lawyers, and other groups, Broder turns to the “shapes of things to come” in the three “growth frontiers” which are mirroring America’s expansion: suburbia, the West, and the South. Black enfranchisement in the South, migration to the West, and the urban population’s shift to the suburbs have dramatically altered regional and national politics, and Broder pieces together his portraits of suburban, Western, and Southern leaders in an enlightening way, using their words and their experiences to highlight the political transformations. In characterizing the Southern renaissance, for example, Broder recalls Andrew Young’s mini-history of Southern politics. Young, in addressing a conference of the Association of Southern Black Mayors in 1974, suggested:

It used to be that Southern politics was just “nigger” politics: who could “outnigger” the other. Then you registered 10 to 15 percent in the community and folk would start saying “Nigra.” And then you got to 35 to 40 percent registered, and it’s amazing how quick they learned how to say “Nee-grow.” And now that we’ve got 50, 60, 70 percent of the black votes registered in the South, everybody’s proud to be associated with their black brothers and sisters.

Interestingly, Broder also finds a common strand in the politics of the three diverse American frontiers. Some frontier candidates may be anti-big government, some may be anti-big business, others anti-utililty. But whatever the target, notes Broder, “What is important is simply that the candidate place himself on the voters’ side against some of the big, unresponsive bureaucracies that have had such a major impact on their lives.”

Television, the all-pervasive medium, is also counted as a new frontier by Broder. He critiques television news and political programming with the relish of a print journalist, and he briefly looks at some of the products of star politics, including a news announcer who was elected mayor of Seattle and a talk show master of ceremonies who became a California congressman. (Maybe John Y.and Phyllis George Brown, and John and Elizabeth Taylor Warner would have been more fitting subjects for an inquiry into why so many successful politicians resemble game show hosts.) The polling oracles from Mount Olympus, like Pat Caddell and Peter Hart, who serve as the vox populi in modern society, and a few professional journalists, like Bill Moyers, who interpret opinion in a different way, are also included in Broder’s analysis of new political reality.

Most of the names of the individuals sketched in this book are not terribly familiar, but soon enough many of them will be. Broder appears to have made sound selections for the most part, although he himself cautions that his sampling is “hardly a cross section” of the ranks of young leaders. The author relied heavily on peer group judgments within each of the networks he chose, having found “a fairly high degree of consensus” within each group about the talent found therein. The sampling was most definitely arbitrary, and skewed by Broder’s own “crotchety criteria,” which banished “the over-publicized, the hacks, and the nakedly ambitious . . .pompous asses, young fogies [and] overly precocious pups.” Some notable future presidential prospects were numbered among the absentees but, says Broder, “I am arbitrary enough to confess that I do not mourn their absence for a moment. Sufficient unto the day is the inevitability of having to write about them.”

In an age when political institutions seem to have diminished in importance, and candidate-centered politics has all but replaced party-centered politics, Broder takes the best course open to him in assessing America’s future potential: he looks at some of the individuals he believes are likely to lead the U.S. into the 21st century. Yet one can easily quibble with some of his selections. Given Broder’s own prohibition against “pompous asses,” for instance, an observer can only marvel at his choice of the insufferably arrogant George Will as one of only three journalists highlighted in his book. For another example, one can applaud the author’s designation of cartoonist Carry Trudeau, but the absence of the equally talented Jeff MacNelly is glaring. And on and on. It would be a shame if Broder’s volume became viewed as a winter book of political favorites, because there are notable deletions (and a few questionable entries). Quite naturally, his choices are more reflective of the circles in which he travels than of the reservoir of fine talent which exists in the unrecognized hinterlands. Broder acknowledges as much at one point in the book (but repeatedly refers to his bunch as our inevitable future governors—God spare us in some cases.) While the author has undoubtedly done a better job than Time magazine did in their silly “200 Future Leaders” issue, not even a Broder has the breadth of knowledge and experience, or the wisdom, to carry off convincingly such a political Super Bowl.

Moreover, readers will find relatively little analysis in this book, which is both a strength and a weakness. Broder lets the interviewees have their say, skillfully weaving their comments into a coherent pattern so that a sense of the individuals as well as their politics is communicated. Yet after such a long and faithful reading of interview transcripts and résumés, a seasoned Broder reader is unavoidably disappointed with the sparseness of the commentary. The last chapter, containing the author’s extraordinarily perceptive synthesis, comprises but 14 of 481 pages of text; it should have been stretched to at least a third of the book, even if the fulminations of some featured stars had to be deleted and the debuts of others had to be postponed. Broder’s ruminations about the possible dawning of a Republican age and of an era of institutional rehabilitation are far more valuable and worthwhile than Jerry Brown’s patter about the “greenhouse effect” and “the long-term mutations in human genes.”

Maybe the most insightful parts of this well-written book, though, are the revealing anecdotes which Broder’s reportorial instinct has told him to record and pass along. After suggesting that Jimmy Carter will be viewed years hence as “the tail of the passing parade, or at most, as a transitional figure in our politics,” Broder relates an incident which occurred in the 1976 Florida presidential primary. As told by Evan Dobelle, a Carter henchman, the episode may have served as an epitaph for the failed Carter presidency:

I saw Jimmy Carter stand on a chair in shirt sleeves, and literally get an audience almost hysterical with an impassioned speech on senior citizens and the elderly. And when he left—I was standing by the car—I said, “Governor, that was one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard from anybody.” And he said, “No, it wasn’t. I gave them expectations I can never match.”



This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading