David Brooks: Soft in the Head

I wonder if David Brooks should be locked up -- for his own good. I've wondered, over the past months, at the way -- in the New York Times and on radio -- he seems increasingly to have made his pact with the devil. The Republicans are going to win the mid-term elections, he predicts. So, as a Republican commentator, he applauds from the press box his party's cynical power plays, as in a game of football. Take advantage of the new funding rules, then take wackos onto your team, tell them not to throw stupid passes relating to out-of-date social issues (abortion/gay marriage), and just get the damned ball over the line while the Democratic crowd is hostile or indifferent to its own team, in order to win in November.

In that respect, David is being a typical postmodern Republican: shameless, Bismarckian, and contemptuous of communitarians. But "Don't Follow the Money," his latest column on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, suggests he's now lost his marbles. Is this really the guy who wrote Bobos in Paradise ten years ago -- who was intelligent and invested with a conscience?

I ask because his new column advances what to me is perhaps the most complacent, blinkered analysis of our current political quagmire I have read for a long time! In it, he claims that spending by Democrats in the midterm election campaigns this year has seen the equal funding of both parties, and that therefore the amounts cancel each other out. He claims the "political press" has attributed magical properties to such monies in skewing outcomes -- and that the republic is safe.

Wow! Has David never heard of attack-ads? He writes that in Colorado, "Liberal-leaning groups have spent $6.9 million attacking his Republican opponent, Ken Buck," while Republican ads are merely "pro-Republican"!

Oh, David: open thy eyes! I certainly have yet to see or hear a "pro-Republican ad" -- they are all anti-government and anti-Democrat! He even pooh-poohs the fuss over Karl Rove re-entering the political arena -- a man who ruined the stature of American government domestically and abroad, and only just avoided indictment over the Valerie Plame imbroglio. There is "no way," David writes, "the $13 million he [Rove] influences through the group American Crossroads is going to reshape an election in which the two parties are spending something like $1.4 billion collectively." Well, Rove doesn't have to -- he's a master of dirty tricks, who influences the elections that count.

I'd like to quote, if I may, from the final chapter of my American Caesars, which recounts, in its first section, how George W. Bush actually got to the presidency. Bush didn't need, as his "brain" Karl Rove saw it, to "reshape the election" positively -- he only had to make sure his Republican opponent was politically-assassinated:

"When Senator McCain won the first Republican primary in New Hampshire by a huge margin -- eighteen percentage points -- Governor Bush was distraught. McCain had campaigned in a bus he called 'The Straight Talk Express.' Bush had traveled in a private jet and, nervous lest his ignorance show, had not given a single in-depth interview to the hundred reporters following his campaign.

"Bush's response, as it had been when helping his father defeat Governor Dukakis, was to get out the dirty tricks book. In the case of McCain, this required trashing the Senator's war record and his character -- spreading rumors that McCain had fathered an illegitimate child who was black.

The accusations defied belief in their viciousness, pillorying Senator McCain 'with lies that he was a liberal reprobate who abandoned a crippled wife to father black children with black prostitutes. Preposterous charges of extramarital affairs, abortion, wife beating, mob ties, venereal diseases, and illegitimate children were flung at him, while his wife Cindy was tarred as a wayward woman and drug addict who had stolen to support her habit, his children were vilified as bastards' -- the 'poison drip' saturating South Carolina 'for eighteen days and nights of slaughterhouse politics.'

"[Lee] Atwater, had he lived, would have been proud of Karl Rove, but McCain -- who lost the primary to Bush -- was so disgusted he never forgave the Governor. 'Don't give me that shit,' the Senator snarled when, after their one televised debate, Bush apologized and claimed, 'We've got to start running a better campaign.'

"'The deeply personal, usually anonymous allegations that make up a smear campaign are aimed at a candidate's most precious asset: his reputation,' McCain's campaign director would later reflect, when watching Bush and Rove repeat their tactics in 2004 [in politically-assassinating John Kerry with the infamous "Swift Boats For Truth" attack campaign]. 'The reason this blackest of the dark arts is likely to continue is simple: It often works.' It did. Though McCain countered by resorting to bare-knuckle tactics in the subsequent Michigan primary, and won it by seven percentage points, the Senator's heart wasn't in such methods. Nor, more significantly, could he raise the tens of millions of dollars W. was assembling. George W. Bush's path to nomination as the Republican candidate was thus cleared, and on March 9, 2000, Senator McCain dropped out of the race." (American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, Yale University Press, p484)

How Rove went on to become the "Architect" of President Bush's political campaign success is well-known to David Brooks, who is nobody's fool. How then can David, knowing this, pretend that that Rove's $32 million-and-counting intercession on behalf of American Crossroads -- much of it from anonymous donors -- is irrelevant to the election, or its outcome, defeats me! David claims that it is overall spending that is the issue -- and given the parties' equivalence (which is by no means fact), there is no danger to the republic.

Has David never read military history? Does he really believe that victory in battle goes to the side with the most men, and that if both sides are even, there is stalemate? I have spent a large part of my life studying the great battles of World War II in the West, when researching and writing my three-volume life of Field Marshal Montgomery, who led the D-Day armies. I can tell David categorically: it doesn't work that way! The concept of Schwerpunkt -- of applying decisive force at a critical point -- has been a feature of war since battles began: and in electoral battles it is often the same.

By funneling anonymous monies from outside sources into critical points in the approaching election, Karl Rove seeks to win it for Republicans -- and thus re-establish himself as the genius of the Republican counter-offensive. Wherever he operates, attack-ads rather than positive ads will be the order of the day -- liberally seasoned with dirty-tricks tactics. How could it be otherwise for a man who has spent his professional life failing to take a college degree, but instead honing his negative Machiavellian skills? Rove is to me a dead ringer for Iago -- and for David Brooks to misinterpret and misstate Rove's "influence" as miniscule saddens me. In fact it makes me wonder if, for his own moral well-being, that most intelligent writer, observer and commentator should best be ushered away by his relatives, so that he can one day recover his good conscience.

To be labeled, as he will otherwise be, a "fellow-traveler" of a negative, mobocratic, Tea Party/Rove/Republican anti-government movement -- a movement that is exploiting public fear and anxiety over high unemployment and a slow economic recovery from the Bush recession (moreover a movement that has not a single genuine idea to offer in restoring America to greatness beyond tax reductions for the already-rich) would be a distressing coda to a career that began with Bobos in Paradise. Even if, for a brief while, it helps him earn his bread -- as was the case so often with fellow-traveling writers in history -- on the winning side.

Nigel Hamilton won the Whitbread Prize and Templer Medal for his 3-volume biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He has published biographies of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, and his latest book, American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, was published last month by Yale University Press.