In Praise of David Brooks

When David Brooks took over the right side of the Newshour's weekly discussion of current events some years back from the sourpussed Paul Gigot, I soon noticed something remarkable in his manner. As his countering pundit, the long-serving Mark Shields, spoke, Brooks gazed at him intently and respectfully, as though he felt the Democratic-leaning columnist had something valuable to say. In this era of intolerant public discourse, such attentiveness seemed to me anachronistic, countercultural.

And both those words apply to Brooks's trenchant, humane, often beautiful recent book, The Road to Character, in which he traces the journeys of ten or so famous men and women who lived in various times and found disparate vocations but who all conquered the bad angels of their natures and made permanent commitments to virtue and humility and meaning. That their self-conquests and accomplishments are not characteristic of our time and ways of living is made clear at the start when he tells of listening in his car to an entertainment program recorded the day after V-J Day, of which "the most striking feature" was "its tone of self-effacement and humility," then returns home to catch a football game in which a player who catches a pass for a two-yard gain "did a self-puffing victory dance, as the camera lingered."

The road to character, David Brooks is telling us, is away from self to other, then back to self --a new self, whole, reformed, dedicated. "No person," he writes in his concluding chapter, "can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. . . . Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside." About his own self he writes little, but enough to reveal that its renewal has gestated in the womb of his own inner conflict, perhaps in the bitter experience that the theologian Paul Tillich, from whose gorgeous sermons Brooks quotes, described as having afflicted the persons whom Jesus healed , who were "disgusted and despairing about themselves, hateful of themselves" and - I do not assume that this was true of Brooks - "therefore hostile towards everybody else."

"I wrote [this book], to be honest," Brooks states, "to save my own soul."

Is it then a spiritual book? Most certainly. And a very important one, given especially Brooks's place in American discourse. He was presented to readers of The New York Times, where he has been a columnist for a decade, and to viewers of and listeners to public television and radio, as the successor to politically conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley and William Safire, and he has been that, but in the meantime he has redefined the newspaper column in this country by bringing to it a broad intelligence that encompasses history, philosophy, social science, morality and religion. He is a Jewish man very devoted to his tradition who writes with deep understanding of and admiration for Christian faith. In this nation madly obsessed with raucous and often dunderheaded two-year presidential campaigns, he has thrown political addicts off balance by demonstrating that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their politics. And he has proven that conservatism can be more textured, even inconsistent, even liberal. than the overheated air that is being blasted out of right-wing radio talk-shows.

David Brooks keeps surprising us, and indeed some characters whose road he follows in his book might not be expected to appear there. Dwight Eisenhower, for one. He is often supposed now to have been a determined, brave, warm-natured but bland, inarticulate man who stood barely beyond the threshold of intelligence required to be the leader of a great country. In fact he was a man with a ferocious temper that he battled back with his mother's advice and by writing in a diary the names of people who enraged him beside the words, "Anger cannot win. It cannot even think clearly." He carried around a poem that ends,. "There is no Indispensible Man." And vis-à-vis John F. Kennedy, who "exhorted the nation to venture boldly forth," Ike, in his presidential valedictory, "called for balance." And vis-à-vis George W. Bush, Ike warned against the belief that, in his words, "some spectacular and costly solution could become the miraculous solution to all our current difficulties."

Eisenhower's influential mother was deeply religious, but he in his maturity was not. Like George Eliot, another of the portrait studies, he moved away from formal religion as his personhood shaped. But some of the most of the most compelling lives examined here gravitated, gradually or relentlessly, toward God. Frances Perkins, FDR's full-term secretary of labor, who spent days at a time in silence and on her knees in a Maryland convent, and who learned that "humility is the greatest of virtues" and that "if you can't learn it, God will teach it to you by humiliation." Dorothy Day, who retreated from childhood piety to a bohemian, sexually active young adulthood before the Hound of Heaven chased her into an all-consuming Catholic faith and a life of service to the poor and hungry. And Augustine of Hippo, the great Church Father, whose intellectual and emotional surrender to the deity Brooks describes as well or better than the Jesuit who introduced my college text of Augustine's writings: "The path inward leads upward. A person goes into himself but finds himself directed toward God.s infinity. . . . Human life points beyond itself. . . . The problem, Augustine came to believe, is that if you think you can organize your own salvation you are magnifying the very sin that keeps you from it."

These are spiritual terms, and this is spiritual writing. Brooks repeatedly discusses sin, particularly the sin of pride, and holds to the most traditional of Judeo-Christian tenets that all human beings are broken, divided - fallen, and have "dappled souls." And he concludes that "we are all ultimately saved by grace." That's a Christian, and particularly, Catholic, belief, but his Judeo-Christianism is inclusive. He quotes not only the Catholic saint Augustine and the putative saint Dorothy Day, but also Protestant thinkers like Tillich and one of favorite writers, Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as several rabbis.

The other day I mentioned The Road to Character to the pastor of a Catholic church in Brooklyn that happens to be named St. Augustine. He had read it, and he said what I have thought a number of times, even before picking up the book: "I think he's undergoing a conversion." He would have much better insight into such a mystery than I, but I feel that it doesn't really matter. If writing this book has not saved David Brooks's soul, it has surely brought him well along the road to salvation. And maybe brought this reader with him a part of the way.