As right-wing pundits go, David Brooks has always lived in the shadow of the big dogs like William F. Buckley, George F. Will, and William Kristol. He doesn’t have the gravitas, the tweedy wardrobe, the deep, measured stentorian voice that gives him a certain level of seriousness even when he’s talking about baseball. So it’s no surprise that when it came his turn to write his obligatory report from the Magic Kingdom, following in the footsteps again of William Kristol, he’d turn in this lightweight piece of fluffing (in all its meanings), full of attempts at deep insight but laced with enough Kool-Aid to give you a sugar crash.
I spent the first four days of last week interviewing senators about Iraq. The mood ranged from despondency to despair. Then on Friday I went to the Roosevelt Room in the White House to hear President Bush answer questions on the same subject. It was like entering a different universe.
Far from being beleaguered, Bush was assertive and good-humored. While some in his administration may be looking for exit strategies, he is unshakably committed to stabilizing Iraq. If Gen. David Petraeus comes back and says he needs more troops and more time, Bush will scrounge up the troops. If General Petraeus says he can get by with fewer, Bush will support that, too.
Bush said he will get General Petraeus’s views unfiltered by the Pentagon establishment. He feels no need to compromise to head off opposition from Capitol Hill and is confident that he can rebuild popular support. “I have the tools,” he said.
I left the 110-minute session thinking that far from being worn down by the past few years, Bush seems empowered. His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency.
All this will be taken as evidence by many that Bush is delusional. He’s living in a cocoon. He doesn’t see or can’t face how badly the war is going and how awfully he has performed.
But Bush is not blind to the realities in Iraq. After all, he lives through the events we’re not supposed to report on: the trips to Walter Reed, the hours and hours spent weeping with or being rebuffed by the families of the dead.
Rather, his self-confidence survives because it flows from two sources. The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: “It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.”
I think he’s right on the delusional call. History is replete with examples of leaders who, even as the bombs were falling outside and the walls were crumbling, remained convinced that there would come one last push from his forces that would throw off the enemy as it is breaking down the gates, or that Divine Providence, in the very definition of deus ex machina, would intercede and vanquish the foes. The most recent example is Mr. Bush’s own nemesis, Saddam Hussein, who sent his spokesman out to tell the journalists that his forces had soundly defeated the American forces on the outskirts of Baghdad even as the G.I.’s were rolling in from the airport.
Of course it’s all an illusion, and all the witnesses to this process can do is stand and gape at the amazing ability of these people not to see the truth. Denial is a very powerful force and provides great comfort and energy to those who buy into it. Even when faced by rebellion from long-serving and well-informed senators within his own political party like Richard Lugar, John Warner, and George Voinovich — and remembering that the one thing the GOP does best is march in lockstep behind their leader, right or wrong — the president refuses to accept the fact that he could be wrong. In spite of overwhelming evidence that his policies have destroyed one country and alienated the rest of the world towards us, Mr. Bush finds a strand of horse hair in this mountain of manure and is convinced he’s found the pony.
There’s another clue that Mr. Brooks provides us in the method of the president’s madness:
Conservatives are supposed to distrust government, but Bush clearly loves the presidency. Or to be more precise, he loves leadership. He’s convinced leaders have the power to change societies. Even in a place as chaotic as Iraq, good leadership makes all the difference.
It’s not so much that Mr. Bush loves “leadership” as much as he loves ruling and the trappings that come with it: the big office, the cool plane, the fact that he travels with a posse of well-built guys in crew cuts and sunglasses all packing heat, and that he gets a lot of vacation time. But a true leader does not surround himself with sycophants and political hacks who know exactly what to whisper in the ear of the Dear Leader and are likewise afraid to speak of their inner doubts to anyone else lest they be accused of disloyalty. Mr. Bush’s record of choosing incompetent and unqualified members for his administration is the only thing that shows a remarkable consistency. The only person in the entire administration who will speak truth to power is Dick Cheney, and he only does that when he is shaving.
A true leader is not afraid to hear contrary and vocal opinions from others even within his own circle, nor is he afraid to let the world see that he must go through a process of true deliberation before making a decision. A true leader does not hire experts such as generals and fire them when they don’t tell him what he wants to hear. A true leader hires people who are smarter than he is and listens to them. A true leader isn’t the loudest voice in the room but the one who convinces his followers by his example, not by intimidation. A true leader does not rely on his “guts” to tell him what’s right and wrong, and most of all a true leader has the moral fortitude, whether it comes from faith in God or his fellow man, that what he is doing will be a benefit to everyone who is touched by it, not just those who voted for him. The image of the bold leader who is convinced of his own righteousness and uses his consultants as props may sound like presidential leadership to Mr. Bush, but in reality it’s not much different than a street gang. The fact that he can be perceived, as Mr. Brooks says, as “a smart and compelling presence in person” only amplifies the impression that it’s all a shallow illusion: if Mr. Bush was so smart and compelling, he would have done a far better job of convincing the nation and the world to follow him and he would not have had to resort to lies and secrecy to accomplish his goals. And regardless of how he appears in person, the fact is that the president sounds more and more like a man who is trying to convince not just the nation but himself that he hasn’t completely screwed things up to the point that he has to leave it for the next president and wait fifty years for history to vindicate him.
As is his custom, Mr. Brooks leaves himself with an out, and he does it by citing Leo Tolstoy, as if citing a 19th Century Russian writer will give him the image of serious scholarship worthy of more than just punditry.
Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations — from the bottom up.
According to this view, societies are infinitely complex. They can’t be understood or directed by a group of politicians in the White House or the Green Zone. Societies move and breathe on their own, through the jostling of mentalities and habits. Politics is a thin crust on the surface of culture. Political leaders can only play a tiny role in transforming a people, especially when the integral fabric of society has dissolved.
If Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief executive.
My money’s on Tolstoy.
Mr. Brooks also shows a lack of courage that the weightier pundits have. In his op-ed piece in the Washington Post, William Kristol floored the accelerator and drove off the cliff at full speed like Thelma and Louise in the Thunderbird, acknowledging up front that he was opening himself up to “harmless ridicule.” (And we were all too happy to oblige.) I give him kudos for at least being willing to make the leap, and he shows a kinship with the president he so admires: in the face of reality he’ll cling to delusion with all the energy and tenacity of a True Believer.
But Mr. Brooks chickened out, latching on the bungee cord of Tolstoy so that if he was proven uproariously wrong and the Kool-Aid wore off too soon he could back away from his vision that George W. Bush is a “far-sighted leader…with the power to transform people.” (Mr. Bush has transformed people, all right; a lot of them into Democratic voters.) And that’s why David Brooks will never be an A-list pundit and why his standards of excellence will always be a man who graduated from Yale with “gentlemen’s C’s.”
Cross-posted from Bark Bark Woof Woof.