First, there was Mark Sanford’s press conference. Here was a guy utterly lacking in any sense of reticence, who was given to rambling self-exposure even in his moment of disgrace. Then there was the death of Michael Jackson and the discussion of his life. Here was a guy who was apparently untouched by any pressure to live according to the rules and restraints of adulthood. Then there was Sarah Palin’s press conference. Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust.Right. A logical grouping:
- The man who makes a spectacle of himself pursuing an Argentine floozy;
- The man who makes a spectacle of himself pursuing pubescent boys and trying to look like a freakish parody of Liza Minelli; and
- Sarah Palin.
UPDATE: Linked by Obi's Sister, Daley Gator, Paco Enterprises and Memeorandum. Meanwhile, HuffPo's Adam Hanft analyzes the Brooksian method.
It's a familiar technique. If you go back to his classic 1997 betrayal of the conservative cause -- "A Return to National Greatness" -- you find Brooks begins by describing the century-old magnificence of the Library of Congress building. He contrasts a bygone time when "there was enthusiasm for grand American projects" with the limited-government agenda of the GOP majority which then controlled Congress, and finds the latter sorely wanting:
At a moment of world supremacy unlike any other, Americans are not asking big questions about their civilization, nor are they being asked anything but the sorts of things pollsters and marketers want to know. And so our politics has become degrading and boring. Political conflict appears trivial, vicious for no good reason.So the splendor of the Gilded Age, symbolized by the elaborate architecture of the Library of Congress, is made a contrast to the "trivial" nature of contemporary politics, and the eloquence of Brooksian prose is such that the argument might easily persuade a reader who knows nothing of history.
To start with, if you walk three blocks north from the Library of Congress, you can find another impressive architectural specimen, Union Station, completed about a decade later. It took only a year to build it, too. What's up with that? You couldn't build a replica of Union Station today if you had a trillion dollars, and you sure as hell couldn't build it in a year.
Skilled labor was cheap. It's really that simple. This is the great lesson to be learned by the grandeur of the monuments of the past. Go to Berry College in Georgia and examine the Gothic glories of the Ford Buildings (example photo). With a philanthropic donation from Henry Ford, Berry brought in Italian stone masons to do the work. And they worked cheap.
A 55-hour week -- 10 hours a day Monday through Friday, and half a day on Saturday -- was common for laborers a century ago. (Benefits? Whoever heard of such a thing?) And the laborer who earned $2 for his 10-hour day was actually doing better than many small farmers of the era, who toiled from dawn to dusk merely to earn their family's subsistence.
When what we would today consider poverty (at least as measured by annual cash income) was the plight of a majority of the people, and when there was no welfare state to provide for the idle, it was possible to build grand monuments like the Library of Congress, Union Station or the Ford Buildings. Today, mechanization and mass-produced materials -- steel, glass, concrete -- allow us to erect giant skyscrapers, but the awe-inspiring handcrafted touches of those older buildings can't be had for any feasible sum, basically because of changes in economic conditions.
This historical background is omitted entirely from Brooks' celebration of the Beaux Arts splendor of the Library of Congress building in "A Return to National Greatness," just as he stripped George Washington from historical context for his column on "dignity." (One wonders how Washington would have dealt with the FOIA frenzy of Palin's enemies.)
Brooks' walk-off yesterday was a classic:
But it’s not right to end on a note of cultural pessimism because there is the fact of President Obama. Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation and embody a new set of rules for self-mastery.What is the sum of the "reticence" and "dispassion" that Brooks praises? Mainly, there is Obama's deep baritone voice. If the politics thing hadn't worked out, Obama could have had a successful career as an announcer for an FM "smooth jazz" station. As it is, however, he is blessed with a fawning press corps whose members seem to conceive themselves as employees of the marketing department of Obama Inc.
Easy to strike the presidential pose of reticence under such circumstances, but as is his habit, Brooks omits the context necessary to understanding the phenomenon he celebrates. Brooks wishes to appropriate for himself the "dignity" he praises, but in fact his impulse is childish: "Look, something wonderful!"
Let mature students of statesmanship reserve judgment. We'll see how Obama's "dignity" holds up when unemployment hits 14 percent.