Friday, September 26, 2008

David Brooks is a Sad Panda

David Brooks likes John McCain. There's nothing surprising about that, of course, but more importantly, there's nothing wrong with that. I've castigated Brooks on a couple occasions for pointless cynicism, so it would be inconsistent and wrong of me to mock him for being genuinely fond of a politician. And considering how genuinely fond I am of Barack Obama, I would only be adding to the world's endless trough of hypocrisy.

Brooks' point, and it's not a ridiculous one, is that McCain is a good man, a serious man, and that we've lost track of that in the crucible of our presidential election. Brooks criticizes McCain for running a campaign with "no central argument," but the rest of the column is largely a paean to Arizona's senior senator. He desperately urges us to remember McCain's basic decency.

On that point I agree with Brooks. McCain's a decent man. It's unfortunate that we've forgotten that. But if McCain wants to blame someone for that lapse in our collective memory, he needs to look in the mirror.

McCain has run a brutal, dishonest, sarcastic, insulting campaign, and he's done so in an election that is guaranteed to be remembered in the annals of our history. Brooks acknowledges this reality. He just doesn't care about it.

And besides, both sides are guilty, so no one's to blame.

Nor is it, primarily, the dishonest ads he is running. My friends in the Obama cheering section get huffy about them, while filtering from their consciousness all the dishonest ads Obama has run — the demagogic DHL ad, the insulting computer ad, the cynical Rush Limbaugh ad, the misleading Social Security ad and so on. If one candidate has sunk lower than the other at this point, I’ve lost track.

Let's get this part of the discussion out of the way early, because Brooks loves to caricature everyone who supports Obama as an unthinking cultist. Yes, Obama has run several deceptive ads. Yes, he has pursued lines of attack on the stump that are misleading. No, those are not acceptable.

Still, we must make no mistake: it was McCain and Steve Schmidt, the Karl Rove acolyte who runs his operation, who poisoned the atmosphere of this election. As Slate's John Dickerson always takes pains to point out, Obama did start the attacks. He was linking McCain to President Bush before the Republican primary results were official and before his own primary battle with Clinton was even close to finished. And yes, Obama did make the unfortunate decision to spurn McCain's offer of several joint town hall meetings.

But I think deep down, David Brooks knows who has fallen deeper into the muck. The astonishing aspect of McCain's campaign is not that it has thrown mud at the opposing camp. Every campaign does that to some extent. What sets the McCain campaign apart is the joy it takes in trying to drive a shiv into the back of Obama's neck.

But Brutus is an honorable man.

When Karl Rove painted Al Gore, a good and decent man, as a serial liar back in 2000, or alleged that decorated war hero John Kerry was a spineless coward unwilling to defend America in 2004, he didn't do it out of any personal animus. He did it because Gore and Kerry were in the way, and those attacks were the best way to remove the obstacles. McCain's group, by contrast, has reveled in nothing so much as mocking and denigrating every aspect of Barack Obama's life.

But Brutus is an honorable man.

It was not Obama who released an ad rife with potentially explosive racial symbolism that accused the opposing candidate of being nothing more than a vacuous, empty-headed celebrity. It was not Obama who kicked dirt in the faces of the millions of young people who were engaged in, and enthusiastic about, the political process for the first time in their lives. It was not Obama who nominated a dangerously incapable and unsuitable woman for the vice presidency and then roared with false outrage when anyone dared question her qualifications.

But Brutus is an honorable man.

And above all else, remember, it was McCain who uttered the most odious assault of the election when he said Obama would "rather lose a war than lose an election." That was McCain's choice. Those were his words. It was John McCain, David Brooks' good and serious man, David Brooks' good and serious man who at the 2004 Republican Convention had urged his party to not treat its opponents as its enemies, it was that man who alleged that his opponent was deliberately advocating a strategy he knew would result in a defeat. That allegation, practically a charge of treason, introduced a toxic element into the campaign. That element would not have existed if McCain had not conjured it.

But Brutus is an honorable man.

I could argue that journalists, men and women like David Brooks, should be on guard for attacks like McCain's, as they would be most vulnerable in a society that treats criticism of the government as treason. But I suspect that's not something David Brooks would have to worry about.

Is John McCain a good man? Probably. A serious man? Probably. But that doesn't redeem his story. That only makes it a tragedy.

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