Sunday, July 17, 2005

Brooks' Column Interesting, But Flawed

David Brooks today talks about "courage" politicians, specifically enumerating Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani. Riffing off a new book by Fred Siegel, Brooks says that "courage politicians" have what is peculiarly needed in these times: The capacity to focus on major wrongs and break the ideological logjams into which prevent conventional politics from dealing with them.

So far, so accurate, historically, I think. But then, Brooks makes this strange assertion:

The courage politicians speak of character, not morality. That is to say, they are more comfortable talking in the language of the classical virtues - duty, honor, service, patriotism, honesty and fortitude - than in the language of what you might call the Christian virtues - love, compassion and charity. It's not that they don't value these private things. It's just that they are stoical by nature and are more comfortable publicly with matters of the gut than with matters of the heart.
That may be true of some courage politicians, but not of two of the figures Brooks cites, Theodore Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy.

The 1912 Progressive Party convention at which former President Roosevelt was nominated for the White House was practically a Christian revival meeting, complete with the singing of hymns. During the succeeding campaign, TR himself spoke repeatedly about the morality of the Progressive cause and of the immorality of the non-progressive forces in American society. He clearly saw and couched his campaign as one favoring Christian-tinged morality.

And Robert Kennedy, as indifferent as he seemed to be about his brother's personal behavior, was always a moral crusader, whether against labor racketeers in the 1950s, against the opponents of civil rights for African-Americans during his tenure as attorney general, or against the war in Vietnam as a senator and presidential candidate. The Kennedy who most deeply imbibed the Catholic spirituality of his mother and who, in his younger days, many thought would become a priest, saw almost all political issues in moral terms, especially after his brother had been assassinated and he was liberated to become his own political man.

Indeed, historically, much of what has motivated the US's courage politicians has included strong doses of morality rooted in the belief that every soul is important and that even in the affairs of government, we are called to love our neighbor.

Nonetheless, Brooks' central argument is an interesting one. Courage politicians tend to have little patience with ideology and refuse to be married to it. They tend to be fearlessly pragmatic. While remaining essentially a conservative, for example, Theodore Roosevelt was able to embrace many progressive policies. Robert Kennedy was, of course, a liberal, yet he also was the author and main mover behind a number of private-public partnerships in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York City, believing that government couldn't do everything in addressing poverty.

Courage politicians, which surely include people like McCain and Giuliani, find it difficult to gain ascendancy within their political parties, as Brooks asserts. Parties tend not to be very creative. Like old generals fighting the last wars, political professionals tend to offer old policies for new problems and challenges. Courage politicians demand that the system speak and act in ways that are relevant to contemporary realities, striking fear both in those with stakes in the status quo and unadventurous pols who prefer selling last year's model. But it is usually only such politicians who force the body politic to wake up and live in the new day.

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