Published September 21, 2012
Both candidates in this year’s presidential election are
good men trapped in a rigid political landscape, New York Times
columnist David Brooks said in last night’s Distinguished
Speakers Series address. Moreover, their under-performing campaigns
are tied to larger issues in American culture, the genial book
author and frequent NPR commentator told a large audience in the
Center for the Arts.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are decent, accomplished men, Brooks said. However, they are locked into a set of “horrible circumstances,” attributable both to their personalities and to cultural shifts in the country. Brooks, who knows and has covered both candidates, says Romney’s social skills would contribute to his presidency, if he’s elected. “He is personally a genuine, considerate man.” Moreover, Romney is part of a proud family history dating from the time his carpenter great-grandfather carved out a life amid “Stone Age” conditions, first in Salt Lake City, then Arizona, and later in Mexico, where Romney’s father was born, before the family returned to the U.S.
Yet, partly because of his Mormonism, Brooks said, Romney is a “hidden man,” who in his public presentations often mimics positions not really his own. “He’s a non-ideological person in an ideological time,” Brooks said. “He just doesn’t think philosophically—he’s a problem-solver. So he’s faking it—pretending to be something he’s not.” Insincerity, he said, was at the root of Romney’s controversial remarks about 47 percent of Americans not paying taxes and their purported sense of entitlement. Brooks said he found the comments “morally offensive.”
Obama, on the other hand, has changed a great deal since the 2008 presidential campaign. From charging forth with many ideas, “open to the world” and brimming with confidence, the president is now “more insular,” “cagey” and to Brooks’ mind “exhausted” by the limitations of the office. “He has been so busy that he hasn’t refreshed his batteries.”
Furthermore, Obama is not a natural politician, Brooks said, and this quality is exacerbated by the “very generic, orthodox” campaigns conducted by both parties. The net result is that 2012 campaign discourse hearkens back to the “big government vs. small government” opposition of the 1964 presidential campaign. According to Brooks, a critical question is, “Does Obama have a second act” replete with new ideas and a precise agenda?
The current political landscape, Brooks continued, cannot be understood without analyzing American culture and how it has changed since the World War II era. He contrasted the current ethos of self-advancement with the modesty, graciousness and humility of mid-20th-century America. Famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, for instance, would not gloat on his nation’s behalf for defeating the enemy on the occasion of V-J Day. Instead, he offered this eloquent, modest rejoinder: “We should be worthy of the peace.”
Brooks connected troubling statistics of the U.S. economy and educational attainment with a cultural decline evident since World War II, although he took pains to point out that he “wouldn’t want to go back.” Whereas Pyle demonstrated striking modesty amid significant accomplishments, Americans today are all too willing to claim standings their actual accomplishments don’t merit.
In fact, this social shift is measurable, Brooks said. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high school seniors “Are you a very important person?” Twelve percent said yes. When the same question was asked in 2005, 80 percent of high schools seniors responded in the affirmative. And, at a time when the U.S. ranks 36th in the world in math, Americans, when asked “Are you really good in math,” will answer that they’re “number one” in the world, Brooks reported. “We have become a very self-confident culture. It will not surprise the teachers or the administrators here [at UB] to know that 96 percent of college professors believe they have above-average teaching skills,” he said to audience laughter.
Brooks said such over-confidence has led to over-spending, which, in turn, is tied to the nation’s economic ills. A major challenge for the country, he said, is the “huge increase” in personal debt, spiked CEO salaries and the ever-escalating national debt. Brooks said the country’s chief problems are debt, equity and stagnant growth, and these are overlapping challenges. “In 10 years, the interest payments on our debt alone will be $919 billion.” As for the equity issue, there is “rampant unfairness” when children of families with a household income of $36,000 have only a one in 17 chance of attending college, contrasted with families who have a $96,000 annual income, where one of two children will go on to college.
And yet, Brooks said, there are signs of hope, chief among them the drive and socially responsible behavior among people under 30. Among this population, social indicators in such areas as abortion, divorce, teenage pregnancy, teen suicide, crime and domestic violence “are now pointing in the right direction,” he said. Brooks described “islands where people really behave” and whose lessons can be imparted to the nation. He told the story of one Boston hospital’s efforts to successfully diagnose a perplexing medical case. The hospitals that are really successful are not without complications or failures, he said. “They are the ones that acknowledge failures and respond aggressively.”