The Plank

David Brooks: Presidential Pop-psychologist

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David Brooks spends today's column explaining why Obama is more emotionally grounded than Hillary and would thus make a better president. This may very well be true. Whatever her virtues, Hillary doesn't strike many folks as particularly zen. But (surprise!) Brooks is a little too glibly authoritative is his broader pronouncements. Take this pearl:

Many of the best presidents in U.S. history had their character forged before
they entered politics and carried to it a degree of self-possession and
tranquillity that was impervious to the Sturm und Drang of White House life.

On one level, it's an historical assessment so vaguely, generically positive as to be meaningless, particularly since Brooks doesn't cite which leaders he has in mind (presumably to allow readers to bring to bear their own biases). The only real distinction he seems to be making is that steady, placid presidents strike him as the goods ones. Obviously, he's thinking of Reagan, who was so laid back he spent much of his tenure napping, and just as obviously he's taking a swipe at the hyperactive, attention-craving Bill Clinton. But where most everyone else falls on this spectrum isn't entirely clear: Bush pere? W.? Carter? Ford? JFK? FDR? Taft? And so we have no way to determine what exactly Brooks is contending and, thus, whether he's entirely full of shit.

Somewhat more vividly, Brooks wraps up his argument with this:

The presidency is a bacterium. It finds the open wounds in the people who hold
it. It infects them, and the resulting scandals infect the presidency and the
country. The person with the fewest wounds usually does best in the White House,
and is best for the country.

While this sounds common sensical, I'm not sure I'm willing to grant Brooks even this bit of banality. Bill Clinton had some deep, ugly wounds--many forged far back in his childhood--and on the whole did a pretty bang up job as POTUS. Would it have been better if he could have kept his fly zipped? Absolutely. But compare his tenure to that of our current leader, who had a grand childhood with no obvious episodes to cause him lasting psychological damage. Certainly during the 2000 race, we all saw W. as the more tranquil, self-possessed, comfortable-in-his-own-skin choice. And yet the man has proved a near total disaster. 

None of which is to suggest that Obama wouldn't be a better potus than Hill. He would almost certainly be less nutty tightly wound. But Brooks really should save his more sweeping assertions about what makes a great president for when he has more time and space to demonstrate that he's not simply spouting sage-sounding fluff. 

--Michelle Cottle

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