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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Brooks climbs the second mountain

It’s been intriguing to observe the changes David Brooks has undergone. Hired as a political columnist by the New York Times in 2003, he has filled the role of the its token conservative, acceptable because he is articulate, intelligent and civil, useful because he can score points against liberal ideologues, and on board with its support of Israel.

But like William F. Buckley Jr., for whom he interned at The National Review in 1984, Brooks was almost always wrong on the major issues. Most egregiously, he championed the U.S. invasion of Iraq that year, defended the Bush administration in 2005 against charges of having lied us into the war, and only in 2015 grudgingly conceded that the war was “a clear misjudgment.” Nor was he dedicated to factual accuracy when pressing his points, a habit often exposed in print.

Brooks is still a conservative, though one might say he has further moderated his moderate Republicanism since Trump’s emergence. When Brooks appears with Mark Shields on the PBS News Hour on Friday nights, their differences are less frequent and sharp than they used to be. Brooks’ significant change has occurred at a level below current events, although it has political implications. His change has been personal and it’s been humanizing.

The change, which occurred in 2013, could be felt in his response to Trump’s impending nomination. On April 29, 2016 he asked, “what are we supposed to do?” His answer was that we should recognize the widespread pain that Trump capitalized on, and “go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life ... with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years.”

What happened in 2013 was that Brooks’ marriage of 27 years fell apart and, as he recounts in “The Second Mountain” (2019), he found himself “unplanted, lonely, humiliated, scattered.” The Jewish kid who had derived his self-esteem from being smart, excelling in school, and making it in intellectual circles had to rethink what constituted a fulfilling life. His answer was less striving for “success” and more commitment to relationships, less extolling of the autonomous individual and more appreciation of caring community. In the book, the first mountain is pursuit of personal achievement, the second mountain is transcendence of the ego-self by dedication to the general well-being of others. In between is the valley, into which Brooks had tumbled. In the valley he discovered “heart and soul” and their supremacy to intellect.

In the book Brooks maps onto his personal journey an historical cultural scheme: The fifties in America were characterized by embeddedness in collectives — neighborhoods, congregations, organizations. There was group loyalty and respect for authority. The sixties saw a burst of individualism, in partial correction of the repressive elements of the preceding epoch. But then the pendulum swung too far. Now our nation is bedeviled by rampant individualism, and we must find a healthy balance between the individual and the collective.

The new and more humane Brooks is no more careful about his facts or penetrating in his analysis than the old Brooks. As always, however, he’s a spur to thought. For another week I’ll pursue this line of inquiry.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.