NYTimes’ David Brooks hopes you’ll agree Obama is “dull” and a “machine”.

October 17, 2008

Today I read David Brooks’ New York Times article about Barack Obama: Thinking About Obama. NYT summary: “Through some deep, bottom-up process, Barack Obama has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he’s become a homeostasis machine.”

Brooks’ article is an utterly disingenuous piece
which pretends to be a grudging endorsement of Obama, but in fact is carefully designed to shake the reader’s confidence in him. Of course Brooks is entitled to any opinon, but good newspaper writing should rely on facts and observations, not sneaky insinuations and coded wordplay. Look at the way Brooks has constructed his sentences.

Obama’s positive qualities are described in negative terms
: “There hasn’t been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.” Well if he hasn’t displayed any of these traits, why list them all?

“There hasn’t been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control.” Why not state these “compliments” in positive terms? It would be more concise and more correct. “Obama continually displays calm, gracious, and rational behaviors.” “Obama’s self-control is a constant”.

Why does Brooks take the long route- why bother to list all those traits that Obama doesn’t display? Because Brooks is deliberately associating Obama with this list of negative comments– he wants you to read those sentences and hear the negatives buried inside them: “he has displayed rage, resentment, etc., etc.” It’s a sneaky and dishonorable way to write.

Without exception, Brooks’ compliments to Obama’s disposition are backhanded: “It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious.” What does that even mean? How could an unconscious be organized?

“Through some deep, bottom-up process… he’s become a homeostasis machine.” Oh, so he’s actually a robot? That explains it. While McCain is “an experienced old hand”, Obama’s not skillful or intelligent, he’s just a machine created unconsciously. Sounds a little sinister, no?

Brooks insults the reader by burying nasty comments in a screed masquerading as a compliment. This article is a modern version of Shakespeare’s masterful dramatization of the insinuating political speech, “Brutus is an honorable man”.

Brooks saves his most devious phrasing for his final two paragraphs, predicting the good and bad hypothetical outcomes of an Obama presidency.

Notice that the good outcomes are only described in hypothetical terms
(emphases mine): “Obama could be a great president… would be untroubled… would see reality… could gather the smartest minds, and… could give them free rein.” We are reminded of his “youth” and “subtlety” as we are invited to “imagine him at the cabinet table.” Yes, we “could” probably “imagine” all that. But wait, don’t stop there, there’s more.

Now let’s consider the grim alternative. By choosing this as his concluding scenario, Brooks not-subtly endorses it as his prediction (it’s a well-known fact that the public is likelier to agree with whichever argument is presented last).

Note that after a flimsy opening clause, Brooks’ negative conjectures are phrased in certain terms, not hypothetically: “It could be that Obama will be an observer, not a leader… he will stand back. Congressional leaders… will just go their own way… He will be passive and ineffectual. Lack of passion will produce lack of courage… greatness will give way to anti-climax.” Hey, don’t hold back! Tell us how you really feel, Mr. Brooks.

Brooks’ initial tone of grudging support has given way to Brooks’ ugly attempt at neuro-linguistic suggestion. All the good stuff “could” happen, but all the bad stuff “will” happen. And then the laughable coup-de-grace; Obama is “dull”.

I like the dull one better, actually.

I like the dull one better, actually.

In comparison to McCain’s nasty temper and lolling tongue, and beside Sarah Palin’s appalling lack of knowledge and shameless pandering to the xenophobic Republican extremists who scream “terrorist” when they hear Obama’s name at a rally- well, sure, the Obama-Biden ticket gives us less fodder for parody.

Brooks’ emphatic last word calls this dull, in hopes that you’ll agree. But when I see Obama’s self-control, restraint, warmth, grace, analytical skill, and most of all his genuine interest in open dialogue, I don’t see dull at all. Quite the opposite- I realize that Barack Obama is by far the most exciting political figure I’ve ever seen.