OFF THE GRID

David Brooks and Stanley McChrystal Are Real Men

Jun 28, 10 | 7:58 AM   byMichael Wolff
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David Brooks, at the New York Times, is the man who doesn’t exist anymore, the throwback, the moral conscience of time that is gone. In that sense—exaggerated and hyperbolic—his shtick is some of the greatest shtick in journalism. He isn’t just conservative, he’s a gray, dull, stuffy cartoon. In dramatic terms, it would be hard to make him believable.

His perfect moment seems to be about 1955 (the zenith of gray, dull, stuffy). The complex world is beginning, modernity is loose, but the media is still a tamed beast. And Washington is run without much outside interference from amateurs.

Brooks took this point up in his column on Friday, becoming perhaps the only journalist and commentator to find fault with Michael Hastings—whose portrait of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone got the general fired—rather than with the general himself (or the president, as other right-wing commentators have). Brooks’ view is that journalists have a responsibility to whitewash the private behavior of the high and mighty in pursuit of a greater public good. Brooks deems McChrystal a good general—he offers a broad encomium about McChrystal’s people and management skills—so, therefore, says Brooks, McChrystal’s private chatter, however nasty, vitriolic, and scabrous toward his bosses, should not have been exposed. (Brooks also seems to believe that his opinion about McChrystal ought to be, among journalists, a shared one.)

Brooks’ point about the sanctity of private life is quixotic, but, curiously, he has a point. Real life consists of McChrystal-like blasphemies—and thank god it does. Blasphemers are often smarter and more interesting than more tight-lipped (and uptight) types (aggressiveness being healthier than passive aggressiveness). McChrystal, we learn from Rolling Stone, is a talker—a helluva talker. There’s poetry in his loud mouth.

Brooks points out what everybody with any blood knows: The crime McChrystal got fired for is not his blasphemous soul (Obama, that stiff, probably found this an appealing aspect of McChrystal) but his bad PR skills—for not being a programmatic slickster, a media creature. For that he is replaced by Gen. David Petraeus, the nation’s leading military slickster and media creature.

Still, even if you agreed with Brooks about McChrystal’s military talents (that he could, actually, win the Afghan war), no journalist—other than Brooks himself, and the hopeless sycophants who hang around the Pentagon—would have sacrificed this story. This is not just gotcha journalism, or, as Brooks characterizes it, “the culture of exposure.” It’s art. It’s what fiction used to do, but doesn’t do anymore (because few people write it and few read it). Hastings’ story is a lasting contribution to understanding the mind of the military that could be up there with Catch-22. It’s the real thing. What’s more, it is how the Afghan war obviously is—constantly and hopelessly trashing itself.

But Brooks is arguing for reality, too. Except his reality exists behind walls. If you expose reality, it changes. It’s the exposure, Brooks is saying, that causes falsity, and pretense, and the phoniness and cravenness of modern ambition—in which the highest and most sought after skill is PR.

Indeed, because PR is the most valued and necessary skill (a skill, as it happens, that few possess, but for deadening caution and self-imposed sublimation) everybody in government, including the president, is a thwarted, deracinated, ever-second guessing him- or her-self, mutated individual, except, apparently, Stanley McChrystal.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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