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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

“The Road To Character” by David Brooks

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David Brooks was my guest in the second hour of Monday’s show, taking about his new and engrossing book The Road To Character.

It is a remarkable series of mini-biographies about men and women who ought to be emulated: who teach us how to live.  As a spent my senior year in college with Montaigne as a daily companion –I wrote my thesis on his essay on “Friendship”– I was perhaps a little susceptible to Brooks’ chapter on Augustine and Montaigne, but what I learned about Francis Perkins and George C. Marshall standing alone would have made the book worth reading even if the French essayist had not appeared towards the end, paired with Samuel Johnson.  I think you will agree.  Don’t miss the conversation.




HH: As promised, the New York Times’ David Brooks joins me now to spend an hour talking about his brand new bestseller, The Road To Character, and a marvelous book it is. David, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

DB: It is a great pleasure to be with you again.

HH: Now are you a Game of Thrones guy, because I was just playing the GOT music there.

DB: I am afraid I am not a Game of Thrones guy.

HH: All right, I didn’t think so. I thought when we were at Meet The Press that last time, you admitted as much. But I found an admission in The Road To Character which is truly shocking. You have actually read Ear. Pray. Love?

DB: All the way though. I’m the only man in America who read that book.

HH: You are the only man. Well, I described this, this weekend, to someone as Joseph Epstein meets Tim Keller. And I think you’ll probably like that, right?

DB: Yeah, those are two great people to be like.

HH: Well, you quote them both in the course of the book, but for the benefit of the audience at the beginning, this is about resume virtues and eulogy virtues. It’s about Johnny Unitas V. Joe Namath. It’s about Samuel Johnson V. Michel Montaigne, and Marshall V. Patton. I could go on and on, but I want to begin with really a tough question, David. In the Introduction, Roman Numeral XIII, “I wrote it to be honest to save my own soul.” What does that mean?

DB: Well, you know, I wasn’t in a sort of midlife crisis. If that was the case, I would have been fine with the car. The Porsche would have done it for me. But you know, we all try to be better. We all try to get better. And I would occasionally run across people who radiate an inner light, people who are just patient and calm and good, the sort of people who just show up for people. And you meet them, and when you see them, you’re just sort of amazed at how they’re so good, they’re just so joyful, they’re so happy, they’re so grateful for life. And my reaction always is, you know, I’ve achieved more career success than I ever thought I would, but I haven’t achieved that. And I don’t even know how you get that. I want to know how you go from being, you know, the normal mess most of us are in adolescence, to being a person of integrity, character, joy and spiritual tranquility. And so the book is about people who did that. And I just want to know how you do it.

HH: It is a, it’s a remarkable series, sort of a Plutarch’s Lives of Americans in the 20th Century and the 21st Century. But there are some others thrown in, one with whom I’m very familiar is Montaigne, because I did my senior thesis on him. And it’s interesting that he would show up in your book paired with Samuel Johnson, about whom I knew nothing. But Montaigne wrote, “The sure sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” Now George Marshall was not a cut-up guy. There aren’t a lot of constantly cheerful people in this book, are there?

DB: Yeah, Montaigne was. You’re right. You know, it’s funny, I pair him with Johnson, because they’re both great essayists, and they both understood themselves really well. But they took different routes. Montaigne was sort of earnest and a hard worker, and focusing on his own weakness and sort of trying to beat it down. And Montaigne is sort of like self-accepting. It’s like you know, I see myself, and I accept myself. And one of my students said you know, Johnson is like an East Coast rapper, and Montaigne is sort of like a West Coast rapper.

HH: You knew exactly where I was going, because that is, that jumps out. I’ve never thought of it in those terms…

DB: Yeah.

HH: But he is the California essayist versus the New York City essayist.

DB: Yeah, and he’s like Snoop Dog.

HH: (laughing) Okay, let me ask the big question at the beginning. After you’re done with this and the shift from the world of humility to the big me, are you an optimist, David Brooks, about where this country or actually the West is going?

DB: Yeah, I think I am. You know, I think we have a problem which I describe in the book. We have a little narcissism problem. We’re a little too into ourselves. But in general, you know, I think we’re in a period of social repair. A lot of the social indicators are heading in the right direction. Crime is down, teenage pregnancy is down, abortion rates are down. And then America is still America. We’re still a country with amazing energy. You know, my story about America is that Europeans came here 500 years or so ago, and they saw a great continent waiting to be conquered, and they had two thoughts, one that God’s plan for humanity can be completed here, and two, they could get really rich in the process. And so we’re a country of just tremendous energy and moral materialism. And it’s always wrong to think we’re headed for decline.

HH: You do discount the naysayers and handwringers about social media, but at the same time when you point out the places we will go is all about autonomous boys, and when you talk about the amplification of self that it inevitably happens for those of us who use social media, and I use it quite a lot. There is an unknown evolution coming there in the way that we interact with the world and ourselves.

DB: Yeah, that’s true. So you know, I don’t think it’s Facebook that’s making us lonely. I don’t think it’s cutting us off from each other. I don’t think there’s any evidence. But it’s doing two things, one, and your phrase is a good one, the amplification of ourselves. It definitely causes us to broadcast ourselves. The one I actually worry about the most now in myself is my attention span is just shot. I just can’t go a few pages without wanting to check my phone or something. And so I do think it’s having a big effect on attention spans.

HH: When I prepare for interviews like this and I read a book, I often read a chapter and then check social media and read a chapter, and then check social media. Or if I grade exams, I grade five, and then I check social media. It is integrated, but not overwhelming. I wonder if younger people have those discipline sets left over, which I’m banking on, right? I banked the discipline set 30 years ago before social media came along. I don’t know if they ever get one.

DB: Yeah, no, I think that’s true. Somebody designed an app so you’ve got to keep writing. And if you’re writing a piece and you haven’t written a letter in 15 minutes, it starts erasing the letters you’ve already written.

HH: Oh, my gosh. Oh no.

DB: And so that’s like, an app is designed to give us an attention span.

HH: All right, I want to talk about Adam I and Adam II, and resume virtues and eulogy virtues, because they launch the book. And without that launching point, normally, I don’t begin at a book’s beginning, because it’s too obvious. But I don’t think we’re going to be able to talk about Frances Perkins and George Marshall and the others that I focused on unless you lay out that, those pairings, the resume virtues an the eulogy virtues, and Adam I and Adam II.

DB: Yeah, so Adam I and Adam II, it’s a bit like the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues is sort of the same thing, where two sets of virtues, the ones, the resume ones that we bring to the marketplace, whether you’re good at being a journalist, lawyer, doctor, journalist or whatever, and the eulogy ones are the things they say about you after you’re dead, whether you’re courageous, brave, honorable, capable of great love. And we all know the eulogy virtues are more important. We all want to be remembered for being truly good inside. But we have a culture that celebrates the resume virtues. And a lot of us go through periods of life where we’re a lot clearer on how to build a good career than how to build a good character. And so I just wanted to write a book that would investigate, just so we could have clarity, how do you build a good inner nature? How do you build character? How have other people done it? So the book is about eulogy virtues.

HH: You know, about 15 years ago, I interviewed James Q. Wilson, who wrote a book called The Moral Sense. And I wonder, and he was about your age now. I wonder if everyone when they hit 50-60 begin to look back and ask these questions, if they’ve indeed lived public intellectual lives. I don’t think this unique, although you have some very unique stories, I just, stuff I didn’t know about and I thought I should know about. I didn’t know anything about Frances Perkins. Do you think she’s the most overlooked heroic woman in American history?

DB: She could be. You know, they’re thinking of getting rid of Andrew Jackson on, I guess it’s the $20 dollar bill, and they want to put a woman on there. I would think about her. She led the life of amazing discipline, and her life was turned around by watching the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, by watching, really, people burn to death. And she said this is a sin. I’m not going to let this stand.

HH: I’m going to come back to her after the break, but I do want to tell you on Saturday night, about halfway through the book, and a friend of mine, Joseph Timothy Cook, came over:. He’s been on the show a number of times, old fighter pilot, right, Naval Academy guy, old virtues, ’71-’72. We were having a cigar, and I gave him your Johnny Unitas-Joe Namath comparison, and the light just went off, and he said that’s perfect. And it really is perfect for explaining what happened. But now let’s assume Steelers fans are listening. You have to go slow. They don’t understand what the comparison means. Tell them what that is.

DB: Yeah, so these two quarterbacks faced each other at the end of Super Bowl III. And Johnny Unitas came on for the Baltimore Colts. And so Johnny Unitas was the old style, the Joe DiMaggio style athlete – very humble, very modest, never showed off, kind of boring, but just got the job done. He was just like a workman, like a plumber laying pipe. And Joe Namath, on the other hand, was flamboyant. He was his own brand. He did celebrating dancing. He boasted about how great he was. He wrote a book called I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow, Because I Get Better Looking Every Day.

HH: I read it three times when I was 10. I also read Johnny Samples’ They Call Me Assassin. I read the Jerry Kramer book. I love those books, but that one was by far the most out there book of them all.

DB: Yeah, so he was cruising. He was a swinger. And so these two guys were both born from Western Pennsylvania from quarterback area out there, and they were born like half, maybe a decade apart. But they were like from different moral universes. One was self-effacing, and the idea was I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody’s better than me. And the other, the Joe Namath category is you know, look at me, I’m kind of amazing, and I’m going to enjoy myself. And so that’s two different moral cultures.

HH: And one of the most interesting propositions in The Road To Character is that that change symbolized by the transition from Unitas to Namath is not, as people like me usually think, a product of the 60s and 70s. You say it’s actually the Greatest Generation’s letting go after 16 years of Great Depression and war embracing Joyce Brothers and all the other pop psychology of the early 50s, late 40s, and just living to have fun.

DB: Yeah, they wanted to consumer after the war and the Depression, and then they also said you know, this whole Biblical concept of human nature that says we’re broken and we’re sinful, let’s get rid of that. We’re actually quite wonderful inside. And so they more or less threw away thousands of years of philosophy and said we’re really wonderful. There was a guy named Carl Rogers, who’s a psychologist, who said we just need to love ourselves more. And that created the self-esteem movement, that created I’m okay, you’re okay, and it created a culture in which we tell our kids how special they are all the time.

HH: All the time. I’ll be right back with David Brooks.

— – — –

HH: Ramadi has fallen to the Islamic State, and hundreds are being butchered. It’s really kind of an evil day in the world, and the New York Times has a story today about 170 people being booked on murder charges in result of the melee in Texas where biker gangs got into it, and a story on Boko Haram raping and raping and raping and raping in order to breed a new generation. I mean, we are surrounded by evil, David Brooks. And so The Road To Character, your new book, is sort of an oasis where you can go and see that there are good people in the world who master this. But at the same time, the barbarians are at a lot of gates.

DB: Yeah, no the Ramadi thing is just tragic, and then the Waco thing is just unbelievable that just the shooting out in the middle of the day in a restaurant parking lot, just bullets flying all over the place, it’s like the shootout in the OK Corral. But you know, people who commit those sort of things, it’s not like they’re good people and then they just suddenly start killing. You’ve got to walk through a lot of doors to become a murderer and to do something really bad. And there’s like a slow degradation of character that goes and leads eventually to this sort of monstrosity we see in all these cases.

HH: Well, what’s interesting to me, and this is not a reach, because in The Road To Character, the best chapter, the chapter on George Marshall, which I think is just about a perfect biographical sketch, he’s an institutional man, right? He believed in the Army. He served the Army for the long years between becoming a lieutenant colonel and becoming a general. He served and he served and he served, and you talk about institutional men. Well, these motorcycle gangs are institutions. And the people who are in them are investing in their institutions. And when those institutions collide, that happens. But because I had your book in the foreground of my mind, I was thinking this is, that’s what they invested themselves in, not in personal improvement or discipline, but in an institution, a malevolent one, but in an institution.

DB: Yeah, well that’s, you know, we have this argument we should have more community, and I generally think we should have more community. I think we’re a little too individualistic. But we have to have moral judgments about some communities. I mean, a street gang is a community. A motorcycle gang like those are communities. The Nazi Party is a community. You can’t just say oh, we need more community. And so sometimes, we use community as a way to avoid making moral judgments. And I do think that’s generally the case in our society, where we live in a society that’s over-politicized and under-moralized, and under-culturalized, and we don’t have too many areas where we can discuss things where of course, it’s important to talk about politics. And you know, I write about politics all the time. But it’s also important to talk about our moral problems, our moral dilemmas, our cultural issues. And frankly, you know, your show, there are a few shows where you can do that. But there aren’t that many. Some shows are just wall to wall politics. And that leaves us sort of inarticulate about what really matters most.

HH: Well, Charles Krauthammer says politics is sovereign, and I agree with him. Theology competes, but for theology to matter, there has to be a God. And politics matters whether or not there is a God. And so politics does inevitably crowd into every room, like it crowds into every segment of a show. But what you write about in The Road To Character is a lot about non-political matters that have absolutely nothing to do with headlines and newspapers, but with the daily struggle to cultivate humility and discipline.

DB: Yeah, I hesitate to disagree with Charles, but I don’t think he’s right about that. I think morality and our spiritual natures are sovereign. I quote in there Samuel Johnson. He has a couplet of all the things that human hearts endure, how few are those that kings can cause or cure? And so there’s, if we think about what really matters in our lives, it’s our relationships, it’s how we behave, how our integrity, and that, to me, is sovereign. That’s the fundamental layer of life. And then politics, our civic life, flows out from our moral life And our founders knew that. John Adams said you know, you have to have good citizenry to have a good country. And so I think there’s a realm in life that is beneath and more foundational than politics.

HH: Well, Aristotle said the end of human life is happiness, and happiness is best expressed in friendship. You quote Montaigne, and Montaigne loved a man named Etienne de la Boetie. And I quote from his 28th essay. “If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering because it was he, because it was I.” That’s the private realm. But Montaigne had an opportunity to live in a private realm. Not many people do anymore.

DB: Yeah, but you know, Montaigne did say that the perfect society is based on friendship, and that a lot of when people come together and form social bonds, when they form community groups, when they get together at church or synagogue or whatever it is, there’s friendship. And there’s a sense of loyalty. And you need, frankly, to get super political, I think one of the reasons President Obama has not been as effective with Congress, even with Democrats in Congress, is that he hasn’t had those relationships. He hasn’t had bonds of friendship.

HH: That’s interesting, David. He seems rather friendless, doesn’t he?

DB: He’s aloof, and you know, and he’s got a writer’s personality. I sort of sympathize. But you’ve got to have relationships. And you know, one of the, I was struck by this poll which you may have seen of people asked is Hillary Clinton a strong leader, and of independents, 60-some odd percent said yes. Then they asked is she trustworthy and honest, and 60-some odd percent said no. So they think she’s a dishonest, untrustworthy, strong leader. And I don’t think that’s possible. I think character is destiny, and that if you can’t be trustworthy in your relationships, you’re probably not going to be a very effective leader.

HH: You know, there’s another poll in your book. Are you a very important person, they asked in 1950, and Gallup got back from people 12% thought they were a very important person. They asked again in 2005, 55 years later, and 80% thought they were a very important person. That’s astonishing.

DB: Yeah, so that’s the shift in the culture from self-effacement to sort of distinction. And these other tests, called narcissism tests, where they redo a bunch of statements and they say does this apply to you, and they’re statements like I find it easy to manipulate people because I’m so remarkable, or I like to look at my body. And the median narcissism score has gone up 30% in the last 20 years alone. And so we’ve become very impressed with ourselves.

HH: There’s also a subtext in The Road To Character, where it seems like you are saying the best and the brightest are slowly being honed and turned into shrewd manipulators of others, to takers, and people who assess every situation for their advantage. That’s not a Roman Catholic high school. You know Ross Douthat very well, and he and I have talked about this. That was beaten out of you, basically, if you went through parochial school K-12. That’s gone. But boy, it’s creeping in everywhere.

DB: Yeah, well, the competition to get good grades, to get into college is so stiff, the competition to get good jobs is so stiff, people spend so much time on their career, they just don’t have time to think about the inner life.

HH: Do the people who sign up for your class at Yale do so because of the subject matter, or because they have an opportunity to get to know David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, or both?

DB: Both. But you know, they’re wonderful kids, and they hunger. Some of them have been raised with a moral vocabulary and a moral philosophy, and a tradition. And a lot of them haven’t. And they know I have no moral vocabulary. I haven’t been given that, but I want to get one. And what strikes me is the earnest intensity of their hunger, you know, you mentioned James Q. Wilson and me being roughly the same age at these two different books. But my kids are 20 or 21. And they have the same hunger. And I know people who are 88, and they have the same hunger. I just think there’s this hunger to lead meaningful lives that starts at birth and goes through life. And I don’t really notice any age distinction. I think everybody wants to have a life of moral meaning.

HH: But I have to tell you, a friend of mine, Mel Spiese, who just retired, oh, a year and a half ago, was a two-star general of the Marine Corps, and he was in charge of all the Marine Corps education facilities, told me that the reason that they pack eight weeks of education into 16 weeks of the basic school is that increasingly, people are arriving without a moral compass.

DB: Yeah.

HH: And they’ve got to implant one. They arrive with utility and skill set, but a good and evil spectrum is missing a lot, David Brooks.

— – – –

HH: If you liked my series on Plutarch with Larry Arnn, you’re going to love this book, because it’s not dissimilar from what Plutarch did, though the comparisons side by side are often sometimes predictable, and sometimes not. I noted in the afterwards, by the way, David, Pete Wehner, Kirsten Powers and Tim Keller, three people I like a lot, three Evangelical Christians, three people who hang out at Redeemer. Are you a Redeemer person now?

DB: No, but I have a wide variety of people who helped me. Keller was certainly one of them. A guy named Mayer Soloveichik, David Wolpe from L.A. So I have a very ecumenical group.

HH: And you attend Mark Roberts’ deal that the Laity Lodge puts together. Mark’s an old and dear friend of mine. He was a pastor of mine, thought you always brought to the table a rather broad spectrum of availability to different points of view that was useful in that setting.

DB: Yeah, I find, you know, I have my own faith, which I keep more or less private, but I find you can read from all faiths and learn much if you, if you want to think about these issues. It’s just a fact of life that in our civilization, most of the people who talk about morality and the inner life wrote from a faith perspective, whether it was Soloveichik from a Jewish perspective, or Augustine, or Tim Keller, or C.S. Lewis from a Christian perspective. And so you could learn a lot whether you share that denomination, that faith, whether you’re a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, you can learn a lot from reading theology, and I’ve learned enormous amounts from reading anybody from Reinhold Niebuhr to N.T. Wright.

HH: You know, what surprised me about Samuel Johnson as he lived in mortal fear of hell, Augustine did as well, and that is gone from our culture, right? Nobody believes in hell anymore, do they?

DB: No, that’s true, and yeah, I was thinking about that. I think partly, it’s because people, the pastors want to fill the pews, and they want to be positive. They want to give out the Good News. And I understand that, and they’re afraid if they start talking about damnation, that people will stop showing up. And so it’ll fail the market test. But I’ll say whenever you’re about to do something wrong, if you think gee, I could go to hell for this, that’s kind of a very strong influence.

HH: It is. I think a few kind words for hell would be useful every now and again. You’re from Stuyvesant town. Last Friday, I had Mike Greenberg on, ESPN’s Greeny in Mike and Mike in the morning. David Axelrod was on a couple of weeks ago. He’s from Sty town as well. That must have been an unusual place.

DB: Obviously, the Florence of…

HH: (laughing)

DB: If you ever listen to All Things Considered, Robert Siegel, the longtime host there, he’s also from Stuyvesant town.

HH: Have you had a chance, yet, to read Robert Putnam’s Our Kids?

DB: Yeah, I have.

HH: It’s so depressing, and it’s depressing for a lot of the reasons that you talk about in The Road To Character, which is the opportunities for our kids to get character, which at one point, I’m looking for the quote, you quote someone about how long it takes to form character, that it can’t be done overnight. It just takes repetition, and it takes people to show you. And that’s why I was so depressed at the end of that book. Here it is. Character, James Davidson Hunter has written, does not require a religious faith, but it does require a conviction of a truth made sacred, abiding in its authoritative presence within consciousness and life reinforced by habits institutionalized within a moral community. Character therefore resists expedience. It defies hasty acquisition. Combine that with Putnam’s findings, and we’re not going to have character.

DB: Well, but we do have people in society who are really amazing. And you know, when you’re around those people, you sort of want to copy them. And they’re everywhere in society, and I think those people serve as models. That’s why I told the book through the story of profiles of people like Augustine and all the people we’ve been talking about, because I think we learn from each other. And the second thing, we do have people who want to do good. I mentioned somebody in the book, and he’s actually a pastor, and he, but he’s not always present for people. He’s very busy, and he’s not always thinking about the person who’s in front of him. He’s thinking about his next appointment.

HH: Oh, this is the fellow who does the examination of conscience every night?

DB: That’s it. And so he lies in bed at night, and he says well, how’d I do on this? Was I hard-hearted? Was I really present for people? And he tries to do better the next day. And so we can all do that, and that’s how character is slowly engraved upon the soul.

HH: There’s also a, I was left with the impression that C.S. Lewis often said that we ask too little, we expect too little of ourselves. You quote Solzhenitsyn as saying I’m only a sword made sharp to smite the unclear forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disburse, and grant, oh, Lord, that anybody not break as I strike. Let me not fall from Thy hand. He had a very high and elevated sense of what his purpose was.

DB: Yeah, but you know, he had a lofty, but also legitimate high sense of purpose. He’s a guy who dedicated himself very heroically to understanding Soviet tyranny and writing about it. So that was lofty. He thought he was an instrument of God, but maybe he was, because he was certainly instrumental in destroying the Soviet Union. And so sometimes, you need that sense of purpose. Frances Perkins, you know, she found a vocation in trying to preserve worker safety. And she didn’t do it the way we tell our college students to do it, you know, find your passion, look inside yourself. She didn’t look inside herself. She looked at the world and said what problem needs me? What problem is summoning me? And so she said it’s not what I want from life. It’s what life is asking of me. And that was Solzhenitsyn, too. And that’s not a self-centered way to live your life. That’s an other-centered way to live your life.

— – – —

HH: It’s bracing in a lot of ways, and I’m not covering Eisenhower, Dorothy Day or A. Philip Randolph, or George Elliot. There are lots of people in here. I can’t…I want to focus in on two. One of them is Frances Perkins, who at a young age witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25th, 1911. It’s horrific. I’ve never read an account. 47 people jumped to their death, and she watched. And she and the country were traumatized by this. And I have to quote this. One man helped woman after woman try to jump to safety. Then he himself went in the air. As he fell, people noticed as his pants ballooned out that he wore smart shoes. One reporter wrote I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best. And I thought what a great detail to put in here, because there was heroism even in the middle of that horror. But it really did put iron into the soul of Frances Perkins.

DB: Yeah, it was sort of her call within a call. She had sort of wanted to do good, but she didn’t really know, so she was sort of floating around. And a lot of people have that. Their career, they’re sort of going along, but then there comes a galvanizing moment when they quiet the self. They become just totally interested in serving one mission, becoming an instrument in that cause. And after that fire, she would, she threw aside gentility and caution. She would work with anybody, compromise with anybody, and really spent the next 50 years serving that cause. She became secretary of Labor under FDR, and she passed some amazing legislation that made workers safer.

HH: And also, a person, a life full of grief – infidelity, financial failure, a dead child, insanity. She had to support, she had to keep working at 77 to take care of her daughter. And then, knocked me over with a leaf, she goes to Cornell and she mentors Allan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz, of all people.

DB: Yeah, she was living alone at Cornell, and they invite her, you know, they had sort of a scholarly frat house. They said come live with us in the frat house so you won’t be lonely, and she said she was as happy as a bride on her wedding day when they asked her. And they would have the parties around her, and she would sip bourbon, and Paul Wolfowitz was the president of the frat that year, you know, just college kids, and he wound up being one of the pallbearers at her funeral.

HH: It’s really, she had remarkable physical courage as well. She confronted the pimps of Philadelphia face to face. It’s sort of like, have you seen the movie Noble, yet, David Brooks?

DB: I’ve, just someone, a friend of mine just saw it. I have not seen it myself.

HH: I saw it last night, and you will walk away saying there’s the modern Frances Perkins. Now that brings me to Marshall. They are contemporaries. They served FDR. Do their wires cross at any time in your research?

DB: You know, that’s an excellent question. I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t think they, they must have been in the same room together frequently, but I have no, nobody mentioned an encounter between the two of them.

HH: Now I want people to, everyone out there has got a poor student in their life, or if it’s themselves, a poor student. George Marshall is an encouragement to every mediocrity, every poor boy who has disappointed his father, every younger brother who has made his older brother embarrassed. In fact, I think you tell the story that George Marshall was deeply impacted by his brother’s fear of him embarrassing him at VMI.

DB: Yeah, his brother was at VMI, and George was a bad student. He was just embarrassed. He hated to be called on in class, because he was always stumbling all over himself. And his brother said to his mom, don’t let George go to VMI, he’ll disgrace the family name. And George heard this, and said well, that’s what really fired me up to become an ambitious person. And he became, he went to VMI, and he became immediately a star. He was not an academic star, but he was, he understood the Army, and he served the Army, and loved the discipline, loved the rectitude. And really in that institution, he found himself, he found integrity. But he needed that structure around him to really find himself.

HH: That’s the word I wrote down, rectitudinous, which I apply only to Washington. But Marshall was definitely rectitudinous. He never wrote an autobiography, never had a moment of clear moral failure. He suffered terribly, and he was self-denying, even to the point of turning down the command of overlord, which of course, at that point, was the greatest command an Army officer could ever want.

DB: Yeah, you know, he wasn’t perfect. He didn’t have a lot of, a big sense of humor. But like Washington, he was a man of great integrity. And one of the things he said was I will never put my own personal ambition above the needs of the Army and above the needs of the country. So when Roosevelt asked him if he wanted to do Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion, he said it’s not about me, it’s not about my personal ambition. You do what’s right for you and what’s right for the country. And Roosevelt took the chance to give the job to Eisenhower.

HH: You know, the debate about Common Core that rages, David Brooks, this chapter, because Marshall was raised on Plutarch and Pericles and Augustus and Judas Maccabeus and George Washington and Joan of Arc, it really does argue for using the heroic to educate the young.

DB: Yeah, I quote in there a guy named Livingston, who wrote that sometimes, we don’t behave well, because we don’t have a sufficient standard. We don’t know what good behavior is, what excellence is. And so if you grow up reading Plutarch, if you grow up reading about Thucydides and Pericles and people like that, you have a standard you know what excellence looks like. And so you may not meet it, as most of us won’t, but at least you have something to shoot for.

HH: And they work. Oh, my God these people work. People sometimes tell me I work too hard, and I always laugh, because I go to four movies a week. But these people just ground and ground. And Perkins and Marshall served FDR every day of his presidency. They’re the only two who went the distance. And I’m always impressed by that. I had on former deputy director of the CIA, Mike Morell, and I’m impressed by the fact that he lasted 14 years, though there’s controversies abounding about him. I just, people who stick the distance impress me.

DB: Yeah, and you know, Perkins was even impeached for unfair reasons, and she still stuck it out. And when she was, came under Congressional scrutiny for unfair reasons, Roosevelt basically abandoned her. All the women’s groups abandoned her. I’m sorry to say the New York Times abandoned her. But she stuck it out, and she was later vindicated by history.

HH: There is one thing I have to mention. Churchill came to visit George Marshall as he lay dying, was in a coma. And you report he stood in the door weeping as he visited George Marshall. I don’t know how many people, it’s like when Thatcher knelt before Reagan’s casket. It was an amazing story on Page 129 of The Road To Character.

— – – —

HH: The Road To Character is a perfect father’s day present, I mean, a perfect father’s day present. And I want to conclude, David, by quoting Cicero, whom you quote in the Marshall chapter. That person, then, whoever it may be, Cicero wrote in the Tusculan Disputations, whose mind is quiet enough through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself and neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in fright, nor burns with any thirsty need, nor dissolves in to wild and future excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy. Now Straussians would not you put that in the middle of the book. And it just sort of jumps out of nowhere. It must have impressed you greatly to put it there.

DB: Yeah, no, that’s a beautiful quote. It’s a quote about a word I like that we don’t use so much, equanimity, the ability to just stay calm in the midst of crisis, and to stay self-possessed. And Marshall had that amazingly. And one of the things I try to describe in the chapter is how he achieved emotional discipline, because he had none of it when he was 12. But the ability to, you know, use your emotions, but also control your emotions, it was a great virtue that he possessed.

HH: He also suffered greatly. He lost his first wife. He also wrote mediocre solutions undertaken in time were better than perfect solutions that came too late. I love that. I may have that framed for my radio show. So David Brooks, at the end of all of this, whom do you admire that is living today?

DB: You know, I admire some writers like Atul Gawande.

HH: Oh, sure.

DB: I think he writes about the modesty of, as a surgeon. Surgeons have a tendency to be a little egotistical, but he says the human body is very complicated, and you’ve just got to be humble in the face of it. So people like that, I really like. I have to say, I don’t know if you’ll agree with me on this one, but I happen to be friends with her, and her name is Samantha Power, our U.N. ambassador. And I like her, because she combines great passion and great moral fervor with an attempt to operate practically. And she doesn’t always get her say.

HH: You quote her at length in the book. And my eyebrows went up, but she is fettered by other people.

DB: Yeah.

HH: Have you read Clayton Christensen, How To Measure A Life?

DB: Yes, I’m a big admirer of him.

HH: Yeah, so am I, and I in fact, there are echoes of his approach in your approach in The Road To Character. So having done this, with a minute left, what do you do next? What’s your calling? What does life demand of you, because you say that’s what people have to figure out?

DB: Well, as I say, I think there’s not enough moral discussion in the country, and so I’m going to spend the next few years of my life just trying to shift the debate a little. So I’ll write about politics, of course, but I’m going to continue down this avenue and try to help join with other people in a journey and in a conversation to talk about this stuff a little more.

HH: To what end?

DB: Well, hopefully, I’ll get better. I’ll become a better and a deeper person. Hopefully, the country, others will be touched, and they’ll be able to work on their own journey. It’s, you know, it’s a journey. And we stumble…

HH: It’s a big project. Do you think the Times will support you in that?

DB: I hope so. As long as there are newspapers, I hope they’ll support me.

HH: David Brooks, a great pleasure. The Road To Character is really a terrific book. It’s available at Follow David on Facebook and of course, @NYTDAvidBrooks. Though he talks seriously about what Twitter and social media is doing, he is a part of it, @NYTDavidBrooks.

End of interview.


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