David Brooks' pity party: Why his defense of Brian Williams is really about the 1 percent

New York Times columnist wants us to show the NBC star "forgiveness" -- because it's hard to be wealthy and famous

Published February 10, 2015 7:51PM (EST)

David Brooks                                 (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
David Brooks (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

I am of two minds, I must admit, when it comes to David Brooks. On the one hand, his increasingly obvious lack of interest in American politics has made ignoring his opinions much easier for those of us who are still engaged. But on the other hand, the more Brooks drifts away from what the New York Times hired him to do — to comment upon and analyze U.S. politics — the more he writes about American society in general. And the more he writes about American society in general, the more he reveals himself to be the poet laureate of the American 1 percent.

It’s useful for anyone trying to understand the character of America’s ruling class, no doubt. But as we can see with Brooks' Tuesday column in the Times, a saccharine appeal that “we” show NBC’s disgraced anchor Brian Williams understanding and mercy, the results are often ugly.

You probably already know all about the Williams scandal, but if you count yourself among the growing ranks of Americans who don’t watch television, all you really need to know is this: Brian Williams is the face of NBC News and, until recently, the closest the news media can get nowadays to a “voice of God” like Walter Cronkite. For years, he’s been telling a story about how he once barely escaped death while reporting from Iraq. But after the military-focused newspaper Stars & Stripes did some digging and questioned Williams’ story, he admitted that, no, he never was in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG and, yes, the whole story was a fabrication. Williams chalked it up to a case of faulty memory, but most everyone else thought “lying” would be a better word.

Williams has taken a sabbatical of sorts and his future at NBC is uncertain. Because many people consider a journalist’s most valuable asset to be their trustworthiness, there have been calls for Williams to either step down or be fired. And because what Brian Williams does is really more like acting than it is journalism, some have said he should not. This is the fray Brooks has decided to step into; and this, of all possible news stories involving all possible people, is the hill on which the unreconstructed drug warrior has decided to stand in the name of understanding, empathy and what he calls “rigorous forgiveness.”

“There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures,” Brooks begins, “and something barbaric in the public response.” Barbaric might seem a bit strong; it’s a word we tend to reserve for depraved acts of wanton violence. But when Brooks makes a second reference to antiquity (“barbarian” was how the ancient Greeks described outsiders) by claiming Williams is a victim of a “coliseum culture,” it’s clear that he means it. “By now,” Brooks laments, “the script is familiar” — mistakes are made, the Internet reacts, insufficient apologies are given, calls for punishment intensify and, sooner or later, there’s “capitulation” (i.e., a firing or resignation). At that point, Brooks tut-tuts, “[p]ublic passion is spent and the spotlight moves on.”

In fairness, Brooks’ description isn’t wrong, as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go very far. Recalling the coliseums of the Roman Empire, which most of us associate with a baying mob and a lurid display of violence, implies that the person who finds herself in the gladiators’ pit is somehow undeserving of her fate (that was certainly the case for Russell Crowe’s Maximus). But although he understandably insists his was an honest mistake, even Williams himself will acknowledge that stealing valor is wrong, and that he did it. Williams isn’t being punished unjustly, in other words. He broke universally understood rules of behavior, and he knew it.

So being criticized, mocked, ridiculed and the focus of unwanted attention: that’s barbarism, as Brooks understands it. If we keep in mind an earlier moment in the piece, though — when Brooks explains why he finds Williams’ situation so “sad” — his strange conception of barbarity starts to make a bit more sense. Because it isn’t the case that Brooks ignores or denies Williams’ enormous amounts of wealth and power, and thus mistakenly sees the NBC star as vulnerable or bereft. On the contrary, it’s because of Williams’ astronomical levels of success that Brooks sees him falling from respected, rich and famous to simply rich and famous as such a tale of woe. And this is where Brooks’ role as a tribune for the American elite becomes so blindingly apparent.

“The sad part” of the Williams kerfuffle, Brooks writes, “is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it’s never enough.” In Brooks’ telling, Williams was undone because “success never really satisfies” and because the public’s admiration “always leaves you hungry.” Jumbling the timeline a bit by implying Williams was already as big a star when he started telling his Iraq fantasy (he was not), Brooks notes that “famous people can do self-destructive things in an attempt to seem just a little cooler.” Sure, Brian Williams acted like a selfish, insensitive and vainglorious jerk. But when you skipped your English class that one day to hang out in the parking lot and smoke cigarettes, were you really so different?

The ennui of the elite is something Brooks has written about before, of course. (Who among us will ever forget how death approaches?) But he’s usually careful enough to pick a more likable subject. To some degree, the slippage is probably due to Brooks losing his fastball and not being quite the bullshitter he was in days gone past. But I’d guess that the 1 percent’s uneasy knowledge of the post-recession years’ cultural shift — of the way the “winners” in the rat race are no longer venerated like they were in the ‘80s and ‘90s — weighs on him too. When he ends the piece by urging us not to forget the “social fabric” and the importance of community, you can almost hear the voices of Tom Perkins, Ken Langone, and Bill O’Reilly. Heavy hangs the crown, apparently, of the 1 percent.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith