Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"George" "F." "Will" is no David Brooks

When I write a post criticizing David Brooks (which around here pretty much equates to writing a post about David Brooks), I generally try to work in a positive comment about Brooks' talents. This may come off as damning with faint praise or even outright sarcasm, but I am being absolutely sincere. I have serious problems with Brooks' ethics, but great respect for his craft. He is capable of sharp and elegant prose and even when the writing goes pretentious and overripe (his epic mixed metaphors come to mind), it is still bad for a reason. Sometimes, muddled can pass for erudite, and erudition is an essential part of Brooks' likable professor persona.

To fully grasp how good Brooks is, check out the occasional George Will column. Taking on a Brooks piece can be like explicating a poem. You usually have to carefully unwind the arguments until you get to the fallacies or the subtle rhetorical misdirection. With Will, it's more like grading a stack of eleventh grade English papers (complete with pretentious but not quite apt language -- "The diaspora of Reagan administration alumni" -- and a totally gratuitous Great Gatsby quote).

Take the recent dust-up with Bill O'Reilly. Here's a representative excerpt (And yes, the overuse of quotes continues throughout the piece).

O’Reilly “reports” that the trauma of the assassination attempt was somehow causally related to the “fact” that Reagan was frequently so mentally incompetent that senior aides contemplated using the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove him from office. But neither O’Reilly nor [Martin] Dugard spoke with any of those aides — not with Ed Meese, Jim Baker, George Shultz or any of the scores of others who could, and would, have demolished O’Reilly’s theory. O’Reilly now airily dismisses them because they “have skin in the game.” His is an interesting approach to writing history: Never talk to anyone with firsthand knowledge of your subject.
It pretty much goes on like this.

I was tempted to say more about the style, but I think the English paper comment covered what needed to be said on that topic. Instead, let's focus on the rhetoric.

Argument by eye roll is seldom a good idea even when you have the weight of the evidence squarely behind you. If the points you're mocking aren't obviously wrong, the sarcasm will usually turn around and bite you.

In this case, Will is dismissing the assertions (in reverse order) that: Reagan was showing symptoms of dementia during his second term; and the onset was accelerated by the assassination attempt. It's entirely possible that both statements are incorrect, but they aren't so obviously incorrect that you can just mock and move on, particularly when it comes to the first assertion, which was around long before O'Reilly picked it up

Here's Charles Pierce (who has written extensively on Alzheimer's).

As it happens, O'Reilly's speculation is on solid scientific footing. Alzheimer's researchers and caregivers have known for years that physical trauma can worsen the effects of the disease. Certainly, the recent  research into the connection between head trauma and dementia backs this up, and I remember a fascinating Japanese study at an Alzheimer's research conference that I attended in Osaka that studied the effect of a massive earthquake in that country on Alzheimer's patients in the affected regions. In almost all cases, the disease accelerated.


I am not willing to go as far as O'Reilly apparently does, but I have believed—and written—for years that Reagan was a symptomatic AD patient at least throughout his entire second term. My initial concern in this regard arose in 1984, during Reagan's first debate with Walter Mondale, when he plainly did not know where he was or what he was supposed to be doing. At the time, my father was beginning a slow slide into Alzheimer's himself. I knew what I was looking at on TV—and so, I learned later, did Dr. Dennis Selkoe, a prominent AD researcher in Boston. Since then, accounts of Reagan's curiously vacant episodes have popped up all over various historical accounts, and personal memoirs, of the Reagan presidency. In the latter case, everybody from Ollie North to Lawrence Walsh mentions at least one moment in which the person who was Ronald Reagan disappeared right before their eyes. In an interview in 1999 for this magazine, John McCain told me of his experience at a White House dinner, when Reagan lapsed into some middle space of his own.

Why didn't anyone try to do something? Well, they did. In Landslide, the book Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus wrote about Reagan's second term, they begin with an account of a serious investigation by concerned members of the administration to see if activating the presidential succession process was warranted. It went nowhere.
And according to the New York Times on Mayer and McManus talked to lots of people with firsthand knowledge:

Ms. Mayer and Mr. McManus are both working reporters - she for The Wall Street Journal, he for The Los Angeles Times - and this is clearly a reporter's book, full of rich anecdote and telling detail. But it is also a hybrid, a somewhat awkward hybrid at times. The core of the book, written mainly by Mr. McManus, a foreign policy expert, contains an exhaustive account of the Iran-contra affair. The political side of the story, told mainly by Ms. Mayer, a White House reporter, sometimes takes second place. Still, I am impressed with the amount of inside information collected here. The Reagan White House has retired the trophy when it comes to news management - in covering the President for the last 20 months, I have been able to ask him exactly three questions - and any effort to shatter the protective shield so assiduously constructed around Mr. Reagan is an important contribution to our understanding of the White House.
Put bluntly, the man is not sharp enough to criticize a Bill O'Reilly book. 

I previously argued that David Brooks is very good at being David Brooks. By the same token, George Will is simply terrible at being George Will.


  1. I know people who worked very closely with Reagan during his presidency and after and I spent time with him. I don't think he had measurable Alzheimer's but rather that he was old. He was 77 in 1988. Years later, his memory was sharp and his cognitive abilities seemed fine, but the natural processes of aging often work on things like: decreased ability to process thoughts into words, losing immediate connections - meaning more short-term memory misfires - and thus getting lost for a moment or two - increased time spent lost in one's own thoughts. These can mature into dementia and/or Alzheimer's but not always because they're symptoms that fit everyone who gets old.

    This issue interests me in part because so much attention was paid to, for example, Joe Biden maybe running. Joe will be 73 this month. How much longer will his mind last? How long will his energy last? You don't need a diagnosis other than "getting old" but then we've become addicted to applying labels to things.

    BTW, I believe Charlie's interest comes from his family's genetic trait of early onset Alzheimer's.

    1. Pierce very clearly has a dog in this fight, which is the main reason I looked up the NYT review. I wanted to see what independent observers thought of Landslide. Of course, it's a big jump from that book to Pierce's position and a bigger jump still to O'Reilly's, but while Mayer and McManus may not contradict Will's conclusion, they do seem to contradict Will's argument. O’Reilly and Dugard didn't talk to informed sources but the journalists who did found considerable concern over the president's mental state during his second term.

      But as interesting as all this historical speculation may be, for the moment I am far less concerned with Reagan's competence than with Will's. It's too late to worry about the former; the latter is an ongoing problem.