Why Are Conservative Columnists All About Literary Allusions?

David Brooks and Bret Stephens present: Literature 101

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The New York Times' David Brooks and The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens are ranked among the Atlantic 50 for a reason. Today, the influential conservative columnists tackled the same topic--President Obama's battered political prospects--with intellectual vigor. And both deployed drawn-out, if not overstretched, literary allusions. Brooks opted for the legend of Dr. Faustus, Stephens went for Rudyard Kipling.

Brooks seeks to explain the rightward shift of American politics through the lens of the German legend of the Faustian bargain. "It was the winter of 2007. Dr. Faustus, the famous left-wing philologist, was sitting in a coffee shop in despair over the Bush-Cheney regime and the future of his country," begins Brooks, alluding to the character who traded his soul to the Devil for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. In Brooks's adaptation, the devil Mephistopheles has a penchant for double mocha frappuccinos and promises Faustus that he will "make the United States a bastion of liberalism forevermore" through such demonic means as health care reform. "And, indeed, everything Dr. Faustus wished for came to pass. Yet he watched events unfold with growing horror. Not in 70 years had there been a sequence of events so perfectly designed to fortify liberalism. Yet the country wasn't swinging to the left; it was swinging to the right!"

Stephens is no less heavy-handed in deploying his allusions to Kipling:


'The slut's bitten me!' says he, clapping his hand to his neck, and, sure enough, his hand was red with blood. Billy Fish and two of his men catches hold of Dan by the shoulders and drags him into the Bashkai lot, while the priests howl in their lingo, 'Neither God nor devil, but a man!'

And so it came to pass that Barack Obama, like Kipling's "Emperor" Daniel Dravot, was bitten, bloodied and forsaken. If you've read "The Man Who Would Be King" or seen the film, you know how it ends: Dravot, self-proclaimed divinity and King of Kafiristan, alone upon a rope bridge dangling across a deep ravine. "'Cut you beggars,' he shouts; and they cut, and old Dan fell, turning round and round and round, twenty thousand miles." Fate will be relatively kinder to Mr. Obama, in part because the priestly liberal class of Olbermann, Matthews and Maddow aren't as bloody-minded, in part, too, because Americans usually forgive even their worst ex-presidents as a way atoning for their own electoral mistakes. But politically, Mr. Obama's presidency is tracing the same downward spiral. Kipling's tale helps explain why.

While all pundits aim to breathe life into overplayed political debates with some creative flairs, why is it primarily conservative columnists like Brooks and Stephens who cite the Great Works?


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.