The President's Unconscious

My morning session here at Aspen featured David Brooks talking about the subject of his next book, which will focus on the brain, neuroscience, sociology, politics, and the intersection thereof. He cautioned at the beginning that he's only a quarter of the way through the book, and the talk reflected that fact: It was more a diffuse collection of observations, anecdotes and arguments than a tightly-focused narrative. But even in inchoate form, the morning left me with the distinct impression that this book has the potential to catapult Brooks into Thomas Friedman or Malcolm Gladwell territory - except that unlike, say, Blink it'll actually be good as well. (And yes, I'm feeling pretty favorably disposed toward Brooks right now, so take my sentiment with however much salt you'd like.)

I'll try to post some video later (we're hoping to splice together highlights of these panels), but for now I'd just like to pluck out one politically-salient observation he made. Brooks talked a lot about the unconscious, likening the mind to a boy riding an elephant - the boy is your conscious mind, the elephant is everything else, and you need to really understand elephants to know what's going on. This point segued, among many other digressions, into a discussion of how unconscious mental structures affect politicians, and here Brooks brought up President Bush, and remarked that in all of his conversations with the President he'd always been struck by the extent to which Bush seemed (unconsciously, in ways he'd never articulate if pressed) to think of decisions in terms of fifty-year time horizons - almost as if he couldn't conceive of political action except in long-run terms. I'm paraphrasing a bit here, and this might not be exactly what Brooks meant, but I think it's an interesting way to think about what's gone wrong - and occasionally right - in the Bush Presidency, and especially the extent to which Bush's actions have been influenced, unconsciously or consciously, by the long-running American narrative of What Makes Presidents Great, often to the detriment of his day-to-day execution of the job.

Brooks also noted, echoing Yuval Levin's argument about honor politics, that McCain's unconscious structures are essentially pre-Christian - and not just, he added, because McCain is older than Jesus Christ. The crack, inevitably, prompted an objection from an outraged seventysomething attendee, who wanted to make it clear that she wasn't older than Jesus. Good times ...