Sunday, June 04, 2006

Book Review: "What Would the Founders Do?"

Journalist Rick Brookhiser's biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Adams family, and Gouverneur Morris are all quite good, if limited, treatments of their subjects. Unfortunately his latest book, What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers fails to compare favorably in almost any way with Brookhiser's earlier works.

First of all, I should say at the outset that I wholeheartedly agree with Brookhiser when he writes on pages 4-5 "In moments of struggle, farce, or disaster, the founders are still with us. We look to them for slogans, cheap shots, inspiration, and instruction. We seize on them for sleazy advantage and for moral guidance. We ransack what they said and did for clues to what they would, and what we should, do." It is true that all those things are done ... what is up for debate is whether they should be done. Brookhiser continues toward the end of his introduction (page 10): "All their lives they had to say what they would do. So why should they get a rest when we need a little advice?"

Here's a simple reason why. The founders of our government did not live in twenty-first century America. They could not possibly in their wildest dreams have imagined that the fruits of their labors would result in today's United States ... or even that the Constitution they put in place would have lasted as long as it has. It is little short of ridiculous to attempt, as Brookhiser does, to put words in the mouths of the Framers (a term I prefer to founders) on topics such as stem cell research, Social Security, gay rights, or the federal reponse to natural disasters.

This book is a collection of short essays in the form of responses, usually drawing on one or two quotations from any of the rather large pool of potential sources at Brookhiser's disposal. It is selective at the best of times (i.e. when it tackles questions that the Framers actually dealt with, like the death penalty, censorship, partisanship or the separation of church and state) vacuous at others (weapons of mass destruction, the war on drugs, drilling in ANWR). Sometimes he allows his questions to go entirely unanswered, apparently being unable to muster even the scantiest of evidence in one direction or the other (oddly one of these is his section on terrorism, for which he simply discusses guerilla tactics during the Revolutionary War; I can think of several appropriate examples of possible citations for this topic, from Indian massacres to slave revolts to the French Revolution).

Brookhiser's cliched, glib quips and infinitely broad generalizations overpower any sense of reasoned discussion this book could have offered. Comparing Alexander Hamilton's description of an eighteenth-century hurricane to that of "a youthful Anderson Cooper" (page 48) seems frivolous, and his statement on page 51 that "The founders who framed the Constitution believed that the national government needed more power" is severely in need of qualification.

A couple more quibbles: I found Brookhiser's pseudo-appendix "Founderblogs" (a selection of putative blogs written by the Framers) obnoxious and trite. Leave the faux humor out of it, Rick, you're no Jon Stewart. And finally, Brookhiser's lazy excuse for not including footnotes ("The founders used footnotes sparingly") is downright lame. To be fair, he does cite direct quotations, but give me a break.

This book's conclusion, after all the fluff and nonsense, somehow manages to be sound: "What we can always take from the founders," Brookhiser writes on 218-219, "whether we are honoring the letter of their law, or improvising madly, as they sometimes did, is a style of thought, a way of working, a stance. We can be as intelligent as they were, and as serious; as practical, and as brave. We can know as much as they did, and work as hard. We can compromise when we have to, and kill when we must. We can; as they said, all men are created equal." I have no problem with most of those statements (except I think "compromise when we have to" is inappropriately harsh), but I wish that Brookhiser had taken his own advice.

We (and particularly writers as talented as Brookhiser) should not be in the business of trying to extrapolate vague out-of-body pronouncements from those who came before us; we must, rather, think through today's problems ourselves, just as they did. Sure we may get it wrong sometimes ... so did they. That's the nature of the beast. But today's questions are our own, and we must deal with them on our terms. Please, all you authors out there, let this be the last book of its kind. And Mr. Brookhiser, I humbly implore, go back to biography, it's what you do best - you simply don't contain the makings of a medium.


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