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Become David Brooks in an Hour or Less; Become a NY Times Columnist in Your Spare Time

08/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Adam Hanft Political Columnist, CEO of Hanft Projects

Want to be David Brooks? Interested in a profitable career as a sought-after pundit, a card-carrying member of the Commentariat, a best-selling bloviator? It's easier than you could possibly imagine. Just follow my free columnist-in-a box plan; today's lesson is based on David's assembly-line column on "Dignity" that appeared this morning.

1. Begin with an old white guy. Preferably a founding father.

It always works. The Revolutionary War instantly grounds you in middle-brow intellectual rigor. But always add some show-off spin by quoting a lesser-known historical fact.

Today, Brooks begins his piece with the sine qua non of deceased palefaces, George Washington, and finds a relatively obscure referent to kick it off:

"When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation."

2. Celebrate The Glories of the Past

Once we're squarely anchored in the gauzy past, the next step is to use a specific optic as the spine of your column. Identify a specific value system that your colonial superhero represented. In this case: dignity:

"Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation's Constitution -- that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions."

3. Remind us of how far we've wandered from Eden.

Lament the passing of the ethical norms that made this country great, and contrast them with today's morally bankrupt world.

"But the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone."

4. Point out that we're hungry for what we've lost.

Remind us that Americans are a good people who mourn the death and burial of yesteryear's values. (Useful to quote de Tocqueville here, although Brooks missed his default guru today.)

Also toss in some (relatively) current examples of those of embody the days of yore. When possible, also show how wise and provocative you are by tethering names from across the spectrum, e.g. Reagan and MLK, to make your point sing on all cylinders.

"Today, Americans still lavishly admire people who are naturally dignified, whether they are in sports (Joe DiMaggio and Tom Landry), entertainment (Lauren Bacall and Tom Hanks) or politics (Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Jr.)."

5. Line up the whipping boys.

No column is complete without an indictment of the debased cultural norms that have reduced us to a superficial shell of what we once were. Normally these villains come in sets of threes, but today, Brooks was in a particularly declinist mood, and celebrated us with four evil specters.

Also, keep in mind that the villains you identify should not - repeat not - be just the usual suspects. That makes you too predictable, and successful columnists need to veer from what we reflexively come to expect from their politics.

That's why Brooks "surprises" us with "capitalism" as a destructive force, although when we understand the art of column construction, it's no surprise at all. (And most readers know that Brooks was mentored by Buckley, which makes his jeremiad against capitalism all the more intellectually heroic.)

a) "Capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents."
b) "... the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings.
c) "... charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession.
d) "... radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

6. Go full-on for the peg. Go for its jugular.

No one wants to read 1,000 words that, at some point, don't rush boldly and bravely into the story of the day. Otherwise, who really gives a crap about Washington and civility? So use the news peg to validate your cleverly reverse-engineered thesis.

Today, Brooks uses the triple play peg combo of Sanford to Jackson to Palin as reprehensibly axiomatic:

"First, there was Mark Sanford's press conference. Here was a guy utterly lacking in any sense of reticence, who was given to rambling self-exposure...

Then there was the death of Michael Jackson and the discussion of his life. Here was a guy who was apparently untouched by any pressure to live according to the rules and restraints of adulthood.

Then there was Sarah Palin's press conference. Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy..."

7. Leave them with hope.

Every columnist worth his book deal and Sunday morning seat on the sofa knows that their kicker should embody some modesty, as in "then again, I don't want to overstate the point."

So when you return to your theme, do so while gently questioning it at the same time. It shows you're not completely tendentious, and are capable of thoughtful reflection in front of your readers.

"But it's not right to end on a note of cultural pessimism because there is the fact of President Obama. Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation...

There, isn't that easy? Now here's an assignment for tomorrow:

Write a column that combines a) the amount of our debt being held by China; b) the health care debate as it relates to the oldest Americans; and c) and the role of Vice-President Biden in an historical context.

Begin it with the little-known fact that the grandchildren of President John Tyler (and former vice-president) are still alive.

And here's a orchestrating hint: Tyler "reportedly recognized the "coming importance of the Asian Pacific region to trade" and sent a diplomatic mission to China, which successfully established consular and commercial relations between China and the United State."

Can't wait to read your entries.

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