THE CONVERSATION: FROM THE MOUNTAINTOP

Another in a series of conversations between Times columnists David Brooks and Gail Collins. In this one, they size up candidates John McCain a...

Another in a series of conversations between Times columnists David Brooks and Gail Collins. In this one, they size up candidates John McCain and Barack Obama.

David Brooks: Gail, as you know, I spend most of my waking hours thinking about Human Greatness, Theodore Roosevelt and really large heads carved out of stone. So, of course, I was thrilled a few weeks ago when you got me a Mount Rushmore T-shirt.

But last week was the sort of week that I will think back on decades hence as saliva is drooling down my chin, the last breaths are escaping my body and my children are hiring lawyers to battle over their inheritance. I spent the first part of the week at Stone Mountain, Ga., where Robert E. Lee’s head is carved out of the side of a mountain. Then, later in the week, I made my own Rushmore pilgrimage.

The director of the park, a charismatic, imposing Native American guy with the English name of Gerard Baker, took me on an early morning hike to the top of the mountain. We climbed a steep trail and then boom, all of a sudden I was confronting a large stone dome: the top of George Washington’s head. Naturally, I climbed aboard and got my picture taken, because you never know when they might want to add a fifth head up there and I’m pretty sure I’d be on the shortlist.

Or maybe Obama will beat me to it. Like you, I’ve been following Obama for a few years now and I still feel like I’m just learning about the guy. This week, two sides were on display.

First, his innate caution. His close friends keep telling me he is a cautious, establishmentarian kind of guy, and that’s evident from many of the aides he has been hiring.

This week he made the brilliant move of signing up Dennis Ross to help him with Mideast affairs. I often tell candidates to hire Ross. You can wake him up at 4 a.m. and he will be able to spout off eight things the president should do right now to improve American interests in the region. The world is full of big thinkers. Few have that sort of practical intelligence.

In general, Obama is hiring many of the best Democratic thinkers. They are not fresh faces. They are not radical. But they are competent and smart. It shows his establishmentarian streak. You got at this in a very good column not long ago.

But then there is his ruthless political side, which I’m seeing more and more of. His Iraq statements are a sign of his thoroughly political nature. When the surge was being considered, he went on TV again and again and said the additional troops would not reduce violence. Today, he could just admit he was wrong. But, of course, it is an iron rule of politics that no politician – not Bush, not Obama – can ever admit a mistake. So Obama goes on TV and says he always predicted that the surge would reduce violence. In America it’s better to be seen as a confident liar than as someone who once got something wrong. And he rewrites his position with such confidence and bald-facedness it’s sort of scary.

I have to admit I used to have a sense of what kind of president Obama would make. Now I have no clue.

Gail Collins:David, a long time ago my husband and I decided we’d have a vacation where we’d just go to places that had canals. After Bruges, Amsterdam and Venice, we sort of slacked off. But this is my way of saying that I honor your attempt to see all the large heads carved on the sides of mountains. Hint for the future: the Afghans are repairing the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

I understand what you’re saying about Barack Obama. The whole country is probably going to go through this he’s-not-who-we-thought period because they started off with rather specific, very limited, visions of what he was, which I must admit he played into during the primaries.

Because Obama’s such a fantastic speaker, there was an expectation he’d be an inspirational figure rather than a practical one – a combination preacher and late-life Nelson Mandela. What a surprise when he turned out to be this very smart, pragmatic politician.

But people are having the same problems with John McCain. They’ve known him for almost a decade as the wisecracking maverick who was all about personal honor. Which is great if you’re planning, say, a long bus ride. But problematic in a president – I mean, it’s really hard to be an anti-authoritarian chief executive of the greatest power on the planet.

So who’s McCain? I can’t actually say I’ve even developed a clear counter-image. He’s been too all-over-the-place. I know you’re not a fan of the theory that running a well-organized campaign is a sign of an efficient manager but geesh. And even his flip-flops (OK, we should stop calling them that) don’t seem consistent. If you were going to jump into the tank on offshore drilling, shouldn’t you revisit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, too? If you can trust the oil companies with the beaches, shouldn’t you be able to trust them with the tundra? Really, there’s a whole lot of empty space up there I don’t think even the polar bears are all that attached to.

I think what I’m saying is that it’s disconcerting to see a candidate being insincere about his obviously pragmatic policy shifts. But at minimum, you want to think that he knows he’s doing it, and what the whole point is.

And by the way, not even a postcard? Where’s my souvenir?

David Brooks: Gail, so here’s why I’m a bad person. You get me a swell T-shirt, and do I get you even a hunk of bison meat? No. I vow to do better during my next jaunt. One of my points about Barack Obama is not only that he’s more political than I thought. He’s more unimaginatively political. In my view he’d open eyes if he admitted he was wrong about the surge not being able to reduce violence and halfway wrong when he said the surge wouldn’t produce political gains. It might cause heartburn among some die-hard surge haters, but most of the country would see a guy who can respond to obvious facts and learn from them. That’s what normal people do.

As to your point about John McCain, my creeping sensation is that the campaign is diminishing both of these outstanding men. I just wonder if it is inevitable. It seems as if presidential campaigns now follow their own logic and are completely divorced from the real-life considerations of policy making.

Here’s one example, with a news scoop inside: McCain says he would like to permanently base United States troops in Iraq, the way they are permanently based in South Korea or Germany.

My interviews with tippy top members of the Bush administration persuade me that it is a bad idea. They think basing large numbers of troops in other countries is a relic of the past and would certainly harm American interests in the Middle East. It’s far better to have small teams of advisers and forward operating bases that could be ramped up quickly. On this subject the Bush administration sounds a bit more like Obama than McCain.

That’s because people who make policy have to face certain realities that people who are campaigning never have to confront.

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July 18, 2008

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