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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Surviving the ugliness of it all

A video projection of an old film of Winston Churchill dining in a tent with some soldiers on view at The Churchill Museum in London, Feb. 2, 2005. (Jonathan Player/The New York Times)

By David Brooks

I’ve been crisscrossing the country almost constantly over the last five months. When I ask people about politics, the feeling I hear most often is exhaustion. People are just tired out from the endless national crises, their dread of the 2024 presidential campaign, the ugliness of it all. Many people I talk with seem passive, discouraged and are trying, mostly in vain, to shut out the political noise. It’s almost as if people have been so beaten down by the last decade, they’ve lost the self-confidence to wish for more.

In these circumstances, I turn to two leaders who knew something about projecting hope in exhausting times: Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They offered two very different versions of national self-confidence.

Churchill’s strongest sense was his romantic attachment to Britain’s past. At a time when it was fashionable to scorn the pompous Victorians and dismiss the ancient grandees like the first Duke of Marlborough, Churchill believed in the whole pageant of British history with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy. In the stentorian 18th-century cadences of historian Edward Gibbon and essayist Samuel Johnson, he painted a heroic portrait of that nation of shopkeepers and saw Britain’s current troubles in light of its glorious past.

In 1940, his romantic vision gave moral shape to contemporary terrors. Under his guidance, the British people came to see themselves as the phlegmatic and resolute defenders of their island home, the latest in a great line of underdog warriors. His invocations of their common past united a class-riven nation.

His confidence was not of the plucky, upbeat type. He offered instead blood, toil, tears and sweat. Like many past-minded people, his sensibility was tragic, aware that history is a procession of depravity, conflict and war, and that no generation is spared its traumas. But his historical frame of mind did give him an unshakable sense of who Britons were and what Britons must do.

He was not built to be a bobber and weaver, to shimmy in tune with passing trends. His confidence had a defensive but stalwart nature — to stick oneself down, to never waver, to be willing to fight on forever and ever, to project a rocklike firmness that turned out to be contagious. In a magnificent 1949 essay on Churchill, Isaiah Berlin noticed that Churchill idealized his fellow Brits with such intensity that he lifted “a large number of inhabitants of the British Isles out of their normal selves and, by dramatizing their lives and making them seem to themselves and to each other clad in the fabulous garments appropriate to a great historic moment, transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armor.”

I see an American analogue to Churchill’s historic sensibility in Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric during the Civil War: “Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And I can imagine a contemporary American leader putting our current crises in the frame of the constant and similar crises of our own national past — the populists versus the coasts, the struggles for racial justice, America’s unasked-for role as leader of the free world. I can imagine a contemporary leader with a similarly weathered but undaunted confidence in our institutions and our ideas, a leader with an acute awareness of our own national identity — the nation of the future; the beacon of democracy; the nation that, with its unbounded dynamism and immigrant drive, manages to overcome the recurring tumult caused by its own idiocy and iniquity, and in the end energizes the world.

The second very different model of confidence was projected by Churchill’s great friend FDR. Berlin wrote that Roosevelt stood out for “his astonishing appetite for life and by his apparently complete freedom from fear of the future; as a man who welcomed the future eagerly as such, and conveyed the feeling that whatever the times might bring all would be grist to his mill.”

Roosevelt looked forward with such optimism, such an assumption of abundance, such a faith in progress that he saw present difficulties as stumbles on the path to the sunlit uplands to come.

While Churchill’s political gift was steadfastness, Roosevelt’s was nimble dexterity. He relished improvisation, trying multiple things at once even if they did not fit together. His untroubled confidence in his own and his nation’s power rested upon an exceptionally sensitive awareness, conscious and unconscious, of his own milieu, his intuitive anticipation of how public opinion would flow, how events would unfold. It’s as if he had antennae that could feel the minutest vibrations across the political world.

Berlin writes, “This feeling of being at home not merely in the present but in the future, of knowing where he was going and by what means and why, made him, until his health was finally undermined, buoyant and gay; made him delight in the company of the most varied and opposed individuals.” In Roosevelt’s self-confident vision, a nation enduring depression and then war was nonetheless illuminated by the brilliance of its future days. He never lost that faith.

You may doubt it in these gloomy years, but I think even today’s America could produce a leader of FDR’s buoyancy. We have by far the strongest large economy on earth. We have by far the most innovative technical centers, the greatest centers of learning and the mental and spiritual resources brought by millions of striving immigrants. We have more talent in America today than ever before. We need somebody who can name those strengths and connect them to our children’s future.

We’re floating upon a pessimism bubble. The underlying realities do not justify the bearish mood that Donald Trump feeds and then feeds off of. We need a leader who can counteract Trump’s sour and grievance-ridden patriotism with a vaster and more generous patriotism, drawing on the glorious inheritance left by our ancestors and lured by FDR’s buoyant faith in what’s to come.

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