By Chris Wallace
There’s a craft to writing good columns and David Brooks, whose work you may have read in the New York Times or The Weekly Standard, understands it intimately. Rule 1: Put a hook at the top strong enough to get readers in and get them so far into the column they’ve invested too much time not to finish it. Rule 2: Don’t declare your argument early, especially if it’s likely to be unpalatable to readers, otherwise they may not read the column at all.
One classic Brooks column concerned the state of academic history in the United States. “Churchill” and “scandal” appears in the first paragraph and “buggery” in the second. Who’s not going to read on?
The hook concerned an exchange between Winston Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert and Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN, the US cable television network dedicated to federal politics and public affairs. Brooks’ column recounted the following exchange on C-SPAN’s Booknotes program.
GILBERT: When Churchill was 20 and a young soldier, he was accused of buggery, and, you know, that's, you know, a terrible accusation. Well, he ended up prime minister for just quite a long time.
LAMB: Why was he accused of buggery and what is it?
GILBERT: You don't know what buggery is?
LAMB: Define it, please.
GILBERT: Oh dear. Well, I -- I'm sorry. I thought the word we -- buggery is what used to be called a -- the -- an unnatural act of the Oscar Wilde type is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British papers. It's -- you don't know what buggery is?
Brooks used the exchange to highlight C-SPAN’s pervasive interviewing style, namely, short, to the point, fact-based questions. Or, to highlight another facet of good column writing (use of simple, clear prose) by quoting how Brooks put it: “The questions are flat, short, and direct.” C-SPAN’s interrogative style is distinctive in a US media dominated, Brooks says, by longwinded, emotion-obsessed questions from anchors who act like the real stars of the show, whatever the show might be.
In Australia interviewing styles range from arguably, at the more direct end of the spectrum, Laurie Oakes who gets a lot out of interviewees by mostly asking short, emotionally neutral questions, to Kerry O’Brien at the other. O’Brien may have hung up his green Pentel but memories of successive fifty or sixty word questions splenetically sprayed at pap-peddling guests live on. Somewhere in the middle lie those like the Canberra Press Gallery doyenne who once asked a long, clinical three part question of a guest on a Sunday morning current affairs show to the silent astonishment of fellow panellists. I know. I was one of them. Had the green room not been awash in coffee beforehand, I would’ve thought I was asleep and dreaming it.
What some might consider the craftiness in David Brooks’ well-crafted columns always emerges eventually. In the case of the “Churchill”, “scandal”, “buggery” column he gets, via C-SPAN, to his real target: the state of history as a discipline in the academy. Brooks argues that C-SPAN is a kind of “intellectual counterculture” these days – concerned with facts, interviewing historians concerned with things rather than feelings and emotions – while academic historians in universities drift off in a self-referential post-modern reverie.
There can be days when the steak and eggs of something currently unfashionable like, say, labour history may seem more satisfying than the madeleine-like delights of history keyed off contemporary preoccupations like memory, emotion, intimacy and connection. Brooks sets up a seductive but ultimately false dichotomy though. Ask good questions and go where the evidence leads: that’s what the best history does, whatever its style or focus.
That Brooks column first appeared in The Weekly Standard in 1999 and the hook concerned an exchange on C-SPAN in 1991. Yet it was listed in Real Clear Politics’ Tuesday afternoon update this week, more than a decade after the column’s original publication. It goes to show, you can’t keep a well-crafted column down.
Brooks isn’t perfect though. He’s conservative. If I’d disclosed that at the top of this column, being a Canberran you may not have read on, “Canberran” being a synonym of “progressive”. And dropping the twee Oxford comma would improve otherwise lovely Brooks sentences like: “The questions are flat, short, and direct.”
As to the other rules of good column craft, you’ll have to divine them. No columnist in their right mind would do themselves out of a job by sharing all them. So glad you read to the end of the column though.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times on 24 March, 2012