National Commentary

David Brooks: A Still, Small Voice

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Deborah Pryce, the Republican congresswoman, in her Washington office. There was a doll propped up against a windowsill, and I wanted to ask her if it had belonged to her daughter, who died of cancer at age 9 in 1999. But that question seemed to trespass on something out of bounds, so I asked about her re-election campaign in 2006.

Her Ohio House race had been one of the toughest in the entire country. And when I brought it up, I expected her to talk about the vicious ads that had been run against her.

Instead, she talked about the ads that she had put on the air against her opponent.

“I was appalled by what I had to do,” she said. In close races, the national parties send teams of professionals to take over campaigns, and the candidates who resist their efforts generally lose.

When Pryce spoke about the direct-mail letters that went out under her name, she did so with a look of disgust. She said that her friends kept coming to her to complain about the TV ads she was running against her opponent. Finally, her own mother told her she was ashamed of the ads.

The truth is, Pryce's opponents did worse. But it was her own ads that she kept dwelling on, and as she spoke, I could see that she'd been fighting the war that the best politicians fight — the war within herself to preserve her own humanity.

Politics, as you know, is a tainted profession. Professional politicians cannot serve their country if they do not win their races, and to do that they must grapple with a vast array of forces that try to remold and destroy who they are.

There are consultants who try to turn them into prepackaged clones. There are party whips demanding total loyalty. There is a culture of workaholism that strangles private life and private thinking. There are journalists who define them based on a few ideological labels.

And then there is the soul-destroying act of campaigning itself. Active campaigners are compelled to embrace the ideology of Meism.

They spend their days talking endlessly about Me. When they meet donors, they want to know if they are giving to Me or against Me. When they meet advisers and fellow pols, they want to know, do they support Me or not Me. When they think about strategy, it's about better ways to present Me. When they craft positions, they want to know, what does this say about Me?

No normal person can withstand the onslaught of egotism and come out unscathed.

And so there are two kinds of politicians: Those who become creatures of the process, and those who, like Pryce, resist and retain the capacity to be appalled by what they must do.

An amazing number gladly surrender. “Public people almost eagerly dehumanize themselves,” Meg Greenfield wrote in “Washington,” her memoir. "They allow the markings of region, family, class, individual character and, generally, personhood that they once possessed to be leached away. At the same time, they construct a new public self that often does terrible damage to what remains of the genuine person.”

These politicians become denatured pantomimes. They have no thoughts in private that are different from the bromides they utter in public. They confuse public image with real self. They talk to you as an individual the same way they would address a large crowd.

These simulated creatures end up successful, Greenfield emphasized, but also sad and lonely. They become the victims of the tawdry scandals that blow up from time to time (like Larry Craig).

But the other politicians — the more interesting and impressive ones — struggle to preserve their personal integrity. Many of those who struggle hardest have suffered a personal trauma, like the death of a child or time in a POW camp, which has created a private space that they refuse to sacrifice to politics.

Politicians of this sort do what they need to do to win, but they labor to preserve that inner voice. You see it in every conversation — an effort to ground politics in regular relationships, a capacity to carry on a candid inner monologue.

When I asked Deborah Pryce, for example, to reflect on her time in the House, it wasn't the political issues that she remembered most. It was the people she admired (like Dennis Hastert) and the personal moments of compassion and bravery: for instance, the time Sonny Bono tried to rally the troops with an inspirational description of his own setbacks and recoveries; the time Chris Shays, the Republican moderate, was booed by his own caucus.

Pryce has retained that honest, inner voice, and she has decided to retire after this term. It's not as rewarding being in the minority, she says, and with the new, longer workweek, it's harder to get home to her adopted daughter.

c.2007 New York Times News Service