Blogs > Cliopatria > David Brooks Is Wrong

Apr 21, 2005 3:27 pm

David Brooks Is Wrong

The other day I blogged that David Brooks is right. (Click here:
But he's wrong today.

In his column in the NYT ( he says that Roe v. Wade poisoned American politics by removing the abortion decision from state legislatures and giving the power over abortion to the courts.

He blames Justice Blackmun for this disaster, opening his piece with one of the most incendiary lines ever published in the NYT: "Justice Harry Blackmun did more inadvertent damage to our democracy than any other 20th-century American."

This not only unfair to Blackmum, it is bad history.
When did politics become poisoned? Not with Roe and not because of abortion, as Brooks claims. Politics changed when Blacks got their Civil Rights. You can see the poison as early as 1948 when Strom Thurmond marched out of the Democratic Convention to form the Dixiecrat Party. After the Brown decision Southerners started demonizing the Supreme Court and calling for the impeachment of Earl Warren.

It wasn't abortion that divided the country. It was race.

Brooks says that the fight over Supreme Court nominations has become explosive because of Roe. Wrong again.

As I demonstrated in a piece published at (and now reprinted on HNN in 2001, the nomination process became the modern equivalent of a cock fight in the summer of 1968, Lyndon Johnson's last year in office, when he nominated Abe Fortas as chief justice:

"It’s not Bork the pundits should point to as a turning point. It’s Fortas. Russell Long referred to Fortas as one of the 'dirty five' on the Warren Court who voted for criminals. [Crime was the code word for race.] Fellow Southerner James Eastland observed during the battle that he had 'never seen so much feeling against a man as against Fortas.' After Strom Thurmond mounted a successful filibuster against Fortas, Democrats vowed they would not soon forget what had happened. And they did not. They turned down Haynsworth, Senator Gale McGhee (D-WY) conceded, because of Fortas. 'Had there been no Fortas affair … a man of Justice [sic] Haynsworth’s attainments … undoubtedly would have been confirmed.' "

Why does Brooks get his history wrong? Because he is eager to find ammunition in history for his view that Roe should be overturned.

If he wants to argue that courts shouldn't have gotten involved with abortion--ok. It's not my view but it's defensible.

If he wants to argue that Roe left a bad taste in many peoples' mouths. Ok. So did Brown. And many scholars today like Mike Klarman argue that Brown was a mistake for the same reason Brooks says that Roe was: It removed an issue that should have been settled democratically from debate, leading inevitably to backlash politics.

But he can't argue that before Roe we lived in a kind of golden age. It's simply not true.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006


That may be true, but I don't think it's enough to save Brooks's argument or affect Rick's. In fact, I think Rick is too easy on Brooks. As I argue at my blog, Brooks has misrepresented the history in a deeper sense than the one Rick mentions here. He has misrepresented what Roe vs Wade actually says--a very common enterprise among people who are interested in attacking it but not in reading it.

I think Roe is problematic in its reasoning, but Brooks's account of it really amounts to a brazen sort of revisionism.

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Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2005

I agree with you that the Brooks column was deeply mistaken and, mistaken, in large part because of its poor sense of history. There is, however, this difference between _Brown_ and _Roe_, I don't see anyone seriously arguing that _Brown_ should be overturned. There are lots of reasons to question it and Klarman indicates some of them, but I don't see anyone seriously urging a return to pre-Brown in order to calm the waters.