The XX Factor

Beware August, When Columnists Return From Vacation

You know it’s August when political columnists come back from vacation and use their holiday experiences to reflect upon the mood of America. In David Brooks’ chat this week with Gail Collins , Brooks reports that he is just back from Montana, where people seem to be madder than ever at the state of affairs in the nation’s capital. A bartender said he felt such “disgust” with D.C. that he doesn’t even want to visit the museums; a wrangler remarked that everyone in Washington is “corrupt.” While good-naturedly acknowledging that vacation chatting is a limited form of research, Brooks goes ahead to make a serious argument, saying it was his perception that “the disgust was stronger than usual this year.” Usually, he says, he tries to argue with people who write off all politicians, but now, views are so hardened and people are so “repelled” that there’s no point defending the political class. “The situation is dangerous,” he concludes.

I was struck by the conversation because I am just back from Montana, too, and spent some time in the same part where Brooks was vacationing-the Glacier National Park area, and some around Missoula. Maybe that was David Brooks in the raft we passed when we were floating down the Flathead River! I’d like to think so. Like him, I love going there, for what are probably the same reasons: the mountains, the sky, the Western history, the chance to re-read A River Runs Through It in the landscape that inspired Norman Maclean.

But the odd thing is, our experience was the direct opposite of Brooks’. We told anybody who asked that we were from Washington, and nobody expressed even the most remote interest. A lot of them were displaced Easterners, anyway, living there because they like it. Maybe David Brooks attracts commentary wherever he goes, because he’s David Brooks and people recognize him as a television personality and want to approach him to do some opining of their own. Based on my own limited set of encounters, the mood seemed not so much anti-Washington as un-Washington, or, more precisely, Washington-free. There may be some Tea Partiers seething, for sure, and of course the economy is foremost in people’s minds everywhere, but for the most part, it did not strike me that people were thinking much about politics. It’s hard to do that and negotiate the next set of rapids, simultaneously.

To be sure, newspapers did run political stories-often about the status of wolves , a topic that inevitably inspires passion and anger and, yes, anti-government letters. But stories about lightning strikes killing bighorn rams were given equal pride of place, and room was also found for the police blotter , which is invariably more interesting to read than yet another story about the fate of the new banking consumer protection agency, important as that fate may be. For example: a mysterious man standing naked next to his vehicle in Bigfork, a stolen cat, a group of cows that had gotten into the road, a man skateboarding while holding a baby, a woman who called the police because some kids were hitting her four-wheeler with a stick-so many weird and interesting things to ponder when you are not pondering politics! People we met didn’t seem mad (with the probable exception of that four-wheeler owner, and maybe the mother of that baby). They seemed happy, and active, and not all that preoccupied with the machinations of congressional subcommittees. If he examined his feelings closely, maybe Brooks would find out that’s why Montana is his favorite state. After several days, pressing thoughts of politics and policy recede so you have more room in your brain to think about important questions like what would be the best thing to do today-hike, fish, or both. Unfortunately, now vacation is over, at least for those of us who only get to experience that state of mind temporarily.