The Day Zelenskyy Came To Town

David Brooks, who has been called both a conservative and a moderate, is a journalist for the New York Times since 2003, and a moderate, a man of common sense and reasonableness, of intellect and integrity.  I know that some of my readers don’t much care for him or his views, but I do, and I think his latest piece is well worth sharing and pondering.  I have wondered more than once what the U.S. response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would have been if it had happened during Donald Trump’s term in office.  I shudder to think.


Biden’s America Finds Its Voice

David Brooks

22 December 2022

The cameras mostly focused on Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his address to Congress on Wednesday night, but I focused my attention as much as I could on the audience in the room. There was fervor, admiration, yelling and whooping. In a divided nation, we don’t often get to see the Congress rise up, virtually as one, with ovations, applause, many in blue dresses and yellow ties.

Sure, there were dissenters in the room, but they were not what mattered. Words surged into my consciousness that I haven’t considered for a while — compatriots, comrades, co-believers in a common creed.

Zelenskyy and his fellow Ukrainians have reminded Americans of the values and causes we used to admire in ourselves — the ardent hunger for freedom, the deep-rooted respect for equality and human dignity, the willingness to fight against brutal authoritarians who would crush the human face under the heel of their muddy boots. It is as if Ukraine and Zelenskyy have rekindled a forgotten song, and suddenly everybody has remembered how to sing it.

Zelenskyy was not subtle about making this point. He said that what Ukraine is fighting for today has echoes in what so many Americans fought for over centuries. I thought of John Adams, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, George Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer, the many unsung heroes of the Cold War. His words reminded us that America supports Ukraine not only out of national interest — to preserve a stable liberal world order — but also to live out a faith that is essential to this country’s being and identity. The thing that really holds America together is this fervent idea.

This liberal ideal has been tarnished over the last six decades. Sometimes America has opposed authoritarianism with rash imprudence — the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Iraq. Other times, America has withdrawn behind its ocean barriers and done little while horror unfolded — the genocide in Rwanda, the civil war in Syria, the failure during the Obama and Trump administrations to support Ukraine sufficiently as Putin tested the waters and upped the pressure.

American policy has oscillated between a hubristic interventionism and a callous non-interventionism. “We overdo our foreign crusades, and then we overdo our retrenchments, never pausing in between, where an ordinary country would try to reach a fine balance,” George Packer wrote in The Atlantic recently. The result has been a crisis of national self-doubt: Can the world trust America to do what’s right? Can we believe in ourselves?

Finding the balance between passionate ideals and mundane practicalities has been a persistent American problem. The movie “Lincoln” with Daniel Day-Lewis was about that. Lincoln is zigging and zagging through the swamps of reality, trying to keep his eye on true north, while some tell him he’s going too fast and others scream he’s going too slow.

Joe Biden has struck this balance as well as any president in recent times, perhaps having learned a costly lesson from the heartless way America exited from Afghanistan. He has swung the Western alliance fervently behind Ukraine. But he has done it with prudence and calibration. Ukraine will get this weapons system, but not that one. It can dream of total victory, but it also has to think seriously about negotiations. Biden has shown that America can responsibly lead. He has shown you can have moral clarity without being blinded by it.

Both Zelenskyy and Biden have been underestimated. Zelenskyy had been a comedian and so people thought he was a lightweight. He dresses like a regular guy and eschews the trappings of power that obsess people like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

For his part, Biden doesn’t fit the romantic “West Wing” fantasy that many progressives have in their heads. A progressive president should be delivering soaring, off-the cuff speeches that make you feel good about yourself!

But the truth is that both men have delivered again and again. The military struggle in Ukraine might turn grim in the coming months, but both men are partly responsible for a historic shift in the global struggle against brutality and authoritarianism.

A few years ago, democracies seemed to be teetering and authoritarians seemed to be on the march. But since, we’ve had heroic resistance from Kyiv and steady leadership in the White House. As I look at the polls and the midterm results, I see Americans building an anti-Trump majority, which at least right now seems to make it far less likely Trump will ever be president again.

Meanwhile events have shown — yet again — that you can’t run a successful society if you centralize power, censor knowledge and treat your people like slaves. The Times’s awe-inspiring reporting on the Russian war effort shows how pervasive the rot there is. China’s shambolic Covid policies are just one example of the truth that authoritarians can seem impressive for a season, but eventually error, rigidity and failures of human judgment accumulate.

On his first foreign trip since the war began, Zelenskyy came to America. It’s a reminder that for all the talk of American decline, the world still needs American leadership. It’s a reminder that the liberal alliance is still strong. It’s a reminder that while liberal democracies blunder, they have the capacity to learn and adapt.

Finally, Zelenskyy reminded us that while the authoritarians of the world have shown they can amass power, there is something vital they lack: a vision of a society that preserves human dignity, which inspires people to fight and binds people to one another.

If you’re interested, and have 12 minutes to spare, here is the PBS News Hour discussion with David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart from yesterday.

17 thoughts on “The Day Zelenskyy Came To Town

  1. Great share Jill. I have great admiration for Zelensky. I listened to him speak. And yes, I shudder to think of what the world would be if Conald held power when this Russian mess happened. ❤

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    • I don’t really have any admiration for any leader that the united states installs into another country like zalenski was installed during the Obama era rigime. We have no gode damn business installing leaders in other countries.

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      • Scott … I typically delete comments that promote conspiracy theories, but I will respond to this one because you, my friend, really need to study history instead of right-wing conspiracies. The only people who ‘installed’ President Zelenskyy as president of Ukraine are the Ukrainian people. In 2019, Zelenskyy received 73% of the vote as compared to Poroshenko’s 25%, and was thus the rightfully elected president of Ukraine. Period. There was no interference from President Obama, Macron, or any other world leader. In the future, I would love it if you would deal in facts rather than the garbage you hear on Fox and the other right-wing videos you watch. Thanks.

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  2. I am responding in the hope that the questioner is truly seeking answers. The vast majority understand the cost of helping Ukraine defend itself against the enormity of the artillery that the Russians (the US’s sworn enemy) have been targeting at Ukrainian civilians, committing war crimes every day. The war is now 10 months old; much of the world expected the mighty Russian army to crush the Ukrainians in days. It is at a standoff, with many experts believing Ukraine can now win. Putin has made it clear his aggression won’t stop at Ukraine. The EU continues to provide assistance even though their economies and energy supplies are being hurt by Putin’s war more far more than ours are. Ukraine is fighting to preserve democracy—not just in their country, but worldwide.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful response to Scott, Annie. He listens to Fox and the rest of the conspiracy theorists rather than to study the history, search for actual facts. I appreciate you taking the time to respond to him. I responded this evening, but simply did not have time or patience for it on Christmas!

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      • you are incorrect that I listen to fox, I don’t even watch that channel so assuming such about me just isn’t a good look. maybe you should ask instead of simply presuming to know?

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  3. Hi, Jill. I’m not a David Brooks fan, but I did mostly agree with this piece. I thought Zelensky’s speech was masterful–even Churchillian, as some have suggested–and the legislators responded accordingly. But I continue to worry how much of the response on the part of Republicans will last as long as it’s needed, when the House will be dominated by Putinescas–truly traitorous Republicans who have no soul whatsoever–but are channeling the noisy base of their party.

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    • I agree … I have nothing but admiration for Zelenskyy AND for the people of Ukraine who are not giving up, even in the face of so much death and devastation at the hands of madman Putin. It’s hard to say about the Republicans … are there enough who actually have a conscience, who put humanity ahead of political goals? We’ll find out.

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  4. Jill, like you, I value David Brooks’ opinion, even when I don’t agree with him. In this case, I concur with his thoughts. Zelenskyy showed the value of leadership. He stood up to a known bully and said we are not going anywhere. His people rallied behind him. It is not surprising that his opponent Mr. Putin is seeing more dissenting opinion in a country he used to have full control over. People underestimate the smarts of comedians. What I have learned is many comedians are more studious of news events than the average person. They are in the business of making fun of inane politics. Folks like Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson offer a lot of fodder to make fun of. Keith

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    • as for the question of what would happen if trump were still in charge, I ask this question.

      Why did putin not invade between 2017 and 2021? He still had the opportunity so why wait until trump was out of office?

      Could it be that old hated idea of peace through strength? As nuts as putin is, no one wants to die from a nuclear war, keep in mind, the survival instinct is the strongest in the species, this may surprise some of you but it even overrides the ego.

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        • okay, so as usual, you don’t want to answer the question. That’s okay, I’m used to it by now and really don’t expect it but like with you hoping to change one mine, I can at least hope for an answer to one question. It’s not personal, that’s just how it is.

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          • I did not answer your ‘question’ because I have no idea what was in Putin’s mind or why he chose February 2022 to start a war of brutality against Ukraine. I believe that had he done so during Trump’s administration, he would have had the full support of Trump, so I’m glad that he didn’t, for we would have then sank even lower in the eyes of the world. I didn’t respond more fully for a couple of reasons. First, it was the day before Christmas and I had too much to do to sit and write a long response to any comment. Christmas, my friend … you know, cooking, baking, wrapping, planning, etc? Second, I thought it was pretty much a rhetorical question, that you were mostly trying to rile me, as you seem to like to do, so I took the easy way and left it. Now, as to your comment about “peace through strength”. What Putin is doing is not ‘strength’, but is sheer brutality. He is murdering innocent civilians because he seeks power. Period. He has made it clear that he isn’t planning to stop with Ukraine, but is trying to rebuild a Soviet-style empire. Putin’s ego is rather like Donald Trump’s … he will destroy everything in his path, even his own life, to get what he wants. Failure is not an option, and if it means resorting to nukes, he will. Period. Now, Scott, I’ve given you my answer and I really wish you would read some history instead of listening to some of the conspiracy theorists you seem to think are ‘experts’. They are not. And by the way, I hope you had a Merry Christmas.

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    • Thanks, Keith! Yes, I sometimes disagree with Brooks, but even then I find him to be a thinker, and sometimes I can see his point, even when I disagree. But he is spot on about Zelenskyy … in my book, Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine are all heroes and Putin should join the ranks of folks like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and others, for he is in essence committing genocide. I would love to see the Russian people rise up as one against him.

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  5. polls show that Americans are becoming angry about the amount of money our government is sending to this country and with another 45 million in the current omnibus sham, it’s no wonder. I think it’s important to stand for freedom and band together to thwart evil wherever we can but if that’s really all that’s at steak, why is it that congress has refused to find out exactly where the money is going or what it’s being used for? Remember how outraged congress was with Ran Paul simply wanting to know where the money was going?
    why is it that when people ask about things like how much money defense contractors are making on this war, no one can answer such questions? And why is it, if this is a global fight, why is the Eu and other allies not helping to contribute as much to the fight as we are? With 60 billion and counting, we’re the biggest economic provider for this war and honestly, enough is enough. with that much money, the president of Ukraine can surely mount a meaningful offense wouldn’t you think?

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  6. Pingback: The Day Zelenskyy Came To Town | Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News

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