It says a lot about how engaging Sen. Ben Sasse’s Twitter feed is, and how novel it seemed that a politician would write what appeared to be a parenting book rather than a bland campaign volume, that I requested a copy of the Nebraska Republican’s new book, “The Vanishing American Adult.” And I truly hoped to be able to report that it was good: Any sign that an American politician is capable of thinking in new ways or speaking in new terms is manna in the desert, and as you all know, it’s getting grim out there. So it’s with regret that I inform you that “The Vanishing American Adult” is a reminder that there is more than one way for a politician to write a bad book, as well as an illustration of the limits of Sasse’s mildly maverick brand.
Astronomer Carl Sagan famously said that “if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,” which is the approach Sasse takes here. “The Vanishing American Adult” includes a section titled “The Story of How Humanity Conquered Necessity” that clocks in at slightly less than two pages and a chipper, highly abridged section on the printing press, among other trips into Sasse’s Wayback Machine.
In his efforts to show us just how deeply the conundrums of contemporary young adulthood are rooted in history, Sasse also has a slightly exhausting tendency to show us just how much he has read. On one page, he cites Thorstein Veblen, Thomas Jefferson and Montesquieu. Five pages later, he quotes the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who wrote, “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” Something this bland can’t have made its way into the book for the power of its insight; the whole thing feels like Sasse’s not-very-subtle way of making sure we know he has read the ancient philosophers.
Intellectual history can be a valuable addition to a parenting book, if that is how one is inclined to read “The Vanishing American Adult.”
One of the best things about Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing Up Bébé” is the lively journey she takes through the evolution of French ideas about parenting, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (cited frequently by Sasse as a misguided but formidable philosophical enemy) to psychoanalyst and pediatrician Françoise Dolto. And Jennifer Senior’s “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood” applies the history of childhood and parenting to the question of what contemporary parents expect from their children and their parenting experiences.
But unlike Sasse, who tends to confine his specific tips to boxes at the end of his chapters, bury them as asides in dense passages or even deliver them via an imagined commencement address from Teddy Roosevelt, Druckerman doesn’t let her history overwhelm the practical, cheerful advice she picked up after her move to France. And though Senior is tackling a significant idea, she hasn’t saddled herself with as heavy a burden as the one Sasse is taking on, re-envisioning almost every aspect of parenting and civic training.
Sasse protests that he is not writing a policy book, and he protests a lot, if vainly: The postscript is titled “Why This Wasn’t a Policy Book” and includes a brief discussion of “a new GI bill for the digital age” before backtracking to acknowledge that “in a sense, my opening claim that this book is not about ‘public policy’ is wrong.” But the truth is that “The Vanishing American Adult” is kind of a policy book, and a parenting guide, a proposal for how Americans should approach big questions together, which of course means that it comes across as an effort to set Sasse up for a larger role on the national stage.
Admirably, Sasse has no interest in the sort of reflexive conservative practice of leaping to defend anything that liberals decry. His dispatches from his tenure as president of Midland University focus on genuinely ridiculous behavior such as a student who staged a sit-in at his office over a course scheduling issue and an employee who didn’t realize a warning about her performance meant she shouldn’t skip out of work at 2:30 in the afternoon to go to a Pilates class. There’s certainly some novelty in seeing a Republican senator write that “there are many crucial debates to be had about gender and race in patriarchal colonial America,” rather than set a new land-speed record rushing to Fox News to complain about snowflakey youths.
But in his eagerness to reassure us that he’s not trying to defund public schools, or defend an all-white, all-male Great Books canon, or, puzzlingly, return us to the Dust Bowl, Sasse sometimes seems reluctant to use these areas of agreement to lead his readers into a discussion of anything genuinely challenging. In the section of the book on sex, yet another place where Sasse resisted and then gave in, he explains that he originally planned not to write about the subject because “I have regarded it as imprudent and therefore unhelpful to risk the needed first steps in this conversation by diving straight into any topic that could be considered controversial.”
For all Sasse seems to have aspired to write a different kind of politician’s book, or, in his critiques of Donald Trump, to be a different kind of Republican, in “The Vanishing American Adult,” he can’t seem to resist the ambitious politician’s tendency to minimize some very real differences on important subjects — or to turn even the most piercing human experiences into material.
In his chapter on travel, Sasse tells what should have been a moving story about being invited to share lunch with a group of widows he met at church services in Berlin. While discussing World War II, one of the women explained that she and her friends hoped that American forces would reach their neighborhood first: They didn’t, and she was raped by two Soviet soldiers. Her mother and aunt shot one of the men, and she helped them bury him behind the family’s apartment building.
This anecdote is one of the few times Sasse’s storytelling becomes truly specific, and for a moment, it’s horrifying, engaging reading. Sasse could have let his reader sit with that experience or explored the impact it made on his 20-year-old self in greater detail. Instead, he can’t resist enlisting this experience in service of bromides about “common humanity” and “unanticipated bonding,” including on a trip he took to Pakistan with his Democratic Senate colleague, Joe Donnelly, where “in the face of these jihadi suicide bombings, Republican and Democratic labels didn’t mean much.”
In the face of the Berlin woman’s story of pain, resilience and horror, it’s Beltway cliches about bipartisanship that don’t matter much.