David Brooks

Bullish thoughts on America and a few surprises from the New York Times columnist

by Lynda McDaniels

David Brooks can name-drop with the best of ’em. George W. Bush? First-name basis. Presidential candidates? Knows them all. Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt? Consults with them regularly.

No, really. Brooks says he talks to dead people. These conversations keep him connected, he says, with a “hidden river of knowledge” that flows throughout history into our contemporary lives.

“All his life, Abraham Lincoln talked with the founders of this country. Theodore Roosevelt talked with the men and women who settled the West,” he explains. “Their priorities were hard work and social mobility. These are the political transitions I harken back to.”

Brooks, an internationally recognized journalist, was on campus September 10 as this fall’s Susan Resneck Pierce lecturer to present a talk he called “How Does Being American Shape Us,” and to spend time in class with students.

In his writing for the The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New York Times, where he has been an op-ed columnist since 2003, Brooks maintains a strong optimism about American culture. He believes we are continually being shaped by the fundamentals the early pioneers established. “Those founders saw in America’s lushness that God’s plan for humanity could be realized here,” he says.

Waiting a beat, he adds, smiling, “and that we could get rich while doing it.”

That’s another surprise about Brooks: he can be funny. In his most public and unscripted arena, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, he seems to leave his sense of humor in the greenroom. But laughter rang through Schneebeck Concert Hall as he talked about American quirks like kids today asking for a snack that would prevent colorectal cancer or the innate optimism of buying condoms in bulk at Costco. And the Washington Post Book World says his Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive are “perceptive and amusing” and have a “bemused social taxonomy.”

Looking both right and left
Brooks is at the top of his game now. Just as George Will became the “new” James Kilpatrick, David Brooks is the “new” George Will. (They even share a passion for the great American pastime.) But Brooks is no archconservative. On campus, people left the lecture hall murmuring, “You’d never know he’s a Republican.” And that’s just what Brooks likes to hear, since he sees himself as a much-needed liaison between the two parties.

“Our political institutions don’t work as well [as they once did],” he says. “In the 1950s they could put aside their party differences and have conversations with one another. Today Republicans and Democrats don’t know anything about one another. I feel like an ambassador—I go and tell the other what they think. And they’re stunned. They had no idea what was going on with the other party.”

As a country, we’re stuck, Brooks says, because we don’t have a functioning process for conversation and decision, which results in indifference and inaction. “This [problem] transcends Iraq and Bush,” Brooks adds. “Getting this back is one of the subjects for the upcoming election.”

Number One, not always a happy place
Brooks tells the story of attending a Baltimore Orioles game at Camden Yards and seeing a man kicking a Yankees cap that had fallen on the pavement. “They weren’t even playing the Yankees,” he recalls, “but first one man was kicking the hat, then another. Soon a mob was stomping on the cap. No one likes Number One.”

He extends this analogy to our place in the world, stating that even in the best of circumstances America will not always be the most popular country in the world. Not that we’ve helped matters recently with the Iraq war.

“In my view, we tried to spread Thomas Jefferson without spreading Benjamin Franklin,” he explains. “You need a civil society before a lot of other things. … Iraq is a national humiliation, aside from everything else.”

Fab fifties
For someone born in 1961, Brooks is fascinated with the 1950s. “I didn’t get to enjoy the 1950s, but I’m a great fan of them,” he says.

Now that’s a lament not often voiced, but he claims the ’50s were a period of middlebrow culture and civility. During that decade, Lux Video Theatre and other live theater programs presented plays by the likes of Clifford Odets, and Edward R. Murrow delivered the news—not entertainment clothed as news.

“They had more coverage of opera, and people were expected to know about painters,” Brooks says. “The novels and magazines were great. In 1956 Time had an eight-page spread on the Ash Can School of painting. Now the media caters to mass audiences. With 100 channels competing, Britney Spears will drive more [interest] than a piece on the secretary of the interior. This is a perverse effect of democratization.”

Back then, politicians spoke with more intelligence, candor, and honesty. Today we’ve got President Bush’s good-old-boy persona. “Bush sounds 20 [IQ] points more intelligent in private,” Brooks says in a New York Times video. “I think that’s because he spent his whole life as a rich Connecticut kid pretending to be a Texan. … He talks down … to be regular, because he hated the people he grew up with.”

While here at Puget Sound, he added: “All politicians now speak down to people. I watch the speech and then ride in the van with the politician, and it’s like two different people. The speech is all bromides. Back in the van, we have a normal, intelligent conversation.”

The chasm between the parties and the lack of dialogue is why, Brooks contends, “ America is in such a bad mood.” We don’t seem to be able to solve our problems, in part, because they are vague and decentralized.

American ingenuity
Yet Brooks’ optimism about America is unwavering. He notes that the gross domestic product is as strong as it was in the 1970s. He also sees as much innovation in business as ever before. “The number of patents has increased, bioengineering and neuroscience are strong. We’re still really good at science and technical innovation,” he says.

While living in Brussels as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Brooks shunned the laid-back, have-a-little-wine-with-your-two-hour-lunch style of life. “It really bugged me that in Northern Europe, where I lived, people would get a job at 25, and they’d know where they were going to sit in that office at age 65,” he says. “They’d say, ‘As long as I have a basic level of security, I’ll sit around spending a lot of time at lunch in a bar drinking beer and eating mussels.’ That passivity bothered me. They’d tell me I was crazy—just sit down and enjoy myself. But I wanted to get something done. Americans have this big ambition that sometimes gets us in trouble, but I like that energy.”

Brooks is optimistic about the fundamentals of America, in part due to the younger generation. He likes the relative ease today between children and their parents. In China, Europe, and Japan, the average age hovers at 52. In America it’s a young 38, which Brooks sees as leading to a vibrant culture.

But there’s a caveat to his optimism: our fragmented, disconnected society. That’s where being a student of history can help.

“The great people I’ve seen talking to the dead do so because they want to connect with the highest and most inspiring parts of the river [of knowledge]. … They want to step outside their egotism and understand the river of events,” Brooks says. “People who talk to the dead want to feel connection to this procession through the ages. They need to feel in their bones where they have come from, and what ultimately they will leave behind.”