A meditation on David Brooks

Reading Steve Hayward’s post on David Brooks and his mistreatment by Jay Michaelson in the Daily Beast set me off. In his magnanimous style, Steve calls for attention to Brooks’s religious reflections by all fair-minded readers. Steve urges us not to write Brooks off simply because his political judgment has gone haywire.

As Steve suggested, I have listened to Brooks’s speech on Christianity in the public square. It’s an interesting speech and well worth the time to take it in by audio or by transcript.

But what are we to make of Brooks? In his day job, he is one of the regular columnists accorded prime journalistic real estate on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Brooks came to the Times from a conservative milieu. Life at the Times has domesticated him. Gabriel Sherman recounts in his 2009 New Republic piece on Brooks:

In the spring of 2005, New York Times columnist David Brooks arrived at then-Senator Barack Obama’s office for a chat. Brooks, a conservative writer who joined the Times in 2003 from The Weekly Standard, had never met Obama before. But, as they chewed over the finer points of Edmund Burke, it didn’t take long for the two men to click. “I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging,” Brooks recently told me, “but usually when I talk to senators, while they may know a policy area better than me, they generally don’t know political philosophy better than me. I got the sense he knew both better than me.”

That first encounter is still vivid in Brooks’s mind. “I remember distinctly an image of–we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant,” Brooks says, “and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.” In the fall of 2006, two days after Obama’s The Audacity of Hope hit bookstores, Brooks published a glowing Times column. The headline was “Run, Barack, Run.”

Brooks’s 2006 column is accessible online here; P.J Gladnick excerpts the highlights of Sherman’s 2009 New Republic article here. Sherman documents Brooks’s continuing infatuation with Obama as of 2009. Sherman quotes Brooks conceding his shift on the political spectrum and Obama’s assessment of himself as “a Burkean,” which Brooks took at face value. And they say journalists are cynics.

Now those of us who aren’t as smart as Brooks had no problem pegging Obama’s place on the political spectrum, and it wasn’t a terribly difficult task. We didn’t find him to be “a Burkean.” We thought he was a left-wing ideologue who would do great damage to the United States at home and around the world, and I believe he has done so. Steve says that Brooks has gone silent on Obama, but, if so, he needs to open up. The man is a political columnist, after all, not a spiritual adviser.

And what about the perfect crease he espied in Obama’s pants? If I had seen it, I might have thought this was a man who could make it as a model for men’s clothes if things didn’t work out for him in politics. But Brooks thought it somehow suggested this guy should be president! The tingle up Chris Matthews’s leg is far more understandable than Brooks’s epiphany.

Along with Peggy Noonan and many others, Brooks was a reputed conservative who fell hard for Obama in the 2008 election. Brooks may no longer be a conservative, but his judgment of Obama has in any event proved embarrassingly wide of the mark. Brooks and Noonan et al. owe it to their readers to make an accounting. They have a reckoning due with what Brooks calls in his speech “a hardened appreciation of truth.” Let’s hear it.


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