Brooks: Bubeleh in Paradise

In May of this year, The New York Times was in full meltdown over the Jayson Blair scandal. By June, executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd had been pushed out and a new executive editor, longtime Times man Bill Keller, was given a mission to smack some good old boring news sense into the paper.

Around this time, David Brooks got a phone call. He was in his ninth year writing for the conservative Weekly Standard , was appearing every Friday on PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer , and his book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There , had been a New York Times best-seller. He’d also written for The Times ‘ Sunday magazine, Book Review and Week in Review section. After a few lunches with Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Mr. Brooks was asked if he’d be interested in becoming a twice-a-week columnist on the Op-Ed page.

“Has anybody ever said no to that question?” he replied.

The subtext behind the question? According to a Times insider, it’s “no secret” that the search for a successor to the paper’s big-gun conservative columnist, William Safire, began “two or three years ago.” Mr. Safire, who is 73, has been a columnist since 1973. “I don’t think there’s been a date set, but you can just look at his age and when columnists typically and reasonably have retired,” said the source. “There’s not forced retirement for writers at The Times , only for editors, but I think it’s been on their mind for some time who would succeed him. And I think that they’ve actually found the best possible person, in that he’s a lovely guy and he’s a good writer.” (Asked about his plans to retire, Mr. Safire said, “Some day, but not soon.”)

On an afternoon in early November, the balding, bespectacled, 42-year-old Mr. Brooks was sitting in his unadorned office in The Times’ West 43rd Street headquarters. (His main digs are a more cushy, glass-paneled corner office in the paper’s D.C. bureau.) Mr. Brooks has a cute, chipmunky quality and looks like he enjoys a midnight snack every now and then.

“Of course, this is the pinnacle,” he said of his new position. “So you’re aware-and many people tell you-this is a big thing. That sort of inhibits you.”

He was still settling in, trying to get used to what it’s like to have 1.2 million readers and what to do with the hundreds of e-mails he gets after each column.

“Some people like you, and some definitely do not,” he said. “If you take them all seriously, you get depressed, because there’s a lot of people who hate me-because not every reader of The New York Times is conservative. The worst stuff you don’t mind, because you know they’re crazy, and there’s always a flow of anti-Semitic stuff which you sort of just know, ‘Well, that’s there.’ I’d say in general most of them are thoughtful.”

In addition to politics, Mr. Brooks writes as a cultural anthropologist: So far in his Times column, he’s turned his pen to online dating, erotic photographer Helmut Newton and the word “edgy,” and Lucky magazine.

He said one piece of advice he got from Mr. Safire-who gave him a personal tour of the D.C. bureau-was to “skip your first six months, because nobody will be comfortable with your voice and they’ll think you’re terrible.”

“He’s every liberal’s favorite conservative,” said Michael Kinsley, founding editor of Slate . “He may have no enemies, but that will change: If he still has no enemies writing a column for The New York Times for a couple years, he’s failed.”

“People were always stopping me, saying that they liked his stuff,” said The Times ‘ Ms. Collins. “There is something about him-he’s like the conservative guy who can talk to liberals.”

“Obviously he’s a post-Raines hire, and a very, very smart one,” said Andrew Sullivan, the conservative blogger and occasional Times contributor. “He’s every liberal’s idea of a sane conservative, and he’s every conservative’s idea of what a liberal’s idea of a sane conservative is. He’s not a fire-breather. My boyfriend much prefers his stuff to mine. But I can deal with that.”

On this day, the normally unflappable Mr. Brooks seemed nervous: He was tearing up pieces of paper and fiddling with an empty coffee cup. There was a party in his honor that night, and he admitted that being a conservative in New York City can be “socially unpleasant.”

“It’s a question you don’t want to come up,” he said. “You’d rather just have a conversation. And then if you say, as I used to, ‘I work at The Weekly Standard ,’ you get the Hitler salute or something like that. I’ve been at bar mitzvahs where people are seated next to me and they would get up and leave the table. I’m sure it happens to liberals in Alabama, too.”

Still, Mr. Brooks isn’t exactly swapping spit with the Republicans’ far right: He said he finds Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly to be “an insufferable ass” and that he “strongly dislikes” leggy blond author Ann Coulter. “I think she creates more liberals than anybody in America,” he said.

He’s not as harsh on Attorney General John Ashcroft.

“I don’t agree with a lot of what he’s done, but I think he’s been unfairly attacked,” Mr. Brooks said. “There’s sort of a Saturday Night Live divide in this country. For some people in this country, it’s totally out of their realm of sensibility, and John Ashcroft is one of those people. I can’t imagine he’s sitting around watching Saturday Night Live and loving it. And I’m sort of on the coastal Saturday Night Live divide, on the same side as most of the people who read The Times. “

Mr. Brooks said he’s against the death penalty, “incredibly mushy-headed” on whether a second-trimester abortion should be legal (he thinks it’s O.K. in the first, not in the third), and believes in gay marriage and gays in the military. “It’s from personal observation that gay people don’t have a choice in being gay,” he said.

Although he’s not enamored of the Bush tax cuts, he’s upbeat about the economy (“The numbers speak for themselves,” he said), but the big domestic issue for him is polarization. “We’re increasingly dividing-geographically, culturally, religiously, commercially-into totally different segments,” he said. “People don’t even talk to each other.”

And don’t call him a neocon.

“I have a rule that if the word ‘neocon’ appears in a sentence, there’s a 90 percent chance that everything else in that sentence is untrue,” he said. “Because people have this idea that there’s a secret conspiracy, which I know for a fact is untrue. What people miss is that when they talk about [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz and [Pentagon adviser Richard] Perle and [ Weekly Standard editor William] Kristol, they think they’re somehow all conversing all the time-but I know for a fact they’re just three people who share some ideas but don’t talk all that much, and they’re not particularly close.”

He said he thinks George W. Bush is “intellectually insecure,” which comes out in the administration’s communications strategy.

“They can never make a concession to ‘elite’ opinion,” he said. “So they will never say, ‘Well, we’re a little confused about this subject, we’re going to try to figure it out and then we’ll come up with a policy.’ They always have to say, ‘We know exactly what we’re doing, we never had any doubts about this’-and that’s a lie. I know how they work. Or the President will say, ‘I never read the papers.’ I know that’s not true.”

Dick Cheney?

“I’ve only met him once since he became Vice President,” he said. “I think he’s smart, calm, brave. I don’t think he’s part of any evil conspiracy. People really hate him. I went to a Springsteen concert and Springsteen kept ragging on Cheney. He did this thing where he said that he was glad people from all political persuasions came to his concert, that he welcomed anybody-except Dick Cheney.”

About Iraq, Mr. Brooks said he believes that George Bush “screwed up” but has “good motives.”

“My problem with the way some liberals have approached this is, they don’t even see Iraq,” he said. “They don’t even talk about how are the Sunnis progressing in Iraq, how are the Shiites, how are the Kurds? All they see is Bush. ‘Bush sucks.’ How’s the Iraqi constitution going? ‘Well, Bush sucks.’”

Recently, he said, he was the token conservative at a Boston dinner party with a bunch of smart liberals he admires.

“Their discussion of the Bush administration was just a cartoon,” he said. “Their version of the administration was this junta of corporate ideologues who march in lock step and never have an independent thought in their head, and their version is so at odds with reality you don’t even know where to begin, and they wouldn’t believe you if you told them how things really are.”

Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal , said she wasn’t sure that being a conservative columnist at The Times was such a great position to be in.

“To be aware that you carry conservative credentials-and his are not carried very heavily or obviously-and that you have been selected to inherit the mantle of ‘conservative writer’ for The Times is an insuperable psychological burden,” said Ms. Rabinowitz. “It takes a lot. But I have great faith that he will deal with it.

“I don’t know whether you’ve noticed it or not, but that opinion page, graced as it is by Maureen Dowd, is in serious trouble,” she continued. “They could use a serious essayist-let’s just say, somebody who knows what it is to write prose , to command an argument. And now what do they have? I mean, Maureen Dowd? People on the left regularly ask me, ‘How can they keep her there?’ So along comes David Brooks, this writing heavyweight, and it’s a coup for them.”

Mr. Brooks said he grew up “very happy” in New York City. His parents were Anglophiles and liberal academics who taught him to “think Yiddish, act British.” He had two turtles named Gladstone and Disraeli. His grandmother ran an art gallery and made hash brownies. When he was 5, his parents took him to a “be-in” in Central Park, and some hippies were throwing their wallets into a burning garbage can.

“I was 4, and I saw a $5 bill floating out and I ran up and grabbed it, which was a sign of early conservative tendencies,” he said.

When he was 12, his family moved to a Republican suburb in Pennsylvania. In high school, he was on the debate team but still had a few girlfriends. “The only sport I ever mastered was whiffleball,” he said. The most trouble he ever got in?

“Here’s a show of true geekiness: Some friends and I got up at 2 a.m. and broke into the town library and did nothing once we got there. We just took pictures and hung out,” he said.

He admired the New York Jewish intellectuals of the 1950′s and 60′s, like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Howe, Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell.

(“When my wife converted to Judaism-which she did on her own, I didn’t ask her-we went to the rabbi at the 92nd Street Y, and he turned to me and said, ‘What does being Jewish mean to you?’” he said. “And I said, ‘I really like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and Irving Kristol,’ and he looked at me like I was just the worst monster.”)

He went to the University of Chicago, where he had a great education and a miserable time. He wrote more than a dozen papers on Thucydides. For a column in the school paper, he wrote a parody of William F. Buckley Jr. that so impressed the conservative commentator that when he came to campus to give a speech, he asked the audience if David Brooks was present because he wanted to offer him a job at The National Review .

But Mr. Brooks wasn’t there-he was in California preparing for an appearance on a local PBS show, during which he would take the “socialist” position in a debate with economist Milton Friedman. It did not go well.

“The show was essentially me making a point, and he making a two-sentence rebuttal which totally devastated my point, and then me sitting there with my mouth hanging open, trying to think what to say,” said Mr. Brooks. “That didn’t immediately turn me into a conservative, but it did introduce me for the first time that there were other ways of seeing the world.”

Friends later told him about Mr. Buckley’s public offer, but he didn’t pursue it.

After graduating in 1983, he tended bar at the university’s faculty club.

“My regulars were certifiably insane,” he said. “One of them committed suicide and one was arrested for pederasty. They would line their lithium tablets up on the bar and just drink them with these double vodka martinis. One of them was this flamboyantly gay guy who would come in in velvet suits, and once he came in and said, ‘Today I masturbated four species of animals at the lab,’ in a loud voice to the whole room. That was a fun job, actually.”

Mr. Brooks decided on journalism. He sent out freelance essays which were rejected. He went to work as a police reporter for a news bureau that fed wire stuff to the newspapers. On his first day, he had to call around to find out if a kid who had committed suicide had been weird. That same morning, a city official died in a car crash; he had to call the man’s wife for a quote.

“So that was my introduction to journalism,” he said. “I distinctly remember my dream would have been to go to The New Republic . But I thought if I could get a job at an airplane magazine and earn $60,000 a year, that’s what I wanted to do.”

His remaining liberal views were tested as he covered life in housing projects.

“That part of life was eye-opening,” he said. “You could just get your welfare check and you didn’t have to do anything …. It seemed urban policy was broken, and it seemed to me the liberal policies just weren’t working, so that began to make me think about the other side …. So I reacted against the culture that was being created there. I also remember being happy when Margaret Thatcher won re-election.”

He called Mr. Buckley and asked if the job was still open.

It was. Mr. Brooks moved to Queens.

“He was always very quiet and very much involved with his reading,” Mr. Buckley said. “But he was good company; he had a lovely sense of humor. I think we did go sailing once or twice.”

In 1984, the 24-year-old Mr. Brooks left New York to write editorials and movie reviews for the right-leaning Washington Times , where he became close pals with John Podhoretz, now a columnist at the New York Post . At one of Mr. Podhoretz’s legendary New Year’s Eve parties, when the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” came on, all the young Reaganites started going nuts, especially Mr. Brooks.

“We agreed that this was sort of like the conservative-libertarian anthem,” said Mr. Podhoretz. “And David was particularly enthusiastically, you know, sort of jumping up and down.”

Writing movie reviews allowed Mr. Brooks to rub shoulders with showbiz people.

“The problem was, I was doing this while all these teen movies were coming out, The Breakfast Club and all that, he said, “so I remember having to fill 45 minutes of conversation with Ally Sheedy. She was dreadful-just an idiot. Of the young ones, you could tell right away that Matthew Broderick was by far the smartest.”

When he showed up at a Florida hotel to interview Jackie Gleason, Gleason’s wife was sitting there with a big cassette player. “And she pushed on Johnny Carson–type music: Da-dah- da-da-da! ” said Mr. Brooks. “And then at the key moment, the front door of the hotel room opens and Jackie Gleason walks in.”

Next stop: the Hoover Institution, the conservative think tank.

“They give you an office and they say, ‘There’s coffee and cookies every day at 3:30, now go think!’” he said.

In 1986, he married his longtime girlfriend, a fellow University of Chicago student named Jane (she’s now a stay-at-home mom who used to work at the Twentieth Century Fund, a liberal think tank). That same year he was hired at The Wall Street Journal as book-review editor. In 1990, The Journal sent him to Brussels as a foreign correspondent. He met Margaret Thatcher at a conference in Prague.

“I was at the food-buffet stand and she was backing up, and our butts hit and sort of rubbed against each other,” he said, smacking his hands together. “My joke about that is, ‘They don’t call her the Iron Lady for nothing.’ It was like, you feel your butt hitting someone else’s butt, and then you turn around and there’s Margaret Thatcher.”

His four years in Brussels turned him into a “hyper American patriot.” The highlight was trips he made to the Soviet Union, where he hung out with intellectuals. He also met the new post- perestroika entrepreneurs. “It was exhausting,” he said. “You just go for 10 days and you’d meet 200 people and get drunk with them, take off your shirt and spit on snow-the things Russians want you to do.”

Mr. Brooks returned to America in time for the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress. William Kristol and John Podhoretz told him they were starting The Weekly Standard .

“It just seemed like the fun thing, to be involved,” he said. “The idea was to give the Gingrich revolution some advice on how to be the governing party, as opposed to a bunch of rabble-rousers. And of course the Gingrich revolution fell apart in like three months.”

The Standard survived, and Mr. Brooks would stay there for nine years. In 2000, he published his first book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There , a serious, mildly satirical look at how baby boomers had become as obsessed with fancy kitchens as liberal causes. He said he wrote the book about the Clintonites.

“It was not an unremittingly hostile book, so I sort of liked Clinton,” he said. “I always disliked Gore more.”

The book sold 170,000 copies. While promoting it in France, he was asked to climb into a vat of milk naked, but refused.

“I always respected him for that,” said Washington Post liberal columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. “He wouldn’t do it. So he really isn’t a Bobo. A Bobo would have jumped in the vat of milk.”

Mr. Brooks and his wife live in Montgomery County. On weekends, he drives his daughter to ice-hockey games and his son to baseball games . He watches Jay Leno and coaxes himself to sleep with two shots of Jim Beam.

For research on his next book, he’s been spending a lot of time flying around the country, going to the kind of places people on both coasts condescend to.

“People in the heartland-you know, in Iowa-often have cartoonish views of New Yorkers too, so it definitely cuts both ways,” he said. “If anything, we’re segmenting into so many different Americas, and I think deep down we have an incredible amount in common, which we’re unaware of.”

The working title of the book is On Paradise Drive .

“It’s about the shared mentality we all have, and it’s a mentality I think started in the 17th century-a belief that some sort of perfect happiness is available just over the next horizon. And we’re always reaching for that, and we have sort of a future-minded mentality,” he said. “We see our life in the future tense.”

Could Mr. Brooks ever become a leftist again?

“Sometimes I do think that,” he said. “If I was with the Nation left, I’d be depressed. If I was with the centrist–Joe Lieberman left, I’d be happy.”