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A Reasonable Man

In a world of loud voices and extreme positions, David Brooks manages to be both irrelevant and absolutely essential.

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D avid Brooks is angry—for David Brooks, at least. “This is a damn outrage, to be honest,” he tells David Gregory on Meet the Press. The signs of fury are there—if you know where to look. He is blinking faster than usual. His head is bobbing around a little. He raises his eyebrows, but not his voice. This is Brooks at his most fuming.

The outrage in question is the ouster of Utah senator Bob Bennett, who after eighteen years in the U.S. Senate has lost a bid for the Republican nomination thanks in part to strong opposition from the tea-partyers. Bennett’s offense: He joined the Democrats in voting for the bailouts and co-sponsored a health-care bill that would require everyone to buy insurance. In other words, he was too reasonable.

The same could be said of Brooks. All current trends in public life point away from people like him. In the media world, his brand of good-natured, low-heart-rate, quasi-academic analysis, disseminated twice a week on the New York Times’ op-ed page and in weekly appearances on PBS and NPR, has been supplanted by spluttering hyperbole IV-ed directly into America’s arteries 24 hours a day. In the Republican Party, visceral tea-party populism has overwhelmed Brooksian intellectual centrism; on the Democratic side, Brooks sees overreach. The result is political gridlock of historic dimensions. Meanwhile, a never-ending series of crises from Afghanistan to the financial collapse to the oil spill make the world seem impervious to rational solutions. If you can’t beat it, the thinking goes, yell at it.

“It’s not the best time for people like me,” says Brooks.

And yet it is. Brooks’s charming, levelheaded optimism may be out of style. But he gets to play the voice of reason against a chorus of doomsayers. His moderate conservatism—a synthesis of conservative giant Edmund Burke and Ur-centralizer Alexander Hamilton that has earned him the label of “liberals’ favorite conservative”—may be anomalous, but it allows him a kind of freedom that other, more partisan pundits lack. He’s a party of one, without followers. This is Brooks’s central paradox: He’s both the essential columnist of the moment, better than anyone at crystallizing the questions we face—ones for which there are often no good answers—and also, somehow, totally out of step.

T imes are tough for the president, too—which isn’t a coincidence. It sometimes seems as if Barack Obama and David Brooks share the same rational, unflappable DNA. Every Monday and Thursday, as his deadline approaches, Brooks gets a call from someone in the White House—“I’m not going to say who,” he says, which means Rahm—asking if tomorrow is going to be a good day.

The Chicago connection helps. He’s known Emanuel since his congressional days. Brooks’s admiration for David Axelrod dates back to when Brooks was at the University of Chicago and Axelrod was a political columnist for the Chicago Tribune. “He was my hero,” Brooks says.

Brooks first met Obama in 2005, when Obama was a freshman senator. He was impressed by Obama’s command of political philosophy, not to mention his tailoring. When Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope came out in 2006, Brooks praised it in his column and urged Obama to run for president.

Since then, Obama’s team has courted Brooks assiduously. Emanuel once arranged for Obama to swing by a meeting he and Axelrod were having with Brooks. At a dinner of conservative writers at George Will’s house, where the guests included Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol, among others, Obama jokingly asked Brooks, “What are you doing here?” At another meeting with journalists, Brooks sat next to Obama, who would periodically turn to Brooks and point out that the policy being discussed was quite Burkean. “You could tell he was really conscious of his presence,” says his Times colleague Gail Collins.

At The Week’s opinion-journalism awards dinner in 2009, where Brooks was being honored, Axelrod made the love affair explicit, praising him as a “true public thinker” amid the “insipid, instant commentary and one-hour news cycles.”

Politically, it’s clear why the White House likes Brooks—he’s the persuadable opposition. “David represents to them the sensible Republican,” says Collins. “If David is convinced, they regard that as a real bi-partisan triumph.” But the special relationship is as much about style as politics. Temperamentally, Brooks and Obama could be twins. They address crises with an almost inhuman calm—an asset at times, but also a liability when the only proper response is emotional. On this, Brooks defends Obama. “You know, people fault President Obama for being passionless sometimes, for being a little too cold,” Brooks said on PBS NewsHour in May. “But when you have a week like this, where you’ve got the Greek situation, the oil spill, you’ve got Times Square, you’ve got floods in Nashville, I think they responded with reasonable speed, but basically with a level of calmness, which is in his nature … This is a good time to have a president like Obama, who’s just steady.”


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