Bloggers seem to keep a special reserve of venom for Brooks. Matt Taibbi on True/Slant called Brooks, among other things, a “spineless Beltway geek” on a “pencil-pusher’s eternal quest for macho cred” who “looks like a professional groveler/ass-kisser” and is “the kind of person who even in his spare time would pay a Leona Helmsley look-alike a thousand dollars to take a shit on his back.”
Recreational preferences aside, Brooks says he agrees with some of the criticism. “Often you’ll read a commentary about the column and think, That’s actually correct,” he says.
Brooks never fights back. Getting dirty just isn’t his style. As David Frum puts it, “He has a kind of serenity. He has no enmity in him.” “He sees things with a bemused eye,” says Richard Brookhiser, who worked with him at National Review. “I would say maybe too much so. But it also spares him from a lot of craziness.”
Serenity is part of the Brooks brand. But sometimes, as with Obama, his coolness feels cold. He never gets riled, merely concerned. He writes a lot about emotion, but usually in a clinical way. When he says we botched the Iraq War, it’s not, Wow, we fucked up. It’s that our thinking wasn’t sufficiently Burkean. He’s not trying to persuade you. He’s trying to “exhibit a way of thinking,” he says.
Indeed, Brooks is preposterously even-keeled. Sometimes it astounds even him. “There are disturbing moments in my life when I’m weirdly anti-emotional,” he says. He once walked into a casino at Foxwoods and put a $5 bill into an electronic poker machine. Four aces came up. He won nearly $1,000. “I remember thinking at the moment, I should be like, Aaaah! But I was more unemotional than normal. I was wondering, What’s wrong?” Another time, he was sitting at an Orioles game with his kids when a bat flew into the stands. “A normal human being, when they get a ball, they go, Aaaah!” He waves his arms around. “Or when they get a bat, they hold it up. I just put it at my feet and sat there.
“I look at Andrew Sullivan or Jonathan Chait churning out opinions,” Brooks says. “I don’t have that many.”
“I think inside I’m as emotional as anybody,” he says. “I just don’t emote it.”
Working on the new book has strained his easygoing exterior. “It’s like the worst period of my life,” he says. He’s been getting by on four hours of sleep a night. He’s been writing in the basement a lot. Only there can he find solitude. He listens to movie soundtracks to help him concentrate. (Sense and Sensibility is good; he’s sick of Braveheart.)
After nearly three decades of writing, he’d expected the turmoil of churning out prose to fade away. It’s been the opposite. “I think gradually as I go through life I feel it more and more,” he says. “The failures hurt more. The anxiety ratchets up.” It’s not the material anxiety he writes about in magazines and books—kitchens, cars, grills. It’s a writerly anxiety. “The thirst for admiration is like the thirst for money—it’s never-ending,” he says. “You never get to the point where you say, I’ve had enough.”
I n Bobos in Paradise, Brooks gently mocks “bourgeois bohemians” who tailor their lives to simultaneously satisfy both their spiritual and material yearnings. He includes himself in that group. “When I’m ridiculing somebody,” he says, “usually that’s about me.”
In real life, though, Brooks isn’t a Bobo. As John Podhoretz said, he’s a Bo—guess which half. Most days, he writes from home—a four-bedroom, 4,600-square-foot Cape Cod–style house in the upper-middle-class Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. On busy days, he drives into his D.C. office. He just traded in his black Acura—which he called “the car for people who don’t want to be showy”—for an Infiniti. At home, he wears the suburban-dad uniform of baggy jeans, loose-fitting collared shirts, and Reebok sneakers. For work and TV hits, he puts on one of four shapeless suits and a pragmatic tie—NewsHour chic.
What free time he has he spends with his family. His three kids play sports, which means he watches sports. The single activity listed on his Facebook profile is “Driving Kids Places.” His wife is devoutly Jewish—she converted after they married and recently changed her name from Jane Hughes to the more biblical-sounding Sarah Brooks—but he rarely attends synagogue. For fun, he listens to Bruce Springsteen, his favorite musician since he was 15 years old.
This way of life is in some ways a rebellion. Brooks grew up near Greenwich Village (in Stuyvesant Town) in the sixties. His father taught English literature at New York University. His mother studied Victorian history at Columbia. Brooks likes to recount the time his parents took him to a Be-In. People were throwing cash into a trash can and lighting it on fire. The 5-year-old Brooks spotted a stray fiver and chased it down. “That was my first political act,” he says. He made another statement in third grade at the Grace Church School, when he scrawled “Julie Nixon is a Nazi” on the board. He received a paddling as punishment.