When Brooks was 12, his family moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, where he attended the upper-middle-class Radnor High School. “It was like a John Hughes movie,” says Brooks—jocks, nerds, stoners, class-council types. On the dweeb-to-popular spectrum, Brooks was somewhere in the middle, with a foot in each camp. “I was a moderate,” he says. He struggled academically, getting D’s and C’s in math and language. But he got A’s in history and he was a strong debater—enough to get him into one of the four colleges he applied to.
T he University of Chicago in 1979 was like it is now, only more so: hyperintellectual, academically rigorous, and full of misfits. It was also three-quarters male. He found a competitive advantage, dating a series of transfer students, who tended to be more normal than most U of C students—and more romantically vulnerable. “This was not a conscious strategy,” he says now. The last of them became his wife.
Junior year, Brooks started writing a humor column. One dramatizes a philosophy professor’s office hours as a Raymond Chandler–style thriller. (“I’ve got bad news for you, lady. The truth doesn’t exist.”) Another reimagines Casablanca with Ronald Reagan instead of Humphrey Bogart.
He wrote serious pieces, too—book reviews, long interviews with prominent academics, and the occasional breaking news story (“Man bludgeons UC student with axe”). He wrote his senior history thesis on Robert Ardrey, the thirties left-wing playwright turned evolutionary anthropologist who popularized a theory that man was descended from a killer ape. “When I asked how he came across this subject, he gave me a characteristic response,” says Neil Harris, who was Brooks’s thesis adviser. “David said, ‘Well, I went to special collections, I looked at manuscript collections and began with A, and Ardrey came up right away.’ ”
But it was a piece of satire that changed his life. Senior year, William F. Buckley was coming to campus, so Brooks decided to write a parody of his memoir, Overdrive. Brooks attached a postscript: “Some would say I’m envious of Mr. Buckley. But if truth be known, I just want a job and have a peculiar way of asking. So how about it, Billy? Can you spare a dime?”
Buckley, it turned out, could. When he spoke at Chicago the next week, he paused mid-lecture and said, “David Brooks, if you’re in the audience, I’d like to give you a job.” Brooks was absent—he’d been one of two students selected to make the “socialist” case in a debate against the legendary free-market economist Milton Friedman, in California.
After graduation, Brooks spent a year writing freelance and then got hired by a small South Side weekly called the Chicago Journal. From there, he went to the City News Bureau, a legendary training ground for young journalists. (Alumni include syndicated columnist Roger Simon, Seymour Hersh, Mike Royko, and Kurt Vonnegut.) Brooks covered crime, which meant hanging around the detectives’ office waiting for something to happen. “They’d parade the prostitutes by us and say, ‘How much would you charge for that guy?’ ” Brooks says. Seeing Chicago’s innards up close—particularly the notorious Cabrini-Green projects and the city’s social-welfare policies—had a conservatizing effect on Brooks. He called Buckley and asked if his offer was still open. It was, and Brooks left for New York.
An internship at National Review in 1985 included an all-access pass to William F. Buckley’s social life, which was almost as Brooks had described it in his parody: yachting expeditions; Bach concerts; dinners at Buckley’s Park Avenue apartment and villa in Greenwich; a constant stream of writers, politicians, and celebrities.
Brooks was an outsider in more ways than his relative inexperience. National Review was a Catholic magazine, and Brooks is not Catholic. Sam Tanenhaus later reported in The New Republic that Buckley might have eventually named Brooks his successor if it hadn’t been for his Judaism. “If true, it would be upsetting,” Brooks says.
When the internship ended, Brooks “hit every right-wing spot on Earth.” He spent a few months at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and then snagged a gig at the Washington Times writing editorials and movie reviews. The Wall Street Journal soon hired Brooks to edit its book review. There, he enlisted William Kristol to review Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which helped bring the book to national attention. It also illustrated Brooks’s ideological shift. At Chicago, Brooks had written a takedown of the original National Review article that spawned the book. In his review in the Maroon, U of C’s independent student newspaper, the young Brooks had defended moral relativism. Now he was launching Bloom’s career.
In 1990, the Journal sent Brooks to Brussels as an op-ed writer. Whatever seeds of conservatism Chicago had planted, Europe brought into full bloom. He took a dozen trips to the Soviet Union, then Russia. In one dispatch for The American Spectator, he described a Moscow bar full of “beautiful and intelligent-looking” young hookers: “[I]t illustrates the tremendous waste of human capital. These women should be selling real estate or running ad agencies.”
When Brooks returned to New York in 1994, Podhoretz and Kristol were getting ready to launch The Weekly Standard, an unofficial organ of the Gingrich revolution. Brooks became an early recruit.