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Right Timesman

David Brooks is the hothouse flower of the Times’ op-ed page—its token conservative. It’s a tough job, as he’s learning.


David Brooks  

It might only be a slight exaggeration to say that David Brooks, who in every way appears to be a mild man, has written the most discordant words ever published in the New York Times, possibly the most dissonant (and dissident) words ever published in New York.

“Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide,” he said in his November 22 op-ed column, announcing the metaphysical demise of, one might guess, a good percentage of Times readers as well as the city itself. “He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations,” he continued in a brimstone language more than a little foreign to the Sex and the City city.

Being conservative is, of course, his job.

His exact job may in fact be to balance the implacably liberal Paul Krugman, who, from his perch on the op-ed, has grown into George Bush’s most prominent antagonist. Not that the Times objects to Krugman’s star status—but you have to manage it right. Giving Brooks a column is part of the artful balancing act.

What’s more, the Times’ conservative of record, William Safire—who 30 years ago became the first outsider brought onto the page—is, at 74, looking toward a sooner-rather-than-later retirement and needs to be replaced, if not replicated.

Brooks, a shortish, plumpish, graying fellow, is also part of a larger change. The age of opinion, of partisanship and polarization (even though one of Brooks’s opinions is to be against such polarization), has meant that the op-ed, formerly the reward for long service and smart careerism at the Times (or someTimes for bad careerism—a place on the op-ed has been a consolation prize for high-flying but out-of-favor Timesmen), and a place of measured, orotund, authoritative appraisals of world affairs, has had to transform into a sharper, juicier enterprise. Everybody has a shtick: Krugman as Bush-basher, Safire as house conservative, Tom Friedman as the mayor of the Middle East, Maureen Dowd as crazy lady, Bob Herbert as spokesman for the dispossessed. Everybody needs a slot. Everybody needs a label (indeed, Nicholas Kristof, the other columnist on the page, seems orphaned and, often, irrelevant, without a hard slant).

When Brooks got the call from Gail Collins, the editor of the editorial page, whose umbrella the op-ed falls under (although, by tradition, columnists are the publisher’s prerogative, adding another layer of caprice to the choice—if the publisher wants to be capricious), and went to the Times to have lunch, Collins merely said, without having to precisely define the taxonomy of the page, that they wanted another voice at the dinner table. She did not have to say “conservative.”

Such a dinner table, implying collegiality and family, is Timesian. It suggests that the voice should fit in—be at home.

To be conservative, after all, is easy. To be the right kind of conservative is hard.

It is doubtful that the Times wants a conservative conservative—not a Fox conservative, not, as Brooks (who is frequently, and for him uncomfortably, confused with the now-repentant ex-mad-dog conservative David Brock) calls the unreconstructed right, a “southern populist conservative,” not a name-calling, liberal-baiting conservative. Not a son-of-a-bitch conservative.

The Times needs an acceptable conservative.

Thirty years ago, the story goes, the then-publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Sr., sat next to William Safire, a Nixon speechwriter and former press agent, and, after so much small talk, suggested Safire write a regular column for the paper (this is the caprice). The umbrage taken by Times liberals (in and out of the paper) was deep. But through the ensuing Republican years, Safire became a buffer against bias gripes against the Times. And, perhaps most important, Safire—pro-Israel, and more classically libertarian than classically right-wing, and witty, too—became a Washington insider, a raconteur, a player, a de rigueur dinner guest, and a conduit into high Republican circles (and, in some sense, the dean of the page). Brooks, as it happens, is not that kind of conservative, either. “I have three small children who basically take up my time,” he said over lunch last week near the Times’ Washington bureau. “Also, I’m not sure there are parties like that anymore in Washington.”

A good part of Brooks’s attention seems, in fact, to be focused on defining what exactly the right kind of conservative is. His long association with The Weekly Standard, the Murdoch-backed conservative opinion journal, gives him ample conservative cred (and before that there was the Wall Street Journal editorial page and The National Review), but he is, he says, “on the leftward end” in that crowd. (Most of that crowd, William Kristol and John Podhoretz among them, would not fit on the op-ed page.) He lacks, he says, “militance.” He is, he says, “un-angry.” His is a kind of bashful or accidental conservatism. “I’m a New York conservative.” No doubt reassuring for the Times, Brooks has made a secondary career for himself on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’s The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, as a conservative for liberals.

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