A Reasonable Man

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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.”

Both also fetishize balance. In meetings, Obama solicits dissenting views. In columns, Brooks pits one ideology against another—fiscal hawkishness versus federal dynamism, democratic evangelism versus imperial modesty, social safety nets versus innovation incentives—and watches them slug it out on the page. They also share an appreciation of the limits of human power. In December, after Obama announced his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan, Brooks praised his “Christian realism” in recognizing that “war is both folly and necessary.”

Brooks cuts the music when he sees Obama moving away from the middle. On health care, for example, “they made a mistake in thinking the country was ready for a New Deal.” Political polarization ensued, and Brooks largely blames Obama. “They say Republicans chose this negative strategy,” says Brooks. “And there’s truth to that. But he created a climate where it was completely rewarding for them to do that.” America isn’t inherently ungovernable; Obama made it that way.

Of course, the fact that Brooks isn’t fully onboard is what keeps the White House calling. It’s a fine balance. Toe the administration line, and they’ll take you for granted. Overcriticize, and they’ll write you off as a lost cause.

T he NPR building in downtown Washington is the closest thing there is to a liberal Death Star. When Brooks takes me there on his weekly Friday media tour, I half-expect them to fingerprint him. Quite the opposite: Brooks has finally earned his official NPR badge after eighteen years of service. “I wear this with pride,” he says, tapping the plastic I.D. card. The badge still says temporary, perhaps as a warning.

First on the docket is NPR’s “All Things Considered,” where he appears every Friday alongside E. J. Dionne Jr., then on to PBSNewsHour with Mark Shields. “I only do shows with Irish Catholics from Massachusetts whose names you can combine with mine to create show-business names,” says Brooks as he signs me in. “Brooke Shields, Brooks and Dionne.” A quality he doesn’t mention: liberalism.

Brooks spends most of his professional life with liberals. At the Times’ Washington bureau, his office on “Murderers’ Row”—the columnists’ hallway—is flanked by Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman. He appears almost exclusively on programs with liberal audiences. Brooks says he dislikes the term “liberals’ favorite conservative.” But he doesn’t do much to deter it.

If Brooks appeals to liberals, it’s probably because he was one—and still is, culturally. He was born into a Jewish family in Toronto and grew up in New York City. He attended the Über-liberal (except for its economics and law departments) University of Chicago. He grew up relatively irreligious. He watched a lot of movies in college. He gets liberals. “I think it’s more a matter of respect than agreement,” he says. “I don’t have a sense that they’re idiots.”

But there’s more agreement than he sometimes cares to admit. He’s pro-choice. He supports gay marriage. (“We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage,” he wrote in 2003. “We should insist on gay marriage.”) He doesn’t mind government projects so long as they incentivize mobility and innovation rather than stifling them—a caveat that could conceivably serve as a fig leaf for any kind of government action.

The result is an ongoing debate among liberals over whether Brooks is really conservative—and whether he believes what he says when he sides with the right. I asked him if he ever feels the need to play the role of conservative at the Times. “I used to, but now I’ve given that up,” he says. Indeed, in some of his early columns, one can detect a whiff of bad conscience. Since then, Brooks says he’s learned that “you can’t play a role. It happens too fast. You just have to say what you think.”

There’s still the occasional odd rightward lurch, suggesting some latent political schizophrenia. Brooks argued in January that passing health-care reform after a Martha Coakley loss in Massachusetts would be “political suicide. It would be the act of a party so arrogant, elitist, and contemptuous of popular wisdom that it would not deserve to govern. Marie Antoinette would applaud, but voters would rage.” Brooks opposed health-care reform, sure. But saying that Democrats don’t deserve to govern? It’s as if Sean Hannity suddenly seized control of Brooks’s brain, then vanished just as quickly.

For the most part, though, Brooks stays determinedly above the ideological fray. If his even-handedness feels calculated, that’s because it is. Anytime he speaks with a Republican senator, he tries to talk to a Democrat next. If he reads National Review’s The Corner, he then visits the Huffington Post. When National Journal magazine surveyed Washington insiders about the most influential columnists, Thomas Friedman topped the list. But he was twice as popular among Democrats as Republicans. Brooks came in second, but Democrats and Republicans favored him exactly equally. “That made me happy,” says Brooks.

What rankles him is the vituperative ideologue. The nastiest piece he ever wrote was a review of recovering neocon Michael Lind’s Up From Conservatism called “Portrait of the Autist.” It wasn’t Lind’s politics that bothered Brooks—he has cited Lind favorably since. It was the cavalier way he emitted “a constant and dizzying flow of certitudes.” Anti-intellectualism is another Brooksian bugaboo. In 2008, he called Sarah Palin “a fatal cancer to the Republican party.” “I sort of regretted that,” he says, although what he regrets is the extremity of the tone, not the underlying idea.

The tea-partyers are an unusual case. Brooks isn’t a fan, but he doesn’t condemn them either. He instead restricts himself to sociological analyses of their significance: They’re a natural outgrowth of Obama’s ambitious policies. They’re actually a lot like the New Left. They’re not racist, based on that time he saw some tea-partyers mingling with some black people. Above all, they’re more a distraction than a concern.

Which is exactly what Times readers want to hear a conservative say.

B rooks changed his mind recently. Not one of those small changes, like grande instead of venti. He abandoned an idea that until recently made David Brooks David Brooks.

“I’ve changed my view of suburbia,” he says. We’re sitting at the Best Buns Bread Company in the Village at Shirlington, a sort of prefab town square in Arlington, Virginia, designed to be quaint and homey. The streets are fresh red brick. The lampposts are faux antique. The trees are evenly spaced. A color-coded map explains the area’s layout, like a mall. The neighborhood’s culinary diversity—Aladdin’s Eatery abuts Bonsai Restaurant abuts Guapo’s—is matched only by its patrons’ ethnic lack thereof. We are sipping coffees and munching on identical Ginger Crinkle cookies, when it occurs to me: I am in a David Brooks book. We are Bobos. This is Paradise.

“In my last book, I was pretty pro-urban/suburban sprawl,” he explains. Pro is an understatement. On Paradise Drive, released in 2004, was a satirical, pop-sociological exploration of American suburbia, but also a celebration of it. Consumerism wasn’t just empty accumulation; it was how Americans express themselves. In the ever-expanding exurbs, he wrote, every man creates his own private bubble, “an aristocrat within his own Olympus.”

“Now I’m much more skeptical,” he says. For the last three years, Brooks has been researching and writing a book on neuroscience. At least that’s his shorthand for it. It’s basically about how unconscious processes—in short, emotions—shape our behavior, and what that means for public policy, all told through the stories of two composite, pseudo-novelistic characters. (A working title was How Success Happens, but he dismissed it as too Gladwellian.) Good policy, he argues, should understand that people make decisions emotionally, not rationally. It should also try to foster good habits with “communitarian” solutions like pre-K education, or zoning laws to prevent Wal-Marts from taking over neighborhoods. In other words, says Brooks, “the more contact with other people, the better.” Hence his newfound beef with suburbia.

Consistency is not one of Brooks’s hobgoblins; he has no qualms about changing his mind. His list of reversals is testament to his intellectual flexibility—or flabbiness, depending on your angle. His view of suburbia has dimmed, based on his new appreciation for communitarianism. Back in 2008, he strongly opposed the bailout of GM. “I might have been wrong about that,” he says. And of course there’s Iraq. As late as 2007, he called Iraq “one of the noblest endeavors the United States, or any great power, has ever undertaken.” He knew the war was profoundly anti-Burkean. But it suited his quest for “national greatness”—a gauzy vision of conservatism he and Kristol had been pushing since 1997. “It was an unfortunate deviation from my core philosophy,” he says.

E very column is a failure,” says Brooks. “I always wish I did something different.” Part of the problem is the format. There’s only so much you can do with 800 words. “I’m a 3,000-word person,” he says.

Deadline days end with fourteen piles of paper stacked around his office—printouts, notes, index cards, photocopies—one for each paragraph of the story. If the column doesn’t come together, he resorts to the laundry list, beginning each paragraph with “First,” “Second,” etc. “Usually when I do that, I’ve written another version of the column and it sucked,” he says, “so those are usually acts of sheer desperation.”

Plus Brooks just isn’t that opinionated. “I look at Andrew Sullivan or Jonathan Chait, churning out opinions,” he says. “I don’t have that many.” Brooks’s goal isn’t to change minds, he says. “Do I expect someone with View X on a policy, and I argue View Anti-X, that somehow they’re gonna totally change their mind? I don’t think I’ve ever had that effect on anybody.” He can “strengthen and highlight certain feelings,” he says. But that’s about it.

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.

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.

The Standard was where Brooks seized on “national greatness” as the future of conservatism. He thought Republicans adrift in late-nineties Clintonian prosperity, chiding them for narrow-mindedly pursuing small government, and called for “grand American projects” that exemplified the national spirit, be they construction projects, scientific research, anything, really. “Energetic government is good for its own sake,” he wrote. “It raises the sights of the individual. It strengthens common bonds. It boosts national pride.” It also boosted David Brooks. Once Bobos in Paradise came out in 2000, he was a star. The book was especially popular in France, where a hip magazine asked him to pose naked in a vat of milk. Brooks declined.

In 2003, Brooks got a call from New York Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins inviting him to lunch. Collins was looking for a conservative to replace outgoing columnist William Safire, but one who understood how liberals think. “I was looking for the kind of conservative writer that wouldn’t make our readers shriek and throw the paper out the window,” says Collins. “He was perfect.” Brooks started writing in September 2003. “The first six months were miserable,” Brooks says. “I’d never been hated on a mass scale before.”

Whereas Bobos drew accolades, the response to his 2004 follow-up, On Paradise Drive, and the articles that inspired it, was mixed. Negative reviews gave way to critiques of “Brooksianism” itself. The worst drubbing appeared in Philadelphia magazine, where Sasha Issenberg fact-checked Brooks’s generalizations about red and blue America in an essay for The Atlantic on which the book was partly based. Brooks had written that people in red America use QVC home shopping. Issenberg found that QVC has more customers in blue states than red. Brooks wrote that blue Americans read more books. Issenberg quoted a study that found that 20 of the 30 most literate cities were in red states. Brooks claimed he tried and failed to spend $20 at Red Lobster. Issenberg visited one and easily spent $28.75. When Issenberg called Brooks to ask about the discrepancies, Brooks said he was taking his comedic riffs too literally.

Brooks took the backlash hard. The day Slate ran a takedown, Brooks was on a book tour. “I read it and then went out to perform before 3,000 people and thought, I suck,” Brooks remembers. He says he still hasn’t read Issenberg’s piece. “I can’t remember what I said [to Issenberg],” he says, “but my mother told me I was extremely stupid.”

Blood has cooled since. During the McCain campaign, Issenberg introduced himself to Brooks. “He was incredibly warm,” Issenberg says, “and ever since he’s been exceedingly gracious every time I’ve run into him.”

B rooks’s favorite social-science study is known as the Marshmallow Experiment. A child is left in a room with a marshmallow for fifteen minutes. If he restrains himself from eating the marshmallow, he gets a second one. If not, he doesn’t. The test turns out to be a predictor of all kinds of habits in adult life. Children who show self-control in front of a tasty marshmallow score higher on the SAT, struggle less in stressful situations, maintain friendships better, and have fewer problems with drugs.

Brooks is concerned we’ve become a nation of marshmallow eaters. We want tax cuts and more entitlements, without realizing the contradiction. We want speedy, in-and-out wars. We want a president who can fix any crisis—even an oil spill he’s not equipped to solve. “They want to hold him responsible for things they know he doesn’t control,” Brooks wrote recently.

What makes Brooks’s philosophy so out of sync right now is that it’s all about not eating the marshmallow. “National greatness” projects, from railroads to Internet grids to energy bills, take patience and investment. They don’t pay off overnight. His latest hobbyhorse, balancing the budget, is even less sexy. “I think we’re gonna be Greece,” he says. But it’s hard to make anyone care until we are Greece.

Obama is faced with the same dilemma. He rode into office with grand ambitions but quickly discovered his boundaries. A fickle electorate hungry for instant gratification makes it impossible to tackle any problem on a timeline longer than four years. Polarization leads to legislative stalemate. Gridlock then leaves pundits to focus not on what the president is trying to do but on how angry he is about his inability to do it.

But if the country has become ungovernable, it’s also unpersuadable. Just as Obama is being forced to rein in his agenda, Brooks has dialed back his expectations for what a columnist can accomplish. “I’ve come to believe that power for a columnist doesn’t exist,” he says. He can raise questions; he can even attempt answers. But rational argument doesn’t go very far.

Politics is cyclical, of course. Extremism will die down. Republicans will moderate. Democrats will bump up against the checks and balances of the democratic system. But the fundamental trends that haunt Brooks—the looming deficit, polarization, distrust of government—aren’t going away. “I’m naturally an extremely optimistic person,” he says. “But I’m more pessimistic now than ever in my life.” There are limits to what one person can do about these things, be he a columnist or a president. So maybe it’s best not to get too worked up.

A Reasonable Man