Right Timesman

David BrooksPhoto: Courtesy of The New York Times

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.

His book, Bobos in Paradise (subtitled The New Upper Class and How They Got There), is not so much political as anthropological commentary. Gentle (and amusing) sociology rather than raging (or dyspeptic) attacks. He is, in the book, almost self-consciously superficial. He does not seem to take himself very seriously. He is an observer of manners rather than of weighty things. Indeed, his general view of the world, and his approach to understanding it, is to make amusing and arch distinctions between kinds of people—people who, one might assume, make up the Times’ readership. (“Fifties intellectuals discussed No Exit,” he writes. “Contemporary intellectuals discuss no-load mutual funds.”) As a writer and conservative, he seems like a better-behaved P. J. O’Rourke. Conservative is not even the main point. Bobos in Paradise is just clever social commentary, in the genre of, say, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (if Gladwell had called himself a conservative, the Times might have selected him).

In other words, Brooks, at least on paper, seemed to fit perfectly into the dinner party Gail Collins had in mind.

Now, it is not clear that anyone at the Times, even after he started talking about promiscuity and spiritual suicide, thinks he doesn’t fit in—it would be impolite to say as much about a guest. And the Times is polite. (And, too, since the op-ed is effectively a tenured position, a Supreme Court of journalism, Times people must take a long and tolerant view.)

What’s more, the dinner party is not even such an apt metaphor, because everybody at the op-ed page eats alone. You get hired for the most prominent job in journalism and then no one talks to you—other than your copy editor. Krugman, in fact, has kept his day job at Princeton, and seldom shows up at the Times. Brooks, who moved to the paper in September, has the requisite large office in the Times’ Washington bureau (reporters get cubicles, but columnists get executive offices) but doesn’t write there, and has yet to furnish it. So he doesn’t really know what anyone thinks of him. He hasn’t, at any rate, been upbraided by Times colleagues who have had multiple sexual partners in a year.

He doesn’t know if, after all, he’s the right kind of conservative. “The tone,” he says, with some mild concern, might not be “something I’ve got quite right.”

There is the column he wrote in the form of a memo to Tom DeLay about the Republican convention and the plan to rent a boat for the delegates to keep them off the streets of New York. Brooks tries to speak here as the hip conservative, the conservative who knows New York (Brooks grew up in Stuyvesant Town—indeed, he’s a Jewish conservative). And yet, his is a hick’s New York—complete with painful bagel jokes.

Or there is his proud-to-be-not-sophisticated column about fashion magazines: “As you know, there are two kinds of women’s magazines in the world, nonsmiling and smiling. In the nonsmiling magazines, which tend to be upscale, the models in the photo spreads wear these blank or haughty expressions because, you know, happiness is so middle class.”

Or his insistent Pollyanna-isms: “Can anybody think of another time in history when a comparable group of young people”—the soldiers in Iraq—“was asked to be at once so brave, fierce and relentless, while also being so sympathetic, creative and forbearing?”

And in another make-nice column: “I am relaunching my campaign around one simple slogan: Stop the War. I don’t mean the war in Iraq. I mean the war at home. I mean the partisan war between Republicans and Democrats that rages every day in Washington and produces behavior that would be unacceptable in any other arena of life.”

Then there’s the column about the relative insignificance of religion in American political life: “If George Bush and Howard Dean met each other on a political platform, they would fight and feud. If they met in a Bible study group and talked about their eternal souls, they’d probably embrace.”

It is possible that the dinner-party planners at the Times are in fact wondering just how this white-bread fellow got to the table. On the other hand, including this sort of goody-goodyism and energetic mildness and self-conscious out-of-townerism among its representative sensibilities might be part of a broader plan. As the Times moves from elite paper to national suburban daily, the nature of the dinner party changes.

“If you’re excluding me,” Brooks says, matter-of-factly, “you’re excluding most of the country.” Which, I point out to him, the Times always has mostly excluded.

It is also possible that Brooks represents an odd attempt by the Times to stamp its own imprimatur on conservatism. A friendly, mild, stay-at-home, Norman Rockwell conservatism against the onslaught of the more demanding types. The world as the Times wishes it were.

Of course, what does the New York Times really know about conservatives, and their true heart, and the specter of spiritual suicide that they carry with them?

He could get to be a big bore, this dinner-party guest, or he could get really weird and funky.

Right Timesman