PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN CEDENO
In a polarized America, it’s common for political commentators to be hated by those on the right or left, but David Brooks is an equal opportunity target—he’s loathed by both. He also has ardent fans from both parties; he’s been called the left’s favorite conservative and the right’s sanest voice. New York magazine called him “the essential columnist of the moment, better than anyone at crystallizing the questions we face—ones for which there are often no good answers."
In addition to his twice-weekly New York Times column, Brooks is a ubiquitous presence on TV and radio (where he’s a commentator on PBS, NPR and other news talk shows), the author of best-selling books and a sought-after public speaker. Though he’s known to favor Republicans and is considered one of the Times’ token conservative columnists, it’s impossible to pigeonhole him. One minute he’s taking on big government, praising Mitt Romney and virulently criticizing President Obama, and the next he’s attacking the GOP and right-wing news itself. “The rise of [Glenn] Beck, [Sean] Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the GOP,” he once wrote in a column. Attacking back, Mark Levin, a popular conservative radio host, told Politico that Brooks is “irrelevant.” Levin’s wrong at least about that. Like him or loathe him, it’s inarguable that Brooks is one of the most read, quoted and debated commentators in America.
Brooks describes himself as a moderate conservative, which allows him a kind of freedom that other, more partisan pundits lack. He’s definitely no party loyalist. Despite his current sharp criticisms of the president, last election he supported Obama, much to the chagrin of Republicans. Things are different this year. His columns have so enraged the White House that the president himself has called to complain.
Brooks’s right-leaning politics are unexpected for someone with his background. Born in Canada, he was raised in Greenwich Village, New York in the 1960s. His parents were ardent Democrats. Brooks followed their liberal leanings until college, when, he says, “I came to my senses.” It wasn’t until 1984, when he supported Ronald Reagan’s reelection, that he cast a Republican vote in a presidential election. His most recent book, a New York Times best-seller, is The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. Brooks, married with three children, lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
To grill Brooks about the coming election and other political and social issues, Contributing Editor David Sheff flew to Washington, D.C. Sheff, who recently interviewed Congressman Barney Frank and wrote a remembrance of Steve Jobs for the magazine, filed this report: “For PLAYBOY *I’ve interviewed commentators on both sides of the political spectrum, including, on the right, Bill O’Reilly, and on the left, Bill Maher, both fiery and adamant about their opinions. David Brooks was a rare exception. He was soft-spoken, thoughtful and even tentative. For him nothing is black-and-white. This isn’t to say he doesn’t have strong opinions that he expresses articulately. What may not come through in his columns and on-the-air commentary is that he’s also self-deprecating, with a dry sense of humor. "Our interview was held in the midst of the early wave of Republican primaries, when there was no clear winner, though Mitt Romney was ahead of the pack. In politics things change, often daily, but at press time it was likely that Romney would be the one to face off with Obama. Unsurprisingly, Brooks had lots to say about the election."*
PLAYBOY: Okay, the million-dollar question: Will Obama be a one-term president, or is he destined to be reelected?
BROOKS: At the moment he’s the slight underdog. He’s doing better, though. It’s hard for a president to win without the approval of more than 50 percent of the country. In some polls he has hit 50. Bush, in his reelection, hit 48. A candidate can win within kissing distance of 50. He’ll continue to look stronger if the economy gets better. However, Pennsylvania, a state Democrats have won five times in a row, looks challenging, and if Pennsylvania goes, Ohio goes. Then he would have to win Florida and Virginia, but if Romney, who I think will be the nominee, picks Marco Rubio as running mate, Florida becomes a challenge.
PLAYBOY: Conventional wisdom is that the economy is the reason for the low poll numbers. Do you agree?
BROOKS: The largest factor is that the economy sucks, yes, but that’s not all of it. There has been a shift to the right in this country on all sorts of issues. When people saw Obama’s activism, they pulled back.
PLAYBOY: You’re arguing that Obama is too much of an activist? Many of his supporters, and especially former supporters, feel he hasn’t acted strongly enough.
BROOKS: It all came from health care. There was a recoil because of that, and nothing’s really changed since. The Republicans haven’t picked up anything, but Obama hasn’t regained anything. It was a mistake to do health care in the middle of the recession. People weren’t interested in it. It’s still unpopular. Beyond that and the economy, the fact is there are twice as many conservatives as liberals now, and a good third of the country is independent. He was right not to be a pure liberal, and liberals are upset about that. They’ll vote for him, but his big problem is that he failed to present a coherent policy for independents. However, he basically spent 2011 with an open hand to the Republicans, saying, “Okay, let’s make a deal. Let’s negotiate.” And the Republicans were saying no. That laid out a story that he was being reasonable and the Republicans were not. That story is lodged in a lot of people’s minds, especially independent voters, who were hostile to him a year ago and aren’t as much now.
PLAYBOY: What explains America’s shift to the right?
BROOKS: To be a member of the white working class is to be in a bad place these days. Job prospects are pretty bad. Wages are pretty bad. You feel cut off from government. I think the main driver is a feeling that there is an American tradition we’re departing from with too-big government, cultural elites who have no sympathy for them and values they don’t recognize. As has been said, the Tea Party is using Abbie Hoffman means to achieve Norman Rockwell ends. People want that Norman Rockwell time again, even if in some ways it’s an illusion. Guys who played by the rules, went to high school, graduated, worked hard, are carpenters or whatever—they see all these assholes who didn’t play by the rules getting rewarded, and they feel screwed, and they’re mad about it.
PLAYBOY: Democrats would claim they’re the party devoted to protecting the working class from the Wall Street fat cats, that they’re trying to reel in the—as you call them—assholes who didn’t play by the rules and were lavishly rewarded.
BROOKS: But people blame government more than Wall Street. In polls, when people are asked, “Do you trust government to do the right thing most of the time?” the number of Americans who said yes used to be 70 percent; now it’s I think at nine percent. They’re suspicious of government. The Democrats’ problem is that they’re the cultural elite or are at least perceived to be. If the white middle class has a choice between Harvard and Bain Capital, they’ll go for Bain Capital. They don’t like Bain, but they prefer it to Harvard. They feel slightly more at home with business capitalist values than so-called cultural elite values.
PLAYBOY: Does the middle class relate to the Occupy movement, which attacks the disparity of one percent of Americans having 42 percent of the wealth?
BROOKS: My guess is that they view the Occupy movement as a bunch of rich kids who majored in English and poetry. I also think they would differ on a core belief of the Occupy movement that people have become powerless against the corporations. Many middle-class Americans don’t believe that. They still believe that you control your own economic destiny. Most Americans are still firmly convinced that if you work hard, you’ll succeed. And they don’t believe that the government is going to help them, which is why they support the capitalist ethos.
PLAYBOY: Still, there’s evidence that there’s no passionate support for the Republican side.
BROOKS: Actually, the weakness of both sides suggests an opening for a white working-class candidate in a third party. If it comes down to Obama against Romney, there’s a huge opening. I was having coffee with a friend yesterday, and we were saying that if Pat Buchanan ran with Ralph Nader, there could be such a strong left-right working-class coalition behind them that they would get 30 percent of the vote, no problem.
PLAYBOY: Nader and Buchanan? Talk about an unlikely pairing. They represent extremes on the left and the right.
BROOKS: Actually, they agree on a lot. They agree on corporate stuff and are both against the Washington business oligarchy.
PLAYBOY: At the time of this interview there’s no strong third-party movement. How much of a challenge does Romney face to get the nomination?
BROOKS: He has glaring weaknesses, obviously. Americans want a sense that they know where your character comes from, and they don’t think it comes from politics. You’d better have a story about how your pre-political character emerged. For John McCain it was the prisoner-of-war story. For Obama it was the search for his father and the rise from his childhood to Harvard Law School. For Clinton it was also the traumatic family. You have to have a story to tell, and that’s a problem for Romney. He can’t say, “My dad was a millionaire and I’m a millionaire. I served as a missionary in France and tried to convert people in Bordeaux to give up wine.” That’s his story, but he can’t say that. Peter Hart, the pollster, did a focus group in Ohio where he asked people who from their middle-school class the candidates reminded them of. Before the sexual allegations that caused him to drop out, Herman Cain reminded people of the funny, popular kid. Rick Perry reminded them of the bully. Romney reminded them of the rich kid with all the privileges. That’s his problem.
PLAYBOY: And yet you think he can win?
BROOKS: Yes, because the general rule is that the second-term election is a referendum on the incumbent. Especially if the economy still sucks, the late deciders will say, “Let’s go for something different.” But it’s getting tighter as things get a little better.
PLAYBOY: You’ve made it clear that you’ve been disappointed by Obama, saying you were “a sap” for believing in him. What has most disappointed you?
BROOKS: I still have personal admiration for him. But I was talking with my good friend E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post, who also admires Obama. I realized that we admire totally different Obamas. I admire the post-partisan guy who’s going to rise above partisanship and unite the country. He admires the liberal community activist. I thought my Obama was the real Obama. He thought his was. In the past year, I guess I’d say he has more reason to think his Obama is the real Obama. Personally, I still respect him. He has remarkable skills and remarkable intellect. I thought he was the right person to change the tone and run an intellectually honest administration. In some ways he’s lived up to that, but in some ways he’s been way too political—stupidly political—and shortsighted.
PLAYBOY: Is your main complaint that he has been too liberal?
BROOKS: The basis of my conservatism is epistemological modesty, the idea that we can’t know much. I’m suspicious of people in Washington thinking they can understand complex systems well enough to regulate them. Obama has a lot more confidence in technocrats to understand and solve complex problems. With financial reform, he gave a lot of power to regulators. In Medicare reform he gave a lot of power to a board of experts—more regulators. I think no one’s that smart. I guess that’s why he’s a Democrat and I’m not. Democrats believe that if you get smart people in a room, they can solve a problem, and I don’t agree.
PLAYBOY: You don’t want regulation, but do you disagree that unbridled capitalism is at least partly responsible for the decade’s economic disaster?
BROOKS: My general political philosophy is to use government to help the market function better. I’m not a libertarian. I’m not a liberal. I’m a Hamiltonian precisely for that reason.
PLAYBOY: Have you had any moral quandaries about calling yourself a Republican at a time when the party has gotten far more conservative, reflecting the influence of the Tea Party and the religious right?
BROOKS: They have a name for us now, RINOs—Republicans in name only—which I guess describes me. I don’t mind being a rhino. They’re strong, fierce animals.
PLAYBOY: Not all Republicans accept that as an option. Some say you’re a traitor to their party.
BROOKS: If you talk to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, they don’t regard me as a Republican or a conservative. I think I am. I think I’m the original conservative. I guess I’d say I’m a conservative and not a Republican. I’ve never identified as a Republican, and that’s because I’m a journalist, not a political activist. The fact is, if you look at Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, they’re deeply anti-conservative.
PLAYBOY: They and their supporters would vehemently disagree.
BROOKS: They are, because they’re ideological. Conservatives shouldn’t be. Conservatism should be all about context. For example, from a proper conservative point of view, it’s insane to have a universal rule about taxes. If you need revenue, then taxes are an instrument to provide the revenue you need. They’ve turned it into this ideology where you never have tax increases. That goes against the whole grain of what conservatism is supposed to be about. I’ve written more columns than I ever thought I would that basically say a pox on both your houses, wishing for that third party.
PLAYBOY: Republican or not, other than Obama, in debates and your column you most often defend or advocate the GOP point of view. In the meantime, many Republicans espouse views you’ve ardently disagreed with. They deny global warming, oppose abortion, disbelieve evolution and want creationism taught in schools. From your writing and commentary, it’s clear you disagree with those positions. How do you support a party you disagree with?
BROOKS: We all make choices. If Romney has a Medicare plan I like but he doesn’t think global warming is real, or he pretends he doesn’t, I’ll take that, because Medicare is more important at the moment. Global warming isn’t an issue foremost on my mind at the moment, though if the oceans were about to flood Bethesda—if global warming became the most salient issue—I’d go for Al Gore.
PLAYBOY: If Bachmann had become the Republican nominee, would you have switched sides?
BROOKS: I don’t know if I’d have switched sides. We’re not supposed to endorse candidates, but it’s inconceivable that I would ever vote for Bachmann. Or Palin or Gingrich or Cain. I’m not going to vote for Ron Paul either. Of the seven or eight candidates who were vying for the nomination, it’s inconceivable I’d ever vote for most of them. That doesn’t mean I’d switch camps. I’m in a camp of moderate Republicans who probably all feel the same way about most of these candidates.
PLAYBOY: If you represent the true middle of the political spectrum, which you claim is unrepresented in the election, how about you? Have you ever been tempted to leave journalism and become a candidate?
BROOKS: I was born in Toronto, so I could never be president. But anyway, no. On one book tour, I did 14 interviews and three speeches in one day, which is like being a candidate. I don’t like people that much. Obama isn’t quite like this, but Clinton and McCain—they never want to be alone, and they’re perfectly happy. They feed off people. I’ve seen it a zillion times while covering them. That’s how they get sustenance. It’s not food and water they need, it’s attention. Obama’s a little more like me. He doesn’t need people.
PLAYBOY: From the perspective of someone who spent time with them both, how else are Clinton and Obama different?
BROOKS: I don’t have anything new to say about Clinton. He’s the most seductive and impressive personality. I ask people who were in both the Obama and the Clinton administrations who is smarter, and they have trouble saying. Clinton had the essential boomer problem, narcissism, and the lack of a big commitment to a big idea that he was going to accomplish. Clinton had the most political skills, though. I always look at candidates as pitchers in spring training: You look at who has the best skills, and that would be Clinton. Obama’s pretty good, though.
PLAYBOY: Has Obama changed since he’s been president?
BROOKS: He’s still basically smart and charming, an impressive guy who can talk about policy on whatever you ask him. The changes have come from learning the limitations of the office. I don’t think he appreciated how little power a president has. The other change is his rising aggravation with Washington. He’s thinking, I’m trying to be serious here, but I’m surrounded by jokers and assholes. I think there’s a rising level of bile about that. I think it makes him less effective and less pleasant to be around.
PLAYBOY: Has he ever called you because he was angry about a column?
PLAYBOY: What’s it like to be yelled at by the president?
BROOKS: It’s not pleasant but not unpleasant. He’ll say, “Let’s put aside the six things that were morally offensive about what you wrote, and let’s get to the issue.” So he’ll shove aside the things that bugged him, and then he’ll want to have a serious civil discussion about the substance.
PLAYBOY: Which columns did he call you about?
BROOKS: The last time was a column in which I unfavorably compared his management style with Rahm Emanuel’s management style in Chicago. That one set him off.
PLAYBOY: How does Obama compare with George W. Bush?
BROOKS: Bush also had political skills. You got the sense that he liked having debates, but he never got to have them because his staff didn’t want to give him an unpleasant meeting. Bush was ill served by people who didn’t allow him to be as good a president as he could have been. Dick Cheney and the others were tightly controlling what was said. Obama doesn’t have that problem.
PLAYBOY: People made fun of Bush for his inarticulateness, malapropisms and underachievement at Yale, suggesting he wasn’t as smart as many presidents.
BROOKS: He was 60 IQ points smarter in private than he was in public. He easily was the most voracious reader of any president in a while. They keep track of all the books presidents read. He read about 113 a year. For a president that’s a lot, because there’s a lot of other stuff to do.
PLAYBOY: Could that be a bad thing, suggesting that he was reading rather than running the country?
BROOKS: That could be, but if Putin was coming to town, Bush would have just finished reading a book on Peter the Great, and he’d talk about Peter the Great. He would never allow himself to do it in public, because his whole shtick was that he was the average Joe from Texas.
PLAYBOY: Was it a shtick?
BROOKS: It was an act but a deeply felt act. This is my pop psychology of Bush: He’s a kid from Texas who goes off to Andover and Yale, then back down to Texas and, to survive there, represses his real self. He doesn’t want anybody to think he’s smarter than they are, so he puts on a Texas act. It becomes so deep, it’s part of him now. I’ve rarely seen a person whose off-the-record manner is so different from his on-the-record manner. And among the presidents I’ve interviewed, Bush was one of the most fun to be around. He had an atmosphere of “we’re at the frat and we’re going to have a good time” around himself.
PLAYBOY: Is that what you want in a president?
BROOKS: Not necessarily, but it’s fun to be around. I would go to sessions with Bush and four or five other columnists, and he would go off the record and be completely candid, charming and funny. Afterward they would send us a transcript of the session with the off-the-record parts taken out. I used to say, “It’s like a porn movie with the sex scenes taken out,” because everything that was fun was gone. Bush would say of a world leader, “That guy is such an asshole.” It’s impossible to imagine Obama saying that, though he might think it.
PLAYBOY: What other politicians were fun?
BROOKS: There was nothing more fun than being around John McCain. He taught me how to shoot craps. In the middle of that last race, however, he lost all interest in the media. I’ve tried to interview him in the past few years, and his staff won’t let me in.
PLAYBOY: At one point you strongly supported McCain. Is it accurate that you became disillusioned when he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate?
BROOKS: When he ran in 2000, I thought he was the closest thing to what I like, a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. He took on campaign finance. He took on global warming. He was willing to raise taxes but at the same time was fiscally conservative. Somehow when he became the head of the party and started getting love-bombed by the right, he became a much more orthodox Republican and was no longer the renegade Republican. Maybe you need to do that if you’re heading a party, but I was disappointed in the campaign he ran.
PLAYBOY: Have you met any other presidents?
BROOKS: In some ways H.W. Bush was the most admirable of the presidents I’ve known. Very selfless, a servant. I like him now more than I did at the time. I briefly met Reagan, though I didn’t really know him. I’d say Reagan had political skills, though he didn’t particularly have intellectual skills.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said that the first Republican you voted for was Reagan.
BROOKS: I didn’t vote for him in 1980, but I did in 1984.
PLAYBOY: As a lifelong Democrat, was it a difficult moment for you?
BROOKS: I remember having a weird, perverse smile on my face, like, Isn’t this bizarre?
PLAYBOY: Did you keep it secret from your family of Democrats?
BROOKS: I may have.
PLAYBOY: At this point have your parents followed you and become Republicans?
BROOKS: I think I pushed them further to the left. I’m sure I’m the only non–liberal Democrat in my family since they came to this country.
PLAYBOY: Do they forgive you?
BROOKS: They tolerate it.
PLAYBOY: Not only did you grow up a Democrat, but you were in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, a center of the counterculture.
BROOKS: I have vivid memories of peace rallies and be-ins in Washington Square Park in the 1960s.
PLAYBOY: Did you have long hair and a beard?
BROOKS: I had a Jew-fro, which was the extent I could have long hair. If you look at my high school yearbook, it’s me in a faded army jacket with a lot of liberal political buttons on it, so I was definitely left-wing through high school. On the other hand, my parents took me to a be-in in 1965. There were hippies there, and somebody set a garbage can on fire, and people threw their wallets in to show they didn’t care about money. I was five. I ran over to the fire, reached in, grabbed a $5 bill and ran away with it. That was my first step to the right.
PLAYBOY: What caused you to abandon liberalism and embrace conservatism?
BROOKS: I grew up in an atmosphere where all progress was associated with the left. My grandmother was president of the local chapter of the NAACP. If you were interested in civil rights, women’s rights and peace, you were on the left. I grew up with the attitude that all progress was a morality tale of good progressive liberals fighting the reactionary Republicans. I kept it up through high school. I fell in love with Birch Bayh, who ran for president in 1976, and I had a big Hubert Humphrey poster on my wall. I passed out leaflets for George McGovern.
PLAYBOY: Then what changed?
BROOKS: As a freshman in college, I was assigned Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke. At first I loathed it. Burke says you’re unwise to think you can think for yourself, and you have to show reverence for the things that have lasted. As a college freshman, you don’t want to hear that. As I read more, I came to see that that was true. Next, after college I worked as a reporter in Chicago, covered some bad neighborhoods and fell out of love with liberal welfare programs, which I thought enabled the drug culture and the breakup of families.
PLAYBOY: How so? Liberals claim that’s exactly what they were trying to fix by taking on poverty.
BROOKS:****One of the programs involved the replacement of slum neighborhoods by good-natured people who didn’t understand that when they tore down slums, they were tearing down social networks. They created horrible places. It was bad social planning. In the meantime, the family came under attack in the 1970s, and there was an idea that bourgeois institutions were part of some old reactionary culture, which I didn’t believe. A lot of damage was done by that. Democrats don’t talk that way now, but at the time there was a sense that we should try to get as many people on welfare as possible, and we shouldn’t worry about old family structures.
PLAYBOY: Are you critical of the sexual revolution that also defined that time?
BROOKS: Overall it was a good thing but bad for those who didn’t have structures within which to police themselves.
BROOKS: The part that was bad was the attack on the family. That was a loss for most people but a tragedy for people who have no positive life script.
PLAYBOY: A life script that would have them do what?
BROOK: You go to high school, you get married, you have a kid. The life script got changed: You have a kid and then maybe later you get married. That was a horrible change.
PLAYBOY: Why was it horrible?
BROOKS: If you grew up like I did, there was a set of guardrails. There was a social structure surrounding you, guiding you pretty much in the right direction. Now a lot of people live with no social structure, no guardrails, and it’s a lot harder. They have to figure it out as they go, and they’re set up for problems. They think, Well, I’ve got to make some money, have a job, establish myself, then I’ll get married. That’s a screwed-up life script. You should get married first and then establish yourself.
PLAYBOY: Isn’t that simply part of an old-fashioned and restrictive value system?
BROOKS: But there’s value in the old structures. They evolved for a reason. Marriage offers a kind of stability that can help you, whatever else you do. It’s a foundation. Part of the reason people struggle so much now is because they don’t have that foundation.
PLAYBOY: Do you relate the changes to higher divorce rates? For a while there was also a backlash against monogamy.
BROOKS: I do. I don’t think it serves anyone, least of all children who grow up in disorganized families and communities. I think the ideal number of sexual partners to have in a year is one.
PLAYBOY: One? Presumably some of our readers would disagree.
BROOKS: There’s a lot of research that supports my view. I often tell my liberal friends that the American women who have the most orgasms are evangelical Christians.
PLAYBOY: You’re joking, right?
BROOKS: It’s true. They have more sex. They’re in monogamous relationships a long time. They have sex with one person.
PLAYBOY: Wouldn’t that lead to less sex, not more? Most people assume that, for a variety of reasons, married couples have a lot less sex than people who are single.
BROOKS: The research shows they have more fulfilling sex lives than the people who are swinging.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said the most important decision anyone makes is whom to marry. Doesn’t that mostly come down to luck?
BROOKS: Some of it, maybe, but it’s worth thinking about before you get married. If you get two optimistic people together, they’re going to look on the bright side of everything. You get two people with temperaments that clash, it’s probably going to be a problem. Recently I did something called Life Reports, asking readers over 70 to write in about their lives. There were about 4,000 or 5,000 responses. The people who had the best marriages were happy, no matter what else happened in their lives, and that, I think, was luck. I don’t think anybody knows how to choose a marriage partner. Maybe they are just the sort of people who are agreeable to be around, and they happened to marry other agreeable people. That’s what they should teach in college.
PLAYBOY: What else accounted for happy lives?
BROOKS: Unfortunately there was no easy relationship between depth and happiness. A lot of the people who were impressive at writing about their lives were pretty unhappy. It’s like in Annie Hall when Woody Allen walks up to this incredibly good-looking couple and asks, “How come you guys are so happy?” The woman says, “Well, I’m incredibly shallow, and so is he.” Maybe that works. None of us would choose that, but maybe it works.
PLAYBOY: If the sexual revolution did away with the guardrails, and marriage is even better for long-term sex, why was the sexual revolution positive, at least on balance?
BROOKS: Women were unhappy in the 1950s, and guys were repressed, so I would say that was a net gain. And also, by the way, we overestimate the degree to which people in the 1950s were not having sex. We think they were all repressed. We think that PLAYBOY came along and everybody changed, but in fact it was World War I and World War II. It was the act of going to Paris, people getting out of their farm towns, going abroad and coming into contact with different lives. The wars were also a time of separation of men and women. When men returned, there were celebrations.
PLAYBOY: Back to your evolution from the left to the right. After witnessing the results of welfare and the breakup of the family, what finally led you to vote Republican for the first time?
BROOKS: College, for me, was living in the fourth century—I studied a lot of ancient Greek. But I began to shift, and I always had a bourgeois-immigrant thing inside. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979, and I sort of liked her. I think I’m typical of everybody in that politics is less about the ideas than the personalities you like. As I said, I came to like Reagan.
PLAYBOY: And now you’re the conservative voice on the Times op-ed page. Is it a lonely place to be?
BROOKS: As I’ve said, being a conservative on the Times op-ed page is like being chief rabbi in Mecca—yes, it’s lonely.
PLAYBOY: Did your fans and foes switch when you wrote and spoke positively about Obama?
BROOKS: I guess so. There’s a lot of “He’s the liberals’ favorite conservative.” But I was a defender of the Iraq War, and Times readers didn’t like that. There was a lot more hostility the first few years, but today it’s still surprising. A lot of conservatives don’t regard me as a member of the team anymore, but a number of people on the left don’t seem to see a difference between me and Ann Coulter. I get a lot of hate mail. It’s not the majority, but people come up and tell me how much they hate me.
PLAYBOY: Does it bother you?
BROOKS: No one likes to be hated. Not long ago I was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a stunningly beautiful woman walked right up to me and said, “I hate you.” You don’t like that, but it’s part of the job. After my first six months on the job, I cleaned out my e-mail folder, and there were 290,000 messages with the core message “Paul Krugman is great; you suck.” For the first six months on the job, I was bothered by it. I’d never been hated on a mass scale before, but my skin got thicker. I’m still bothered by it, but that’s part of the job.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel you can have a different kind of influence than, for example, Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh, because they’re preaching to the choir, whereas in writing for the Times you’re injecting another perspective into the dialogue between many who aren’t in your choir?
BROOKS: Coulter and all of them accuse me of being a coward and a sellout, and I counter that by saying, “You’re in a little ghetto where everybody agrees with you. How brave is that?” At the same time, I get plenty of appreciation, so I don’t feel I’m in the wilderness. Actually, I don’t feel far from many Times readers. If Ann Coulter were writing at the Times, that would take more bravery than I have.
PLAYBOY: Do you also feel isolated from the far right?
BROOKS: Very few things about the job give you sheer pleasure, but when Rush Limbaugh goes after me, I feel happy. Or on the other side, when MoveOn.org goes after me, I feel happy. I’m happy to have them not like me.
PLAYBOY: You’re frequently on talk shows, including some that get contentious. Does it bother you that so much of politics on TV is shouting matches in which few people get to finish a sentence?
BROOKS: I don’t do those shouting shows. Nothing like Laura Ingraham or even Rachel Maddow. Rachel is plenty smart, but she’s in a fundamentally different business. She’s in the provocation and rallying troops business, and in that I put her a level above most. I’ve never met this guy Ed Schultz, but I don’t think I’d like to be on with him or Keith Olbermann.
PLAYBOY: What was the hardest time you’ve been given on a show?
BROOKS: One of the least pleasant I’ve ever done was Bill Maher’s. He has a big audience. When you do his show, for months afterward people say, “I saw you on Real Time With Bill Maher.” But I really did not like being on his show. It’s 20 minutes of how evil everyone is who disagrees with him. I always think it’s unfair, and his critiques are never about policies; they’re about which so-and-sos are right-wing yahoos. Maybe they are, but that’s not why I’m in the business.
PLAYBOY: Does it concern you that some people get their news only from Fox on the one hand and Jon Stewart on the other?
BROOKS: People who watch only Fox have certain beliefs that are factually false. There’s more of that going around than before. That’s troubling. To be fair, the Pew Research Center does surveys of who knows what, and the Limbaugh audience is pretty well educated. Rush’s audience and the NPR audiences tend to be at the top. Whether they have a distorted view of the science on global warming is another thing. And how much clout do they have? Limbaugh spent five years attacking John McCain, and McCain still won the Republican primary, even among Limbaugh’s audience. They listen because it’s entertaining. People like Jon Stewart, but that doesn’t mean they’re passive receptors of everything they hear.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel about Stewart as you do about Maher?
BROOKS: With Stewart and Colbert I feel there’s humor and poking at the left, but there’s a genuine compassionate, admirable thing inside both those guys, and I don’t feel there is in Maher.
PLAYBOY: These days you seem to be everywhere: in the Times, on NPR, on PBS, on Meet the Press and other shows, on the Times blog, at speaking engagements and in your books. How do you pull it all off?
BROOKS: It can be overwhelming. If I can have a day when I have nothing to do, I’m happy. I regret a lot of the commitments I have. I do spend a lot of time with my kids, but I don’t spend much time with my friends, and I don’t spend any time watching TV, except for some sports. I used to play golf, but I don’t do that anymore. So it’s basically work, drive kids to practice somewhere and go to bed. Bruce Springsteen is touring Europe this year, and I want to go to that. I’ll make a few exceptions for Springsteen.
PLAYBOY: You mentioned that you had 290,000 e-mails over a six-month period. In the days before e-mail, there would have been far fewer letters, because readers had to sit down, write them and mail them. Now it’s the era of reader and viewer comments, many anonymous and many harsh. Do you bemoan the civility that’s lost when there are so many unrestrained voices talking about every small and large issue?
BROOKS: I think it’s good that people are talking, even if I don’t always like what they say. I think it’s heartening that, in spite of predictions, the Times feels healthier than it did a few years ago. The readership is climbing. More people are willing to pay for it. A couple of years ago I thought we were in the whaling business and it was going off the deep end. But now I don’t think that. There are enough people who want some authority, and so we’ll be fine. Newspapers are closing, but there isn’t less news. If you go out on the campaign trail, there are more reporters than ever, and somebody’s paying them. I think we’re in a golden age of long-form journalism. There’s a lot of great stuff out there. I don’t think we’re in a crisis or a decline.
PLAYBOY: In addition to your political columns, increasingly you’ve been writing about psychology, sociology and brain science. What’s pulling you in that direction?
BROOKS: A zillion people write about politics, but relatively few write about the social and cultural implications of this field, and it’s a hot area that is exciting to be witness to.
PLAYBOY: Because of your interests in sociology, psychology and science, do some of your colleagues in the political world look at you with curiosity?
BROOKS: There was a little “Are you having a midlife crisis?” There’s also a message that politics is the real stuff—tax rates—and the other stuff is sort of squishy. I have the opposite attitude. I write about politics because it’s my job; it’s like eating your broccoli. The how-we-live stuff is more important, and readers like it. Still, there’s a definite sense that if you’re writing about lifestyle or culture, it’s because you had no good political subjects to talk about, whereas it’s the opposite for me.
PLAYBOY: You’ve written that one problem with American politicians is that they have little understanding of people’s emotions. Why?
BROOKS: Washington is the most emotionally void city in America, or maybe the world; you feel it in the way people dress—including me—and the way people talk.
PLAYBOY: You’ve criticized the Occupy movement as a bunch of poetry majors, but you claim to value poetry and the arts and bemoan the fact that they’re being pushed aside in favor of practical study that leads to jobs.
BROOKS: The point is that a lot of the research I looked at shows that the things that seem so squishy are hard and practical. I firmly believe in arts education, music and majoring in English and history. But I was just with a bunch of CEOs, and they talked about the difficulty they have finding employees with technical skills. How do I reconcile the firm belief that the humanities are important to leading a good life with the fact that if you look at who earns the highest incomes, it’s not even close? Education majors and communications majors have bad incomes, whereas general computer and tech majors have much higher incomes. I wrestle with this with my own kids.
PLAYBOY: How do you advise them?
BROOKS: My eldest son is a history major. The best advice is to major in what you want to in college, but understand you’ll probably have to find some technical skill, some actual market-savvy skill, afterward. Get that layering of understanding narrative, stories, background and history, but realize that’s not going to be sufficient in the marketplace. It’s also important to remember that money isn’t what makes people happiest.
PLAYBOY: Besides whom they marry, what else does?
BROOKS: One of the clear themes of the Life Reports was that people are good at knowing how to talk about their professional lives and bad at knowing how to talk about their personal lives. Yet those able to talk about their emotional lives, who were more connected to their family and friends, expressed much more satisfaction. Their emotional lives gave them more happiness than their intellectual lives.
PLAYBOY: And yet, despite writing The Social Animal, much of which is about our emotional lives, your wife said that you writing about emotion is like Gandhi writing about gluttony. You told Time, “I’m not good at moments of intimacy with family or friends.” How do you reconcile that with the message of your book and the Life Reports?
BROOKS: You can know the right things but be unable to live them.
PLAYBOY: After your research, do you try harder with your relationships?
BROOKS: The sad part is you can’t consciously change just by wanting to. You can if you change your environment and your habits, but the happy part is that you have within you flows of information and resources, some going back to American culture, some to your family, some to your religion, some to your genetics—there’s incredible richness inside each of us. But it’s so rich and deep and unconscious, it means you can’t actually change it all that much.
PLAYBOY: Are you regretful?
BROOKS: I have the same regrets everybody has. I’ve worked pretty hard on my career—I still do—and spend less time having fun. I have friends. I go to hockey games, baseball games, dinners. I went hiking with a friend in Berkeley who took a bunch of his buddies out to Zion National Park. Eight guys just went out and did a hike. I don’t do too much of that stuff, so I regret not working harder on friendships.
PLAYBOY: Twelve years ago, in your book Bobos in Paradise, you made fun of the kinds of people who go hiking in the woods.
BROOKS: That’s true. Well, as I get older I find I write fewer nasty pieces and fewer cynical ones. I don’t know whether I’m just older and more fuddy-duddy, or maybe I have learned some life lessons. I have regrets, but I’m not stopping. I care about all the stuff I write about. I think it’s important whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins the election, because people are affected, the country is affected. It can be frustrating and overwhelming to do this work, and you give up something to do it, but you feel you’re part of the debate, and it’s worthwhile.