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.