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.