david brooks | the insider’s crusade

24 11 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 162 | November 24, 2008

Political Provocateur

This will be a new, occasional connection to national/global politics, whenever/wherever the words appear, the spirit moves me—as this essay did by conservative pundit David Brooks of The New York Times and the Lehrer News Hour, PBS.

I’m more than a little upset with folks (Democrats especially) already knocking Obama because he didn’t do this or say that, or appoint so-and-so etc., when it’s only two weeks since he won the election, and (in my book) has already done more toward getting this country back on track, back where it belongs in the world than the present occupant in the White House has done in the last eight years.

I don’t always agree with David Brooks, but I always consider him fair and listen carefully to what he has to say. He’s a far cry from the manic pundits (ala Rush) who have nothing to offer folks but their insufferable egos and trash talk.

If true America conservatives are listening and taking note of Obama’s presence in the national and world stage …maybe, indeed hope, is on its way for everyone. — Norbert Blei


The Insider’s Crusade


Jan. 20, 2009, will be a historic day. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law), looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.).

The domestic policy team will be there, too, including Jason Furman (Harvard, Harvard Ph.D.), Austan Goolsbee (Yale, M.I.T. Ph.D.), Blair Levin (Yale, Yale Law), Peter Orszag (Princeton, London School of Economics Ph.D.) and, of course, the White House Counsel Greg Craig (Harvard, Yale Law).

This truly will be an administration that looks like America, or at least that slice of America that got double 800s on their SATs. Even more than past administrations, this will be a valedictocracy— rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes. If a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard-Yale game any time over the next four years, we’re screwed.

Already the culture of the ‘Obama ad¬ministration is coming into focus. Its members are twice as smart as the poor reporters who have to cover them, three times if you include the columnists. They typically served in the Clinton administration and then, like Cincinnatus, retreated to the comforts of private life— that is, if Cincinnatus had worked at Goldman Sachs, Williams & Connolly or the Brookings Institution. So many of them send their kids to Georgetown Day School, the posh leftish private school in D.C. that they’ll be able to hold White House staff meetings in the carpool line.

And yet as much as I want to resent these overeducated Achievatrons (not to mention the incursion of a French- style government dominated by highly trained Enarchs), I find myself tremendously impressed by the Obama transition.

The fact that they can already leak one big appointee per day is testimony to an awful lot of expert staff work. Unlike past Democratic administrations, they are not just handing out jobs to the hacks approved by the favored interest groups. They’re thinking holistically — there’s a nice balance of policy wonks, governors and legislators. They’re also thinking strategically. As Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute notes, it was smart to name Tom Daschle both the head of Health and Human Services and the health czar. Splitting those duties up, as Bill Clinton did, leads to all sorts of conflicts.

Most of all, they are picking Washington insiders. Or to be more precise, they are picking the best of the Washington insiders.

Obama seems to have dispensed with the romantic and failed notion that you need inexperienced “fresh faces” to change things. After all, it was LBJ. who passed the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, because he is so young, Obama is not bringing along an insular coterie of lifelong aides who depend upon him for their well-being.

As a result, the team he has announced so far is more impressive than any other in recent memory. One may not agree with them on everything or even most things, but a few things are indisputably true.

First, these are open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence. Orszag, who will probably be budget director, is trusted by Republicans and Democrats for his honest presentation of the facts.

Second, they are admired professionals. Conservative legal experts have a high regard for the probable attorney general, Eric Holder, despite the business over the Marc Rich pardon.

Third, they are not excessively partisan. Obama signaled that he means to live up to his post partisan rhetoric by letting Joe Lieberman keep his committee chairmanship.

Fourth, they are not ideological. The economic advisers, Furman and Goolsbee, are moderate and thoughtful Democrats. Hillary Clinton at State is problematic, mostly because nobody has a role for her husband. But, as she demonstrated in the Senate, her foreign-policy views are hardheaded and pragmatic.

Finally, there are many people on this team with practical creativity. Any think tanker can come up with broad doctrines, but it is rare to find people who can give the president a list of concrete steps he can do day by day to advance American interests. Dennis Ross, who advised Obama during the campaign, is the best I’ve ever seen at this, but Rahm Emanuel also has this capacity, as does Craig and legislative liaison Phil Schiliro.

Believe me, I’m trying not to join in the vast, heaving 0-phoria now sweeping the coastal haut-bourgeoisie. But the personnel decisions have been superb. The events of the past two weeks should be reassuring to anybody who feared that Obama would veer to the left, or would suffer self-inflicted wounds because of his inexperience. He’s off to a start that nearly justifies the hype.

[New York Times Nov.21. 2008]


davidbrooksDavid Brooks (born August 11, 1961) is a Canadian-American political and cultural commentator. Brooks served as an editorial writer and film reviewer for the Washington Times, a reporter and later op-ed editor for The Wall Street Journal, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard from its inception, a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly, and a commentator on NPR. He is now a columnist for The New York Times and commentator on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Brooks was born into a Jewish family in Toronto and grew up in New York City in Stuyvesant Town. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1983 with a degree in history.

He wrote a book of cultural commentary titled Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Brooks also writes articles and makes television appearances as a commentator on various trends in pop culture, such as internet dating. His newest book is entitled On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.

Before the Iraq War, Brooks argued forcefully on moral grounds for American military intervention, echoing the belief of conservative commentators and political figures that American and British forces would be welcomed as liberators. However, some of his opinion pieces in the spring of 2004 suggested that he had tempered somewhat his earlier optimism about the war. David Brooks was a visiting professor of public policy at Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, and he taught an undergraduate seminar there in the fall of 2006.

Brooks, who some consider a conservative, describes himself as being originally a liberal. In 1983, for example, he wrote a parody of conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. :

In the afternoons he is in the habit of going into crowded rooms and making everybody else feel inferior. The evenings are reserved for extended bouts of name-dropping. (University of Chicago Maroon, April 5, 1983.)

Buckley admired the parody and offered Brooks a job with National Review. A turning point in Brooks’s thinking came later that year in a televised debate with Milton Friedman, which, as Brooks describes it, “was essentially me making a point, and he making a two-sentence rebuttal which totally devastated my point.” On August 10, 2006, Brooks wrote a column for the New York Times titled “Party No. 3”. The column proposed the idea of the McCain-Lieberman Party, or the fictional representation of the moderate majority in America. Many in the “conservative movement” such as Rush Limbaugh denounce him as he frequently runs to the left. He has long been a McCain supporter and has not shown a liking for Governor Sarah Palin, calling her a “cancer” on the Republican Party.

Brooks opposes what he sees as self-destructive behavior like teenage sex and divorce; however, he is not a culture warrior in the traditional sense. His view is that “sex is more explicit everywhere barring real life. As the entertainment media have become more sex-saturated, American teenagers have become more sexually abstemious” by “waiting longer to have sex…[and] having fewer partners.” He sees the culture war as nearly over, because “today’s young people…seem happy with the frankness of the left and the wholesomeness of the right.” As a result, he is optimistic about the United States’ social stability, which he considers to be “in the middle of an amazing moment of improvement and repair.” (New York Times, April 17, 2005, 4-14.)

Brooks also broke with many in the conservative movement when, in late 2003, he came out in favor of same-sex marriage in his New York Times column. He equated the idea with traditional conservative values: “We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity…. It’s going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage.” (New York Times, November 22, 2003, A-15.)

Regarding women’s issues, Brooks is a third-wave feminist. He has also positioned himself as an outspoken critic of the Assault Weapons Ban. In a March 2007 article published in the New York Times titled No U-Turns, Brooks explains that the Republican party must distance itself from the minimal-government conservative principles that had arisen during the Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan eras. He claims that these outdated concepts had served their purposes and should no longer be embraced by Republicans in order to win elections.

In April 2004, Sasha Issenberg of Philadelphia magazine set out to retrace the journey through Franklin County, Pennsylvania, that Brooks described in the article “One Nation, Slightly Divisible” published in 2001 in the Atlantic Monthly.  Issenberg uncovered several inaccuracies and distortions in Brooks’s article. For example, Brooks wrote “On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal…I’d scan the menu and realize that I’d been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and ‘seafood delight’ trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.” Issenberg discovered that, to the contrary, “I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The `Steak and Lobster’ combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75.”

When confronted with these inaccuracies, Brooks accused Issenberg of being “too pedantic” and of “taking all of this too literally”.

On January 6, 2004, Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times that seemed to accuse critics of the Iraq war of anti-Semitism, claiming “to hear these people describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles” and that “anti-Semitism is resurgent”. Brooks later apologized to the paper’s public editor for the column, writing “I am still on the learning curve here, and I do realize that mixture of a crack with a serious accusation was incredibly stupid on my part…Please do pass along to readers that I’m aware of how foolish I was to write the column in the way I did.”

Partial bibliography

  • * On Paradise Drive : How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (2004) ISBN 0-7432-2738-7
  • * Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000) ISBN 0-684-85377-9