Brooks No Argument

David Brooks is having an excellent decade. As he might have put it in his breezy, best-selling Bobos in Paradise, he's the Restoration Hardware of conservative punditry, the Starbucks of insouciant moderation. Indeed, with his frequent appearances in Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines, not to mention his regular TV gig, Brooks might seem to have franchised himself. At The Weekly Standard, amid much drollery and pontificating, he has done what more pundits should do: report. On Jim Lehrer's Newshour, Brooks has astutely personified suburban conservatism with a human face, squaring off every Friday against the older, more rumpled, more urban Mark Shields. Perhaps it's a camera-angle fluke, but when Brooks gazes at Shields, he looks like the perfect student -- attentive, respectful, at times a bit pained but politely waiting his turn before delivering his zinger. Better than anyone else in circulation, Brooks has mastered the high-pundit style of underplaying his overstatements.

Unlike other conservatives who give good and frequent screen, Brooks doesn't much sneer, deliver intelligence scoops, or traffic in down-and-dirty gossip. The smile that creeps over his lips as he gets off a mot of chastisement is pleasantly self-regarding: Look, ma, no guilt. Brooks is the nice Jewish boy as puckish Teddy Roosevelt admirer, a conservative you can bring home to your liberal parents.

When he was at The Wall Street Journal in the early 1990s, a time when conservatives had convinced themselves that Hollywood and the Ivy League were enemies worthy of burning, Brooks gleefully pounced on goofy professorspeak with a bright eye for the malodorous absurdity. Today the caricaturist has lost none of his satirical knack, but the barbs he flings at the barbarians are more likely to appear as inserts within more sweeping polemics against terrorists and the liberals who misunderstand them. ("Stand up and oppose the war, conservatives observe, and you'll probably win an Oscar, a National Magazine Award, and tenure at four dozen prestigious universities," he wrote recently in The Weekly Standard.) The overkill is ingratiating: Just kidding. Sort of. If you think a half-cocked English professor is as predatory as an American corporation fleeing our shores to save taxes, David Brooks is your man.

In Bobos in Paradise, a clever exercise in what he called "comic sociology," Brooks was the bemused minstrel of the bohemian-bourgeois hybrid, the felicitously named Bobo, that ubiquitous type who brought the counterculture into the corporation and reduced cosmopolitan liberalism to a taste for lattes. Brooks giggled watching his Bobos Stairmaster themselves into a sweat, but in the end found more there to admire than to deplore. The fervor of the educated class is the engine of wealth, and wealth is the foundation of all good things, so long live the Bobo.

Bobos unimpressed by Paul Krugman's crusades will relish Brooks' new appointment as an op-ed columnist at The New York Times. Stationed at column right, he's likely to outlast William Safire, whose career-long cover-up exercises on behalf of Richard Nixon, Ariel Sharon and various intelligence sources have made no small contribution to Republican morale over his 30 years on the page (though Safire has also broken ranks to display a tender spot for civil liberties). Brooks, despite his Washington years, probably won't channel insider talk with Safire's gusto. What besides good fun can he bring to his coveted niche?

Here's one idea: "national greatness conservatism." In a co-authored 1997 Wall Street Journal piece, Brooks and William Kristol updated Teddy Roosevelt's nationalism to include "a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of national strength and moral assertiveness abroad." They advocated using "federal power to preserve and enhance our national patrimony -- the parks, buildings, and monuments that are the physical manifestations of our common heritage." And they weren't "unfriendly to government, properly understood." "Efforts to get big government off our backs, to strengthen families and to invigorate are healthy responses to the threat" of "the complacent mediocrity and petty meddling of the nanny state. But they are insufficient without the ambitions and endeavors of a conservatism committed to national greatness."

Question One for Brooks: Will his penchant for national greatness continue to get in the way of his satirical eye -- which doesn't penetrate to the spectacle of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld trying to rule Iraq, or Bush purporting to stand for "no child left behind" while leaving the states to their fiscal crises and tamping domestic spending?

Question Two: How far does he want to go with his privatizing passion? Brooks and Kristol wanted to "bust the great public trusts of our time -- the education, health and Social Security monopolies." How amusing it would be to see him defend Social Security privatization now that the stock-market bubble is long popped. Brooks complained in a June 2002 Weekly Standard editorial that "conservatism, even with a conservative president, has lost some of its insurgent energy and has become corporatist" -- though this is not one of his major themes on the Newshour. Will he have the nerve to say so in front of a larger public, and to name names? It's interesting that "mediocrity" ranks high on the above list of evils. (Brooks is nothing if not a meritocrat.) It would be even more interesting to see him wrestle with the problem of what is to be done about the mediocre ambitions of the private economy. Now that Brooks is off Rupert Murdoch's payroll, will he strike a blow for the higher morality against the sleaze and lies that Murdoch pipes into America every day? Or will such indignation strike him as a gift to liberals?

Government lies and self-hypnosis do not seem to interest Brooks when done by Republican chiefs. In fact, to date, he has shown himself to be substantially innocent of the ways of American power. At his best, he is a close student of something he often confuses with power: prestige. The foundation executive, professor, journalist, banker, broker and CEO are, to him, brothers and sisters under the skin. Together they rule, and deserve to rule, for they do a good job for the yokels. "Unlike Washington activists or academic polemicists, most Americans live in the world of corporate America."

Thus -- and factually Brooks is right about this -- no populist revolt materialized when the corporate scandals hit the fan. If meritocracy is triumphant, all appeals to economic justice can be dismissed as class warfare -- and the self-engorgement of the owning class can be defended as the proper course of the propertied. But wouldn't more benefits for the gardeners, nannies and Chinese sneaker makers who keep up the Bobos' standard of living do wonders for national greatness?

A pity that, although he (and Kristol) supported John McCain in the 2000 Republican race, Brooks ends up appealing to the faux-populist resentment that prefers the tarnished, silver-spooned, know-nothing George W. Bush to the vast population of meritocratic scientists who persist in warning against global warming. When the political stakes are high, Brooks goes with national feebleness.

Finally, Brooks would be more compelling, less callow, if he were more curious about the rest of the world and more open to its complaints about American power. Is everyone who worries about Bush's belligerence really a shill for Saddam Hussein or the Saudi sheiks? Bobos are supposed to be pragmatists, not revolutionaries; so are there no practical impediments to our greatness expeditions? Moreover, Brooks seems to have lived in Europe for several years without developing much appreciation for how anyone else does things. Long vacations, small cars, strong unions, socialized medicine -- these give him little pause. Does great America have so little to learn?

One roots for the satirist. It will be enjoyable to read Brooks over the coming years, urging conservatives to cut loose from the Saudi Wahhabites' oil. But it would be instructive to see him try to draw the line between greatness and smugness.

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