David Brooks in Paradise, Part II

GUEST: David Brooks
VTR: 6/9/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of our year 2004 programs with David Brooks, the newest guy on the block among the New York Times OpEd Page columnists and along with William Safire, presumably the papers most conservative.

Well last time we started to discuss my guest’s wonderfully readable and really quite compelling new Simon and Schuster volume “On Paradise Drive.” And I don’t want to leave it just yet, if at all.

Of course, about his earlier “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There”, “bobos” being bourgeoisie bohemians, Kurt Andersen had written, “the book is a pleasure” and I assure you that this one is as well. Besides, along with his twice weekly columns in The Times, it gives us so much more to chew over.

And chew I want to do, David, you and I are talking here today just before the final funeral ceremonies for Ronald Reagan. And I’d been surprised that in The New York Times a number of the letters to the Editor in the last day have been very negative about the tributes that have been paid to the late President. How do you figure that?

BROOKS: Well I think a lot of people see this as a political event. That Regan was a Conservative Republican and he shouldn’t get off scott-free. And so there is, is that level of the Regan legacy, which is a political level.

I happen to think the, the outpouring of emotion that’s occasioned by the Reagan death is partly political. But I think it’s actually deeper than that. I think when people see Reagan dying, they … a lot of people feel there’s a set of virtues that they don’t associate with Republicans or Democrats, but I think they associate with … a lot of people grew up in the Depression … and these virtues are gallantry … he was very gallant … even when he was shot. A certain romanticism; he had a wonderful love affair with his wife, the second wife. And he came out of the Hollywood Golden Age when there was a certain romance in the air. He was not a narcissist; he was chivalrous to people; he was brave and steadfast.

So I think there’s a whole set of virtues that people associate with Reagan which are not political, but are human virtues. And I think a lot of people in this day and age feel those virtues are leaving us. And I think that’s one of the things that is occasioning this outpouring, which I think is bi-partisan for most people.

Some people are locked into politics and everything’s got to be Left, Right. And Reagan is Right, so if they’re on the Left they have to oppose it.

HEFFNER: How do you put, place President Reagan in terms of our involvement with Iraq? What do you think would have happened had Reagan been President …

BROOKS: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … at this time.

BROOKS: None of can know. None of us … he’s being used these days … the Right is using him to say he would be for the war in Iraq. The Left is using him to say he would be for stem cell research.

HEFFNER: What do you say?

BROOKS: I don’t know, I didn’t have a chance to ask him that. All I know is two things. One, most of the people who supported him and who worked with him supported the war in Iraq. So if there is a Reaganite coalition, they were all almost all in support. The second thing to be said was Reagan had a faith in America in a certain definition of America, which is really also what my book is about. And a definition of America as a role, as a champion of democracy. And he had also, beyond that, a faith that American would triumph, that it was almost a historical inevitability that this country would help spread democracy so it was a global … so freedom was everywhere.

And I think he really felt that anybody who got in the way of that was bound to be temporary. And bound to be defeated. And his age … the Soviet Union and Communism got in the way of, of that and I quoted in a recent column this phrase he has … when asked about his policy toward the Soviet Union. And he says, “Well, it’s simple or even simplistic. It is that we win and they lose.”

And I think that instinct that the Soviet Union was bound to topple, which was not an instinct shared by Arthur Schlesinger and many other Liberals, or many other Conservatives, for that matter, was part of his deep creed. And it’s possible to imagine him saying, “Well now the enemy is … this Islamic terror; they are people who want to destroy freedom for people around the world, and they are about to fail because the human hunger for it is so strong and that we should fight them and, and make them fail. As to exactly how he would do it, I just don’t think any of us know.

HEFFNER: You know, there was something that puzzled me in particular about the piece you wrote about Ronald Reagan … “Regan’s Promised Land”, here at the end of it, you said, and I think this was so true … you said, “But it’s all really about American exceptionalism.” And that’s what you’re writing about in your book, too.

BROOKS: Right.

HEFFNER: Reagan embraced America has a permanent revolutionary force. He critics came to fear exactly that sort of zeal. And then you write something that puzzled the hell out of me. “John Kerry’s father, Richard, was a representative one; he wrote a book just after the Reagan years arguing that the Reagan brand of exceptionalism is a danger. “Americans are mistaken if they think all people want to copy their institutions,” he argued. Instead the US should marshal its power within a web of multilateral arrangements, or it will create all sorts of problems.” You disagree with that?

BROOKS: Yes, actually, sometimes I do. If you … I was being nice to Richard Kerry, but … Richard Kerry was a foreign service officer, very literate man, very educated man. And he wrote this book … it was published in ’90 though he clearly wrote it during the Reagan period, in which he said, “This idea of American exceptionalism is fine domestically. I’m all for domestically thinking that the US should be, you know, a revolutionary nation.”

But when it goes abroad and when it starts acting abroad, it acts in a permanently naive way. It thinks that everybody wants democracy when they don’t. It is too moralistic and it should not worry about morality in foreign affairs; morality should not be in foreign affairs, it should just be … we should just think about realistic nationalist interest, the way other countries do.

And because America has all these false notions about the role of morality in foreign affairs and the role of democracy and the idea of championing democracy, which Kerry thought was not a true notion, that the US needs to get itself in harness, in a girdle.

And that girdle was multi-national organizations. And I’m not saying John Kerry, his son shares that. But, but Richard Kerry was a very good example, and I, I … to be honest, I think John Kerry shares some of that.

HEFFNER: Well that’s what, that’s what puzzled me. And I, I, I’d like it if you’d put it on the table because I couldn’t imagine that you’d be writing about Richard Kerry.

BROOKS: Well, the book … it was a book I had just finished and was very striking as a response to Reagan. But I think when you look at John Kerry’s emphasis on multi-lateral organizations, and to me what’s always struck me about Kerry and about many people who agree with him, is that they’re talking about the process. They said lets fight a war on terror, but let’s have the process be different.

To me whether we work through multi-national organization or not, it’s better to work through a multi-national organization, if we can. If the French and the Germans and the Russians and the Chinese had been with us in toppling Saddam, I thought that would have been a better way to go. No question about it. I thought after the war we would turn to multi-national organizations. But that to me is the process. It’s the ultimate objective. The ultimate objective was to me to transform the Middle East so we wouldn’t be hit with terrorists for our lives and our grandchildren’s lives.

And therefore, that was a procedural issue, it was not the ultimate issue. Sometimes I think for Kerry it’s the ultimate issue. And for some people on the left I think it’s the only issue and I think they agree with Kerry. They distrust the US as an aggressive actor on the world on the world stage and want to see it restrained. I fundamentally think it’s a good actor on the world stage and don’t necessarily want to see it restrained in that way.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you why you think “yes, it would have been better”. What would have been better if it had been an international effort.

BROOKS: Well, first of all we would have had more troops and more help. One of the big problems …

HEFFNER: Okay.

BROOKS: … we had was not having enough. Second we would have had different perspectives. We would have had more debate and challenging in the way we went about it. When you look at World War II, you see the allies arguing about how to do things. When to invade Normandy and when not to. And that process of debate was, was healthy.

And I think we could have used that process of debate. And I thought we could have done it domestically if the Bush Administration had reached out to the pro-war Democrats, like Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton, Evan Baye. I thought that would have made a much stronger Administration, you would have had a strong internal debate; you would have had people who believed in, in this process and believed in it from a different perspective.

So those are two advantages. Nonetheless, I do not believe that that doing multi-lateral is, by itself, a good thing. For example, as we’re sitting there, the UN has just passed a resolution which may endanger the Kurds. And for its own reasons, which I don’t understand, some member states of the United Nations wanted to make sure the Kurds were unhappy and the next Iraq or had fewer rights and powers.

That may prompt the Kurds to secede and, who knows, by the time this aired, we could be in the midst of a civil war because of that. And so I don’t think that necessarily going along with France, Germany, Russia and China on every issue and calling it “multi-lateral” is by itself a good thing.

HEFFNER: So, what you’re saying is that the actions that we’ve been taking in the past week, as we speak now, that the Kurds resent so much and may sink the whole kit and kaboodle is not a function of American willingness to abandon the Kurds, but just of these old European …

BROOKS: Well, I don’t want to call them …

HEFFNER: … countries.

BROOKS: … old Europeans.

HEFFNER: Why not?

BROOKS: They have different points of view …

HEFFNER: Why not? Your friends do.

BROOKS: Well, they were wrong to. That was stupid to say that. I mean all of Europe is old [laughter]. You know …

HEFFNER: Well, we’ve noticed … or something …

BROOKS: That whole distinction, that was ridiculous. But, no, I mean I, I … I’m not a … sometimes a huge admirer of the United Nations. You know I’m, I’m Jewish I would like to see the UN once condemn anti-Semitism in its long history.

You know I just think it’s, it’s a group which has become dominated by tyrannies. And you’ve got the UN, you know, I don’t mean to run down the whole litany of the Sudan the greatest human rights violator in the world on the Human Rights Commission. I don’t need to run down the whole litany of what I think is mis-treatment of Israel. I don’t regard it as, as a …necessarily a noble institution. I think it can be a useful institution, but as a progenitor of world government … no. As a, as something that gives legitimacy … no, I don’t think so. I think the cause gives legitimacy.

HEFFNER: You know, you’ve talked about Joe Lieberman, you’ve talked about Theodore Roosevelt … you’ve talked about … I won’t bring Alexander Hamilton into it … too far back … but Scoop Jackson … almost as if you think they were people who did not embrace the necessity for international cooperation.

BROOKS: No. I wouldn’t say that. But I would just say Scoop Jackson had certain hawkish instincts. A certain moral way of looking at the world and many of the people who worked for Scoop Jackson are now Republicans. I think Richard Pearl did … Elliot Abrams I think did. So I think that, that is a tradition that was in the Democratic Party, which is now a withering part of the Democratic Party. And a lot of those people have moved over and become Republicans.

I’m not a Republican or a Democrat, I’m a journalist. But I would just say that part of the Democratic Party, in foreign affairs, to me is, is a … a now minority party … just a few people.

HEFFNER: I guess my recollection of Scoop Jackson, I knew him slightly … doesn’t fit what his … the acolytes …

BROOKS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … who now appear in the Bush Administration think. But, you know, you talk about being a journalist … you’re not a Democrat, you’re not a Republican, you’re a journalist. I need to ask you what you think about the recent events at The New York Times in which journalism seems to have become confused with accepting stories that maybe helpful to one political orientation or another. What, what’s your feeling about all of it?

BROOKS: Yeah. I, I … I don’t actually have many comments about The New York Times … I’ve been there eight months. I don’t know that many people in New York.

HEFFNER: But you read it.

BROOKS: I read it. I also work for it. And I’m loyal to it. And I believe in it. And I’m not going to go … I just have decided in public … and I think this is the right decision for an employee … I’m not going to go in public criticizing one article or another, one of my colleagues or another. I think it’s a great enterprise and it’s not my role to answer for The New York Times about one story or another.

One of the things I will say, you know, coming from outside the paper to inside the paper, one of the things I’ve actually been struck by … and this is something I didn’t appreciate until I got inside the paper, was that I’m an opinion journalist … so I have … I have a set of ideas … that I approach the world with and look at the world … and so I have, what you might call “a creed”.

The reporters … reporters don’t have that in quite the same way. Now Chesterton once said, “an opinion journalist wakes up in the morning with his assumptions … goes to bed having reached a conclusion.” And that’s the way opinion journalists think. Reporters don’t … aren’t that conscious of their assumptions; they don’t hunger as much after the conclusions. They’re just curious about what’s going on.

And as I watched … even from a distance … my colleagues in the Washington Bureau of The New York Times work, I’m struck by their commitment. That’s their creed. I have this creed which you might call a version of conservatism; they have a creed which you might call a version of “journalism-ism” [laughter]. They, they believe in doing the craft well and when it’s not done well, I hear them in private conversations lamenting the fact that this hasn’t been done well, that hasn’t been done well. I’m, I’m sort of impressed by their devotion to that craft. Which is, it’s almost like a ideology to me … it looks like an ideology.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you then … I respect your, your unwillingness to go further in the discussion of what’s gone on. Daniel Okrent will be here … I guess next week and will do some programs on this, and it should be quite interesting.

But let me ask you, do you feel that opinion writers, opinion journalists have any obligation to what we used to call “fairness and balance?”

BROOKS: I think they have obligation to honesty. And an opinion journalist should be able to look at the best case that both sides make. Anybody can write a strong column, taking what some idiot on the other side says and then ridiculing it. But I think you have an obligation to take the strongest case on the other side and I’ve tried to not take some idiot’s point of view and then just play off of lit. I tried to make … to take the best case that the other side can make and I’ve tried to look honestly. It does maybe lead to ambivalence on some things I’ve written about. Say, environmental policy. It does lead to sort of “one the one hand, on the other hand”. But I think that’s fairness and that’s accuracy.

I wrote a column recently which I’ve been thinking about a lot and which is sort of horrifying; which is about how people form their opinions. And one of the things that does not happen, I think political scientists … and it rings true to me … people do not survey the world objectively, then form their opinions, and then form their political affiliations. I don’t anybody who didn’t know what they were until they’re 40; looked at the world and decided, “Oh well, I’m really a Liberal Democrat.”

Most people inherit a party affiliation from their parents, or they form it very early in adulthood. And then once they form that affiliation they do not change; they keep that as their tribe. And once they form that affiliation, then they embrace the values of that party. Political scientists are pretty persuasive on this. It’s not as if people have values and then they find the party that embraces those values. They have the party first and then the values.

Then, which is even scarier, they choose the reality that flatters their party. So, for example, after the Reagan years … inflation fell from 11% to 4%. Voters were asked … during Reagan’s term … “Did inflation fall?”. 50% percent of Democrats said, “No, it went up. It got worse. ” 47% of Republicans said, “Yes, it did fall.” Republicans had a more accurate view of reality, but Democrats choose the reality that flattered their partisan world view.

Then after Clinton, the same question was asked about various social indicators … “Did they get better or worse?” … this time it was Republicans who were negative and inaccurate and Democrats who were more positive. So what’s happening is people are not looking objectively at reality, they are choosing the reality that flatters their partisan divide. And so that’s a challenge if you’re a columnist.

HEFFNER: You know, what surprises me is that you sound as though you’re surprised by that. You use the word “tribal”, but isn’t that just what it is and you don’t expect reason and rationality in tribal matters.

BROOKS: Well then what am I doing? This is my … this is our lives …

HEFFNER: Okay.

BROOKS: … we, we have … both you … longer than I … but we’re both involved in this thing called “public conversation”. So what are we doing if, if there’s no hope of persuading anybody? What …what’s it all about? I mean that, that’s a problem.

HEFFNER: Are you saying you’re not going to continue to do it?

BROOKS: [Laughter] No, I’m not to do it. They ???????

HEFFNER: Well, it’s not just that.

BROOKS: No. I believe that it matters. But, but how it matters is tricky. Do I persuade anybody with a column? I’m not sure I do. I think I may introduce ideas and generate conversation and that’s noble in itself. But, does somebody read a column and say “I’m totally persuaded?” Sometimes I get that, but rare. I wrote a column about gay marriage a couple … several months ago … which some people said they changed their mind. But it’s very rare to change your mind.

So the temptation for anybody involved in conversation, whether it’s in public, like me … or anybody else, is just to say the things that make people on your side feel good and that makes you very popular.

HEFFNER: Yes, but come on, you know that we’re at all times at a point at which, however, small, and I don’t think it’s as small as we’ve been led to believe … there is a middle-middle-middle group that’s going to make the difference. In the coming election, in all elections.

BROOKS: Yeah. And I … and to be honest I do think there are a lot of people of either persuasion … Conservative and Republican … who enjoy the conversation … whose views do change even if they don’t abandon the label. But these days you have to take it as a matter of faith that those people are out there because the people who are partisan are very visible, you hear from them a lot, they tend to write letters to the editor, E-mails or appear on various shows. So you take it as an article of faith that there is this silent chunk that that’s really open to conversation.

HEFFNER: What about the hate mail?

BROOKS: Well, the hate mail was the, was the biggest shock to me when I … when I took this job. I, I was used to some level of hate mail, but not 600 or 700 pieces a week. And some of it I called them “the tour guides to my insecurities” because they, they point out things that are failings and then they, they exaggerate them.

But I’m becoming a little inured to that. I …someone said to me, which I think is true … “you play in the big leagues they’re going to throw at your head”. So it just comes with the territory, I’m lucky to have this incredible piece of journalistic real estate and this comes with the territory. So, it’s taken me a little while to just develop some equanimity about it. But now I have. But it’s an unfortunate feature of life.

HEFFNER: When you were here last time there was some exchange between the two of us about my saying that I thought as I went back to The National Standard and was reading it to get some line on Brooks, just before you started at The Times … I thought I saw a meanness of spirit …

BROOKS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … that I didn’t see on the, on the Newshour …

BROOKS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and you said something about when you’re sitting, writing by yourself, particularly if you’re sending it off by E-mail, and there’s no one really editing you … there’s a great difference …

BROOKS: Right.

HEFFNER: … between … has that changed for your at all?

BROOKS: Yeah. Well, no. But I do … well one is aware, when you’re at The Times that you’ve got a bigger microphone and you can’t pick on people unless they’re really big. [Laughter] And, but, but one is … there’s always that temptation. It’s still there … sitting alone.

You know Kinsley wrote this most negative review of my book. And you want … as an author … has a temptation just to “rip him one” … and just either to send him a letter or do something … because you’re really angry. But you say no, you he gets his … I get my say, he gets his say. That’s the way life works. So you want to pass that on by.

But, but it is a problem … it is an issue. How do you use your passion without being misled by it. Because at some level, especially in these partisan times, you’re sort of part of a team, they’re part of a team, you want to hit that team, they’re hitting you, you’ve got to them. There’s a dynamic there. And if you play into that dynamic you get a lot of passion, your columns have a lot of energy. And there’s a certain readability.

I think you’re often distorting the truth when you … that’s the sacrifice you get for that passion. So the, the trick is to be passionate at the same time you’re honest. And that’s a hard thing to do and sometimes you err on one side or the other. When you’re too honest, you’re too wishy-washy.

HEFFNER: What about this book? This wonderful book. This very readable book “On Paradise Drive”. Do you think you let yourself go in that?
BROOKS: Maybe a times … I should say first of all, the words “George Bush” do not appear in the book, I think. The word “Iraq” certainly does not appear in the book. It’s a non-political book, it’s about lifestyle. And it’s a book in which I’m ambivalent, but generally positive. It’s also a book where I’m sometimes going for laughs. And, you know, I hate to leave what I think is a good joke on the cutting room floor.

HEFFNER: I didn’t know you did.

BROOKS: Yeah, when I hope I … I threw in some jokes and maybe some of them are sharp and biting, and in some ways the country deserves a little jab here and there. But, I don’t think it’s a mean-spirited book. I think it’s an appreciative raillery about, about the way Americans life now, the Home Depots, the big malls, the suburbs, the Gaps, you know, all, all that stuff. It’s all in there. The way we raise our kids, which I think is the most troubling thing about America these days. I think we’re totally out of control in the way we pressure our kids. And that, there I’m more troubled, but I, I again, I think it’s a trap I’m in myself. So I’m not particularly vengeful about it.

HEFFNER: What do you mean about the kids?

BROOKS: Well, there’s been a revolution in the way we raise our children. The amount of time kids spend hanging out alone, just playing creatively is down by about a third. The amount of time the spend in adult-structured supervised activities, is up by a third. So what’s happened is we’ve turned them into little achievement machines.

I have this character in the book called the Uber-mom, who … this highly successful women who take time off to make sure their kids will get into Harvard. My joke is you can tell Uber-moms because they weigh less than their children.

And there are sort of highly, highly pressured childhoods going on here. You see little kids with Mozart for Baby’s Mind CDs when they’re in their cribs. They’re going off, everybody’s seen it … they’re going off to elementary school with these 60 pound backpacks. So if the wind blows them over they’re like beetles stuck on the ground unable to get up.

And then I have a chapter about college. They’ve moved away from home, they’re away from their pressuring parents. They don’t have to worry about college admissions. So do they kick back and enjoy life? No. They kick it up a notch. They’re used to this rythmn of achieving or jumping through hoops to get to the next ladder. Or get … I’m mixing metaphors, but going up the ladder of success. And it’s really become like the Junior Workaholics of America. That to me is, is not a way to spend your life. It’s especially not the way to spend your life because we perfect these kids about everything … about their SAT scores, they baseball, their ice skating, except for about character. And that one, most important aspect of life, they get no instruction, they’re left on their own. And to me this is, all these factors add up to a big problem.

HEFFNER: How would they get that instruction? Who is going to instruct them?

BROOKS: Well, there were institutions that did instruct them. There still are some institutions that have theories for molding character. In the old days, the old Protestant establishment had a theory which was, you have to get toughened up. That these schools they went to, these old “prep” schools were tough schools. And if you go back to the moral instruction they got, the moral instruction was this … you’ve got good in you and you’ve got evil in you. And you have to work on the good muscles because the evil will always want to come out. And that, that led to a series of hardships, a series of tests which were sometimes brutal, but it was a theory for formula.

Now in this book I talked to college administrators and deans and professors, some of whom say, “well, we remind kids they should be developing character, but we don’t really do it for them, that’s something they have to do for themselves”.

Well, I’m not sure that’s right. I think we don’t try to instill character because we don’t know what to say. And we think if we said something they would rebel against it. Which is wrong.

HEFFNER: But I think that’s what I mean. We don’t know what to say.

BROOKS: Well, that’s a problem. Some people do know what to say. I’ve been out recently at some Christian universities … Union College, outside of Memphis and Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, and they’re explicitly Christian schools but they do know what to say. And my … I send my kids to a Jewish day school, they do actually know what to say. And so they are getting some sort of moral instruction there, which is very specific and has some good sources to go back to.

I think there are secular versions, you know, it doesn’t have to be religious. There are secular theories of character building. But we have to work and make them explicit.

HEFFNER: David, our time is up now, but that should be the subject of another program sometime in the near future.

BROOKS: I’d be happy to back.

HEFFNER: Okay. David Brooks thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

BROOKS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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