The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Brooks
Title: “New at the Times”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is the New York Times newest OpEd columnist, presumably there to play the Conservative against Paul Krugman’s The Liberal. Which may be, as many of you who remember when Mr. Krugman joined me here on The Open Mind, will agree, a pretty darn good idea.
Two wonderfully bright guys and great writers. Well, as I have, you probably quite often watched my guest today on Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour and you probably subscribe, as I do, to Todd Gitlin’s insightful comment in The American Prospect that there David Brooks, “astutely personified suburban conservatism with a human face. Squaring off against the other more rumpled, more urban Mark Shields.”
“And, Gitlin continues, “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 overstatement.”
Well, now I would ask David Brooks to judge that judgment and having read so many of his much harsher zingers in the Weekly Standard, I want to ask my guest whether, at least for him, that’s the difference perhaps between the pen and the camera, a sort of bad cop/good cop fix. What do you think?
BROOKS: I don’t think so, I don’t think I’m that harsh in the Standard, maybe I come off that way. I’m struck by Gitlin’s use of the term “suburban” for a kid who grew up in Manhattan. But I have fallen in love with the suburbs.
HEFFNER: But we all moved…
BROOKS: Yeah we’ve all moved there and I’m the … now live outside in a suburb outside of Washington, and the first day I put the garage door opener on the visor of my car for the first time in my life, it was sort of a religious experience that I’d … that I’d realized America. I don’t think I’m particularly, I’m not a street fighter type. There are some columnists who are street fighter types … Jimmy Breslin … the late Michael Kelly, from left and right, were that. I am someone who tries, who grew up as a Liberal, has a lot of Liberal friends today, probably more Liberal friends than Conservative friends, so I’m some one who respects the other side and I don’t hate people for disagreeing with me. If there’s a politeness to my guise, that just comes out of a genuine affection for people like Mark Shields on the NewsHour.
When you’re alone writing, however, some of that affection is not as immediate to you. And you do get a little hyped up. I know many journalists who are incredibly polite in person. And then when you read their stuff, it’s just reading … you know, you’re reading a cannon coming at you. So there is that easy temptation when you’re writing alone in a room let alone E-mailing alone in a room, to just let it all hang out and get a little nastier. And that nastiness I should finally add is a product … in part of laziness. Because it’s much easier to write well at full bore and have that muzzle velocity going than it is to write well, and engagingly with a little nuance.
HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting because yesterday in The New York Times, if I can find it here among all of my different papers relating to David Brooks … you indicated that, indeed, something else has happened in this country …
HEFFNER: … and that is … here it is … you on the left … God knows why …
HEFFNER: … and Krugman on the right … God knows why … but you write about the Presidency wars and you ask, to start with, “have you noticed that we’ve moved from the age of the cultural wars to the age of the presidency wars.” And the Presidency wars, according to what you write, are much more down and dirty.
BROOKS: Yeah. I think that’s true. The cultural wars were about something. Essentially they were about the sixties, so you had people on the Right who thought the sixties were a destructive cultural influence in the US. People on the Left who thought it was a liberating influence. And you had a series of debates, some of it quite nasty, as anybody who lived through them … read “Closing of the America Mind” by Allan Bloom; lived through the cannon wars in the Universities. You really had a debate and sometimes it was quite hostile, but it was about something.
When you have … what you have today is … starts off with a legitimate policy disagreement about things like Iraq and tax cuts. But … which is fine, which I’m happy with. But then it bleeds into a level of personal animosity, cultural resentment, so it transcends idea and politics. And so we get, on the bestseller lists, books in the Clinton era, about Bill Clinton, by people like Anne Coulter. Books now in the Bush era about people like Michael Moore and Molly Ivins and Al Franken, which are not about politics, its just expressions of hatred for the other side.
And I really don’t think I was criticizing … somebody said on the blog and you sort of implied in the Introduction that it was me against Krugman. And I, I did not have him in mind at all because if there’s anybody in American journalism who has shown that his disagreement is policy driven, it’s Paul Krugman.
I mean he has written about Bush’s policies to death. I mean just relentless attacks or criticism of the Bush policy. I have no trouble with harsh attacks on policy. What happens now is, and I saw it in my E-mails after that column appeared, people just hate the guy. And I quote a New Republic writer “who just hate him because he reminds him of somebody he knew in high school”.
And it’s just … leads to a resentment that is divorced from policy, just hatred romping around on its own. And that leads to a set of mental patterns and the mental patterns are first you believe everything bad about the guy and no conspiracy theory is beyond the pale, and on the Right there were people, you know, in the Clinton era, talking about Clinton and murders, drug running out of Mina Airport. Now you have people on the Left saying Bush went to war because he thought it would be good for him politically. Ted Kennedy saying that. And that’s, that stuff is just craziness.
Most people in politics, most people in both Administrations … Clinton and Bush are well-intentioned, patriotic people and you’ve got to deal with them and understand their good intentions. You may disagree, you may hate what they do, which is fine. But you’ve got to grant them that essential decency, which I think is there and which the haters will never grant. And I don’t know why they’ll never grant it, but they never will.
HEFFNER: But you know, we don’t want to drop it at that, “the haters won’t grant it” and yes, we’ve got to understand a) why there are so many haters today and why there has been this shift from politics to hatred. But you know never in a moment, never for a moment did I think that you were zinging Krugman. I’ve read him too long to …
HEFFNER: … not to know that you wouldn’t put him in that category. But you … it’s so interesting to me … at the end of your piece “and for those who are going to make the obvious point, yes, I did say some of these things during the Clinton years when it was Conservatives bashing a Democrat. But not loudly enough I regret. Because the weeds that were once on the edge of public life, now threaten to choke off the whole thing.”
HEFFNER: That’s a beautiful statement of the point.
BROOKS: Yeah, well, in the 1990s there were people like Dan Burton a Congressman. Bob Barr, another Congressman and many people in the journalistic community, in the opinion journalistic community, who were not only criticizing Clinton for lying under oath, criticizing the way he treated Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff; they were talking about … as I said… they were talking, you know, dead bodies found on the tracks. They were talking about who moved Vince Foster’s body. And that was beyond the pale. And I never took part, on NPR and on the NewsHour and in print … I made gestures that this was just ridiculous.
But I never stood out and said, “Hey guys this is out of control. It was never one of these, you know … I, I … it was more like “I’m not going to be involved in this.” But it was not, “this is bad for us as Conservatives, this is bad for the country”. I never made that aggressive statement. Which I now regret, not because it would have made any difference, but would have given me more credibility now to say, when I find it on the Left, “this is bad for the country, this is not discourse, this is a level of, you know, Orwellian group hatred.”
So I regret it from that point of view that I didn’t recognize that the problem, which was once confined to the Dan Burtons and the Bob Barrs and the Ann Coulters of the world, would spread in among people like Teddy Kennedy making the statements he just made at one of the most respected figures of the Democratic Party and nobody, nobody criticizes him for it within that party.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you about that. Do you think it is beyond possibility that that was a statement of belief rather than a statement of personal pique. That it was a statement of policy?
BROOKS: Well, what he said was that the, the war in Iraq was hatched up in Texas for the Republicans political benefit. To me there’s no bit of evidence that supports that. And there’s plenty of counter-evidence … I mean how do you explain the fact that Tony Blair was involved and fully supported the war? The essential thing Ted Kennedy is saying is “no one could have supported this out of good intentions. Or the President didn’t support this out of good intentions.”
The Presidents do not sincerely believe that going into Iraq would help us in the war on terror, would help liberate the people, would help transform the Middle East …to me those were all the real reasons he did it.
HEFFNER: Or he is saying that “I believe that the President did it for these reasons.” Which you would say, on principle, is acceptable.
BROOKS: Well, he can believe it. But when you’re going to make statements like that, which is essentially accusing the President of murder to win elections, murdering the 200 odd US service men and women who have been killed, murdering the people who have been involved in the war on either side; if you’re going to make that charge and you’re a major politician, you better actually have some evidence.
He’s, he’s accusing the President of doing an act of treason which is worse than any thing anybody’s ever done in this country.
HEFFNER: But look … wait just a minute with that. Isn’t that a matter of where we have come in the hyperbolic use of our language? To say, to say that Franklin Roosevelt led us into war, that Abraham Lincoln developed a strategy of defense so that the war would come when it did. Those aren’t accusations … well, on the part of some they were … but they, they’re statements of what one believes because there are those who feel that the national interest requires this, that or the other thing. And clearly Bush felt that the national interest required this.
BROOKS: Right. Well, that’s … that’s my point … that Bush felt the national interest required this. FDR felt the national interests required him behaving the way he did. Lincoln felt the national interests … but Kennedy is saying something different. He’s saying he is sacrificing the national interests to the interests of the Republican Party. And other people have said they sacrifice it the interests of Halliburton or the oil barons. When I just think if you’re going to make a charge like that, you really are … that’s the atomic bomb of public discourse.
HEFFNER: Where did …where did that all begin? With the atomic bomb?
BROOKS: No. There’s always been hatred, if you go back through American history, you know …
BROOKS: … the Founders …
HEFFNER: The New Yorker cartoon? Let’s go down to TransLux and hiss Roosevelt …
BROOKS: [Laughter] Right. And there was certainly hatred of Roosevelt; certainly Hamilton and Jefferson hated each other. Certainly hatred of Nixon. Some hatred of Reagan, though I think that was more policy based. People thought he was an ideologue; people thought he was dumb. But it was not, it was not what it is now. And I, I, I’d say the change came one for a historical reason and one for a demographic reason.
The historical reason I would say is Gingrich. That in destroying the Democratic Majority in the house, he opened American politics up to a style of discourse. And, again, I was with him in some of this, but …which has now become mainstream. The second thing and it’s more paradoxical is … the paradox is, as Americans get better educated they become more ideological.
The theory of education is that it opens us so we can all think independently; we can all make up our mind. But the voting patterns are incredibly clear. If you have a college degree or a graduate degree and as the American electorate has more people with college degrees and graduate degrees, you get more ticket … straight ticket voting; you get less independent voting. You get a lot of people who call themselves “Independents”, who don’t register with either party, but if you look at how those people actually vote, they vote straight ticket.
They are Liberal or Conservative, they’re Republican or Democrat and they’re more pure in their voting and they are more separated from people of opposing views. So if you grew up here where we’re sitting in New York you may not meet too many Conservatives. If you grew up in Midland, Texas, you may not meet too many Liberals. And you develop these exaggerated views of the awfulness of the other side.
HEFFNER: I’m interested that you relate this, or you see a line with education. What should we do …
BROOKS: Well, that’s, that’s a question.
HEFFNER: Take them out from school?
BROOKS: I looked at some, some data originally of the electorate going back to 1960 when Kennedy was elected, and I’m going to mis-remember the exact facts … but roughly a third of the electorate then had less than a high school degree; now it’s four percent. Roughly 20% of the electorate had been to college at some point, now it’s, you now, its almost 50% of the electorate. So the electorate has changed; this is a huge fact in the way our politics has evolved. And the idealism, the thing you would think is that it would have made our politics more thoughtful. But I’m not sure that’s the case.
HEFFNER: Are you commenting then, as you did the other day, in one of your OpEd pieces in the Times on something about the universities that you don’t like.
BROOKS: Well I think that was a separate issue. This is just a fact of how people are now more ideological. There used to be …this first fact is … there used to be a lot of Conservatives in the Democratic Party. There used to be a lot of Liberals in the Republican Party. As … over the last 20 years, for whatever reason, that’s no longer the case. There are not these internal checks in the parties and so they polarize and American politics has polarized and that’s sort of a breeding ground to what I’m talking about.
HEFFNER: Doesn’t that feel like the key point? That you relate to Gingrich and the polarization there are many people … many political scientists, I know and you know who would cheer the fact of this polarization. “Let’s finally have a party of the Left and let’s finally have a party of the Right.” What do you think about that?
BROOKS: And the perversity is … I don’t share it … the perversity is … it’s a … it’s now an argument about ideas, rather than an argument of interests. I think when they were less … a less educated electorate, there were a lot of Southern Conservatives in the Democratic party, not because they necessarily agreed with what the Northern Liberals were, were saying, but there’d always been Democrats; the party structure where they lived was Democratic, so it’s just a matter of their interest in protecting their neighborhood, protecting their interests to have this Democratic structure.
But over the last 20 years, Conservatives have now shifted over to the Republican Party and you know all these party switches. Liberals who used to be Liberal Republicans in upscale suburbs like Greenwich, Connecticut have shifted over to the Democrats. And so now there really is two more ideologically based parties. I don’t share it, actually. I just think it has led to, you know, it’s led to what you see on cable TV with, you know “Hollywood Squares” programs and you got the Liberal and Conservative and its led to an unfamiliarity with the other side, which to me is the biggest problem.
HEFFNER: And you feel it leads to a greater meanness of spirit?
BROOKS: Well, because people don’t know anybody who disagrees with them. And they’re constantly, at dinner parties where they’re stunned that somebody … they should be constantly at dinner parties where they meet people who voted for Ronald Regan, voted for George Bush, voted for Ralph Nader, or would vote for Howard Dean. But often because of the way we’ve segmented ourselves off, they were never in these situations and so they lose touch with the humanity of people on the other side.
HEFFNER: So, you’re a pessimist. Because it can only get worse.
BROOKS: Well, you know, people correct, people correct things. One could have been a pessimist about civil society when the “Bowling Alone” book came out about four years ago. And yet I just say a poll result of … by the Home Builders Association which says, “what do you want when you go out to the suburbs and want a development?”. In the nineties people wanted a golf course. But today they want a Kinkos, a Starbucks, parks, walking trails, they want community. And my point is that when people … they go off in a social direction that they wake up and find is wrong for them, they correct.
And I … one senses there’s a … an urge to correct the polarization out there among a lot of people. The question is whether those people will buy books so that the New York Times Bestseller list will not look like Anne Coulter next to Michael Moore. And nothing else in between on that list.
HEFFNER: You know, going back to your making of the point about the change from ideas to personalities, if I may, one can usually get away with referring to his own book … when I wrote about the … the last chapter of my Documentary History of the United States, the 50th anniversary edition … when I wrote about Clinton, I was ready to say the victim of both his own self-inflicted wounds and of a clearly unpopular attempt at a veritable coup d’etat, you may not agree with that.
But then I wrote, and I think you do agree with this, “even before his election, Clinton has been handicapped by an unconscienceable media feeding frenzy concerning the kinds of reports and rumors about his private life that earlier American leaders had never been forced … before, been forced to endure.” And I felt, besides the new President and his articulate, activist wife, had been too quickly demeaned by bitter opponents in both parties as symbols of America’s cultural and behavioral revolution, stemming from the radical 1960s.” Isn’t this just a continuation of the sixties?
HEFFNER: Isn’t that what you …
BROOKS: … what I say in the “Comments”, it’s a continuation and also different. Because in some ways Clinton was saddled with the sixties and people who hated the Clintons somehow hated the sixties and Bush is a person who sat out the sixties. And is seen by many people as a fifties person. Or someone who just wasn’t involved. And in some sense this is a continuation of the cultural wars by stupider means. [Laughter] But, on the other hand, I think if you quickly lose … you’re so far removed from whatever the sixties were about that it’s just … the hatred, it becomes more personal animosities … “I just hate the way that guy talks. I hate the way I can’t bear to look at him on TV.”
I mean when you have arguments about the sixties … arguments about feminism, arguments about progressive education, arguments about affirmative action, you’re really talking about something. One of the points I tried to make in the books, in the Cultural Wars … there were a lot of very good books, serious books published during that time about that controversy. The books today are terrible about the Presidency, by and large. Not all of them, but most of them. Because they’re just effusions of “gee, aren’t we right?”
HEFFNER: But then, what’s the significance, in your thinking, in your mind of that almost “even-stevens” split in the last national election?
BROOKS: Right. Well, this … why has there been an even split? I would say it’s because the two parties have been so stable for so long …
BROOKS: Yeah, they’ve been ideologically reasonably … they’ve been fighting over similar arguments for the same time, which, at least I think is probably still true, which is the big government/small government argument. And that argument has been the central defining argument of American politics, at least until September 11th, for 40 years. And so the two parties had hit, basically a World War I style equilibrium point where each of them were at 49% of the electorate. If you go to the 2000 election which was obviously a tied election. The 1998 election … if you add up all the legislative votes in the 1996 election, you got 49/49 … not only in the Presidential level, but on the Congressional level, if we add up all those votes … on the State legislature level … it’s, it’s uncanny how tied it was.
Now in 2002 the Republicans took a little advantage …they got a five point lead … it was about 52/47. But I’m not sure how permanent that is. That may be just because a lot of Democrats didn’t show up in that election. And we could be back around 50/50 at this next Presidential election. And I think that’s because American politics has been about the same argument for such a long time, the parties have developed their trenches, they’re stuck in their trenches, if they stick their head out of their trenches, they know it’s going to get shot off, so they do the predictable thing and they become very orthodox.
And some candidates try to change that orthodoxy …John McCain tried and failed. In some ways Howard Dean is trying. And we’ll see if they really can change the orthodoxy.
HEFFNER: You count yourself as a Conservative. And I hope … our time is running out … and I hope that when it does run out … you’ll stay where you are so we can go back to the question … I was quite intrigued by your describing yourself as a Liberal from New York, who is now a Conservative from suburban Washington and I want to ask about that sea change, but, but first what’s your, what’s your guess as to what will happen in the Democratic Party? We know, assume, what will happen in the Republican Party this next time around?
BROOKS: Right. I would say obviously Howard Dean and Wesley Clark are the two generating excitement at the moment, for different reasons. I would not count out … I’m beginning to think some of the old line politicians who have actually served in government …John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, should not be ruled out. I’m beginning to think that in six months or just before the primary season, it’s possible to see a shift away from the flavors of the month, back to people who’ve actually been there. And I think in particular, Dick Gephardt is running a very good campaign.
HEFFNER: Why do you think that shift will take place?
BROOKS: Because I think at the end of the day there will be a tiring of Dean. He will always have a firm anti-war support; but I think you’ll get a lot of people who were not interested in the campaign this early because they’re not sort of professional activists; they don’t think about this all the time. But who are moderate and liberal democrats, who will say, “you know, this really is a tough period. What happens, what this next President does … it’s not only that I have to agree with him, he has to get it done correctly. He has to get things done correctly, and these people have … will say, ‘I may agree with Bush about the war, but he’s not doing it correctly, I want somebody who can do it correctly’.” And then the people … the professional and the more experienced politicians, will have a leg up and particularly Dick Gephhardt, I would say, because he has been there, he’s been through all the fights. He knows how Washington works, he knows how to get something done in Congress and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a resurgence of some of the people we’re now dismissing.
HEFFNER: Is this a bone from within?
BROOKS: Well, no … I think it’s …
HEFFNER: On your part?
BROOKS: On my part, sometimes I’m just an analyst. It’s not what I want or don’t want, I’m just interested in the process and just how I think it will go.
HEFFNER: You think literally that Gephardt could …
BROOKS: Yeah …
HEFFNER: … prevail … has a better chance …
BROOKS: …he’s running a very serious and good campaign. If I were a voter I’d vote for Joe Lieberman. But, but just looking at professionally, at people, what kind of campaigns people are running … Gephardt hasn’t been able to raise money because he hasn’t been able to excite the activists. But among your regular Democrats …
HEFFNER: 30 seconds … why would you vote for Joe Lieberman?
BROOKS: Well, I agreed with him on Iraq. I think he’s a very good person, he’s a humble person. I think he doesn’t know how Washington works and has shown … like McCain … a level of, of independence. And, as we’ve been talking about this whole time … the new problem in Washington is party spirit … dogmatic, idea that “we’re right, they’re wrong”, Lieberman is not like that. He’s willing to cross lines much more easily than just about any other politician in Washington.
HEFFNER: David Brooks, this is the time when we come to an end now … stay where you are and we’ll do another program … and come back to that switch in time that saved what when you went from Liberal to Conservative. Thanks for joining me today.
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.