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David Brooks, Rankling Folks Right and Left
Conservative Pundit Hears It From Both Sides

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008

David Brooks is used to hanging around with liberals -- his wife and three children, among others, support Barack Obama -- but has grown angry at the condescending talk about Sarah Palin.

"Three times someone told me they thought she was trailer trash," the New York Times columnist said.

When it came time to judge the Alaska governor's fitness for high office, however, Brooks watched her ABC interviews and turned thumbs down. "She looked fine," he said, "but not like someone I'd be comfortable with as president in time of war."

An erudite author and talking head, Brooks, 47, is sometimes cast as the left's favorite conservative. At times he seems to delight in taking on his own side, drawing fire from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, and yet he drives some liberals up the wall.

"I look at a lot of commentary, and so much of it is campaign advocacy for one side or another," he said. "That turns me off in a visceral way." Brooks pronounces himself "disappointed" in both Obama and John McCain.

The Palin nomination has been a moment of truth for the right. While many conservatives have embraced her as a fresh-faced reformer, a handful -- David Frum, George Will and Charles Krauthammer among them -- have questioned her meager experience. In the heat of a close election, their defection is as unusual as the small number of liberal columnists who have criticized Obama.

Brooks wrote last week that Palin "has not been engaged in national issues, does not have a repertoire of historic patterns and, like President Bush, she seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness."

Radio host Laura Ingraham distributed an e-mail chiding Brooks for elitism. "Sarah Palin might not have read all the books David Brooks has read, but she has an ability to galvanize an electorate," she says now.

While Ingraham likes Brooks, she describes him as "a conservative intellectual of the East Coast variety who thinks everyone else should be more intellectual. I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't know David who think he's a snob. He spends a lot of time around a lot of people with similar backgrounds."

Brooks often displays his witty side on television, where he has a regular debating slot on PBS's "NewsHour" and appears on such programs as "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation."

"There's a happy tweediness about him," said Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, a regular sparring partner on National Public Radio. "He's half-intellectual, half-'Saturday Night Live.' He veers back and forth between academic studies and great lines from stand-up."

National Review's Frum, a longtime friend, praises "the suppleness of his mind and a really warm personality." As for criticism from the right, Frum said, "David always seems so affable and fun-loving that you assume he's unbothered."

Perhaps Brooks's greatest apostasy was briefly falling for Obama, based on "interviews I had with him before he became the Messiah. I found him tremendously intelligent. I came away thinking, 'Man, he agrees with everything I think.' We talked about Burke and Niebuhr and all the philosophers I really like and he really likes." Republican senators, Brooks said, "viciously pounded me" for his defection.

Brooks hailed Obama for winning the Iowa caucuses, writing in January that he had achieved "something remarkable" and that "Americans are not going to want to see this stopped. When an African-American man is leading a juggernaut to the White House, do you want to be the one to stand up and say No?"

In urging a broader, more moderate GOP, Brooks ran afoul of Limbaugh, who opposed McCain's nomination and called the columnist part of an "establishment" interested only in Beltway influence. "Mr. Brooks, we're trying to save this party," Limbaugh told his listeners.

Within months, Brooks grew disillusioned, calling Obama a combination of "Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier who spent this past winter thrilling the Scarlett Johansson set" and "Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who'd throw you under the truck for votes." But he was hardly a Republican cheerleader: Days before Obama picked his running mate, Brooks urged the choice of Joe Biden as an experienced if loudmouthed lawmaker.

Brooks swooned over McCain during the 2000 campaign ("Even by the standards of the media, I was more worshipful than most"), has dined with him a number of times and admires McCain's closest confidant, Mark Salter. When Brooks criticizes the McCain campaign, the pushback comes "very respectfully," he says, mostly in the form of private e-mails.

The son of two liberal college professors, Brooks grew up in Greenwich Village in the 1960s and was a self-described socialist when he arrived at the University of Chicago. He penned a parody of William F. Buckley that impressed the National Review founder sufficiently to offer him a job. Brooks called and accepted the offer years later, in 1984, by which time he had become a fan of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Brooks was tapped as the Wall Street Journal's op-ed editor after five years in Brussels for the paper, and he joined the Weekly Standard when Rupert Murdoch launched the magazine in 1995. He also made his mark as a cultural observer with the book "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There."

Brooks backed the invasion of Iraq, praising President Bush for remaining "resolute." He says now that "I was too enthusiastic. I betrayed or neglected the core conservative principle that social change is really complicated. Iraqi society was more complex than I anticipated, and the attempt to radically reshape the country was doomed to fall victim to our own ignorance."

But some liberals still view him as a neocon apologist. "No matter what polls or elections show," Salon's Glenn Greenwald wrote last year, "Brooks' overriding goal is to 'prove' that 'most Americans' favor a 'hawkish' foreign policy whereby America will rule the world by military force."

When Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. offered him an op-ed spot soon after the 2003 invasion, Brooks wanted to turn it down, figuring it would be hard to compress his ideas to column length. But, he said, "I had a failure of courage." He enjoyed the increased access and visibility of being a Timesman, but there was a downside.

"Until I took this job, I was never hated on a mass scale," Brooks said.

Within months, he served notice that he was not a cultural right-winger. He wrote a column making the conservative case for gay marriage. Despite such nods to the other side, his fiercest critics are on the left.

"Sometimes liberals get really mad at David because they expect him to know better," Dionne said.

Brooks, who is working on a book about social mobility that includes brain research, admits he is something of a throwback. "This is going to sound pretentious, but I try to be a 1950s public intellectual in 2008, in 800 words."

But he is no ivory-tower thinker. Brooks went to the conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minn., pumps his sources for off-the-record information and has joined conservative pundits in conversations with Bush. Is he too deeply embedded in the establishment? "We have to get close in order to learn things, but not get sucked in," he said. "Sometimes we fall into the trap of sucking up and censoring ourselves."

Whatever his journalistic gifts, not every audience can be persuaded. After Brooks gave a lukewarm review of Obama's convention speech on PBS, his wife, Sarah, texted him from their Bethesda home: "You are crazy. That was great." What was worse, she reported that their 9-year-old son, Aaron, had said: "For the first time, I really disagree with Daddy."

That, Brooks said, "was like a knife stuck in my heart."

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