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The Left's Favorite Righty

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008 9:32 AM

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. Although 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.

Although 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 the 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."

The financial bailout of Wall Street continues to dominate the news -- it does seem that King Henry, to quote Newsweek's cover, is running the government -- and who really knows whether it will cost $700 billion or far more?

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen sees a transformed John McCain:

"I can't help but find it genuinely hilarious to hear McCain rail against the 'Washington culture of lobbying and influence peddling,' blame this culture for the Wall Street crisis, and insist that Obama is 'square in the middle of it.'

"He couldn't be serious. McCain has 177 lobbyists working for him, either as aides, policy advisers, or fundraisers. Of the 177, 83 are Wall Street lobbyists, representing the very financial industry McCain is now railing against. McCain is now condemning influence peddling, while he had a high-priced corporate lobbyist overseeing his campaign strategy and simultaneously doing lobbying work from aboard McCain's campaign bus during the GOP primaries.

"Who's in the middle of the 'Washington culture of lobbying and influence peddling'?

"For that matter, it's downright hysterical to hear McCain say that Obama's judgment has contributed to the crisis. This would be the same McCain who's teamed up with Phil Gramm -- who McCain has suggested would make a fine Treasury Secretary -- and who really does deserve blame for the current mess."

But Michelle Malkin laments "The Death of Fiscal Conservatism":

"Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson . . . said a 'bold' approach was needed to achieve 'stability' in the market.

"Let me translate that. 'Bold' = Massively massive, taxpayer-funded rescue. 'Stability' = Privatizing profits and socializing losses on a scale we have never seen before in our lifetimes.

"I have had it with Pollyanna conservatives who continue to parrot the 'fundamentals of the market are great!' line.

"The fundamentals of the market suck. The fundamentals of capitalism have been sabotaged.

"Yes, yes, crony Democrats are to blame for much of how we got here. You don't need to recite all the talking points back to me. I've been writing about the Fannie/Freddie debacle for years.

"But it is September 19, 2008. And this is a Republican White House presiding over the Mother of All Bailouts."

The editorialists at the Wall Street Journal are gravely disappointed in McCain:

"John McCain has made it clear this week he doesn't understand what's happening on Wall Street any better than Barack Obama does. But on Thursday, he took his populist riffing up a notch and found his scapegoat for financial panic -- Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission . . .

"Wow. 'Betrayed the public's trust.' Was Mr. Cox dishonest? No. He merely changed some minor rules, and didn't change others, on short-selling. String him up! Mr. McCain clearly wants to distance himself from the Bush Administration. But this assault on Mr. Cox is both false and deeply unfair. It's also un-Presidential . . .

"In a crisis, voters want steady, calm leadership, not easy, misleading answers that will do nothing to help. Mr. McCain is sounding like a candidate searching for a political foil rather than a genuine solution. He'll never beat Mr. Obama by running as an angry populist like Al Gore, circa 2000."

On ABC, George Will accused McCain of "un-presidential behavior by a presidential candidate," while Sam Donaldson declared that "the question of age is back on the table." Really?

In the New Republic, Jonathan Chait is still pondering Palin, whom he dubs "Dan Quaylin":

"Ever since John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, I've gotten confused about all the reasons I'm supposed to dislike Barack Obama. The previous reasons, in rough chronological order, were his lack of experience, his empty rhetoric, his flip-flopping, and his 'celebrity.' But Palin has made each one of those critiques moot. The 'celebrity' attack on Obama has a particularly Dada quality right now as starstruck Republicans bask in the charisma of their adorable veep. (Coldest state, hottest governor, read signs at her rallies.) With her hunky husband, touching family life and plucky personal story, she is the candidate of the People. And by People, I mean People magazine . . .

"The main complaint against Palin has been her lack of experience. That's fortunate for her, since 'experience' -- especially measured in a linear way -- fails to capture exactly what Palin lacks. Yes, two years as governor is less than you'd like, as is four years as senator. The real problem, though, is that Palin has no record of thinking about national or international policy . . .

"In lieu of opening Palin to regular questioning from the press corps, of the sort the other three candidates have all undergone many times before, the McCain campaign is helpfully leaking positive appraisals of her studiousness. 'Despite the worries, [Palin] struck many campaign officials as more calm and cerebral than expected,' reported Newsweek. 'She was quick to ask questions, and to 'engage in a back and forth' with briefers.' See, the McCain campaign says she's on the ball. That settles it, right?

"But, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, this admiring appraisal of the prospective veep's intellect struck a familiar chord. With a quick search, I discovered that, indeed, the same was said of Dan Quayle in 1988. Twenty years ago, The Washington Post reported, 'Bush aides, who were getting their first in-depth exposure to Quayle, were impressed by his attention span, the quality of his questions and the facility with which he moved through the agenda.' "

Kos is proud of his fellow liberal bloggers:

"Bloggers and tradmed reporters took a hard look at Sarah Palin and began raking her over the coals for myriad transgressions. She is a liar with theocratic tendencies, sports an intellect that makes Bush look like a Mensa member, and features an obvious fondness for Cheney-style abuses of power. And that's not even the worst of it.

"But then the worriers began to question, 'Why are we focusing on Palin? McCain is getting a pass! We're tilting at windmills, since she's too popular to damage!' We were told to stop talking altogether about Palin, as if ignoring her would remove the spell she had cast on America. This Andrew Sullivan post must've been emailed to me two dozen times by panicked worrywarts. A few bad polls, and people seemed to be losing their minds and sense.

"But we continued to focus on Palin. Republicans were busy trying to build a positive narrative about Palin -- the 'hockey mom' who was so folksy she could 'field dress a moose' and had 'said no to the Bridge to Nowhere and other government waste' and was overflowing with 'small town values'. McCain had shot up in the polls because of Palin. Common sense dictated it would be hard to knock him back down as long as she consolidated her popularity. So we set out to build the negative narratives about Palin. This is stuff straight out of Taking on the System. I have a whole chapter on it, in fact.

"So we focused heavily on Palin, and make no mistake, it's exactly that intense focus that has taken its toll on her numbers." Her approval/disapproval has dropped from 52-35 positive to 42-46 negative.

"That's a shocking 18 21-point collapse in a single week. She went from being just about the most popular person on the top of the ticket, to the (lipstick wearing?) goat."

The MSM also had a role in examining Palin's record. But the NYT ombudsman says its Palin profile was too much about management style and not enough on management results, and the WP ombudsman says its report on a Palin speech on Iraq was flawed.

Now this is just silly. Ed Morrissey has a great blog at Hot Air, but he's really reaching in suggesting that I sided with the McCain campaign against The Post with this adwatch on a commercial in which ex-Fannie Mae chief Franklin Raines was called an Obama adviser:

"His own newspaper has twice reported the relationship between Raines and Obama, and on one of those occasions, Raines was their source . . .

"Howard never mentions these articles. What are we to make of this omission, and of Howard's declaration of the relationship as a 'disputed premise'? It seems that the lesson is that readers shouldn't trust the reporting at The Washington Post. After all, these articles contain no corrections and have not been retracted, and more to the point, never raised an objection from Barack Obama until now."

First, I cited the McCain argument; that's called reporting. Then I noted that Raines himself (in only one Post article, so there was no need to mention others) told reporter Anita Huslin that he had gotten calls from the Obama camp soliciting his views. Now Raines may have been puffing himself up, but even by his own account, he was hardly an Obama "adviser." So the ad was a huge stretch, and so is Morrissey's claim here.

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