Appearing on MSNBC Live (6/2/08), New York Times columnist David Brooks said that though Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy represented a “big historic movement,” the candidate may lack the common touch:
The magic is not felt by a lot of people. It’s not felt, obviously, by a lot of less educated people, downscale people. They just look at Obama, and they don’t see anything. And so, Obama’s problem is he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who could go into an Applebee’s salad bar, and people think he fits in naturally there.
The fact that Applebee’s doesn’t have salad bars was immediately pounced upon by, among others, Jon Stewart (Daily Show, 6/11/08), who cracked, “Clearly David Brooks is a man of the people who knows Obama would never fit in at an Applebee’s salad bar, or the McDonald’s beer garden, or a Wal-Mart observatory.”
The error wouldn’t be a big deal, except that Brooks presents himself as a man of the people—or at least their folksy sociologist—and as an expert on Applebee’s and other chain outlets. Red Lobster, Sam’s Club, Home Depot and the like occupy a totemic position in the columnist’s worldview; in Brooksian pop sociology, they are places where authentic Americans, small town and exurban folk, gather to dine—and, apparently, gauge the authenticity of their political candidates. Never mind that Manhattan, New York, has three times as many Applebee’s restaurants as Manhattan, Kansas.
Brooks is the op-ed advocate for hard-working heartlanders living beyond the elite coastal and urban areas where Barack Obama’s appeal lies. Where the salt of the earth have more kids, go to church more often, and vote more conservatively than Obama supporters (and are apparently whiter than those in the less authentic areas—Extra!, 3-4/05).
The Obama-as-elitist theme is a common one for Brooks, who asked on PBS’s NewsHour (4/18/08) if Obama “actually get[s] the way we live.” How a Manhattan-raised, University of Chicago-educated New York Times columnist who currently lives in an upscale D.C. suburb could question Obama’s elite position from the point of view of the common folk is pure mystery.
But what about Brooks’ larger point, that Obama has a problem connecting with the common folk? Whatever Obama’s failings in this regard, it would appear to be a larger problem for Brooks’ preferred candidate, John McCain, who finishes behind Obama in polls measuring how well the candidates fit in or connect with the public. According to an AP/Yahoo! poll (6/13-23/08) asking respondents which candidate they would most like to have at their summer barbecue, Obama bested McCain 52 percent to 45 percent. A Time poll of likely voters (6/18-25/08) found 58 percent of respondents saying Obama was more likable, compared to 23 percent for McCain. And Obama came out well ahead when a USA Today/Gallup poll (6/15-19/08) asked which candidate better “understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives” (54 percent to 29 percent) and which “cares about the needs of people like you” (52 percent to 30 percent).
But mere polling numbers are unlikely to change Brooks’ mind, or to get him to write about how McCain may not be connecting with real people. As Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald pointed out (9/25/07), Brooks and pundits like him share a penchant for automatically assuming, often against the evidence, that their views are shared by the public:
Beltway pundits believe that they are representative of, anointed spokespeople for, the Average Real American, and thus, whatever the pundit’s belief is about an issue is—in their insular, self-loving minds—a far more reliable indicator of what “Americans believe” than something as tawdry as polling data.
Brooks is more than occasionally inaccurate, and he is sometimes defiantly so, as journalist Sasha Issenberg found when he fact checked Brooks in a Philadelphia magazine exposé (4/04), “Boo-Boos in Paradise.” Issenberg concluded that “many of his generalizations are false” about “red state” and “blue state” differences.
Among the many assertions that Issenberg debunked was Brooks’ claim (Atlantic, 12/01) that after scouring local menus in Republican-leaning Franklin County, Pennsylvania and asking locals where to find the most expensive entrees, he still found it was impossible to spend as much as $20 for a restaurant meal:
I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu—steak au jus, “slippery beef pot pie,” or whatever—I always failed.
But when Issenberg retraced Brooks’ steps through Franklin County three years later, he found more than one restaurant with meals well over $20 on its menu, including a Red Lobster that Brooks claimed to have visited that featured a $28.75 entree, and a local inn that had a $50 prix-fixe dinner—with veal medallions, not pot pie. “As I made my journey,” wrote Issenberg, “it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home.”
When he contacted Brooks to ask about the discrepancies, including the Red Lobster problem, Brooks accused Issenberg of being “too pedantic,” “taking all of this too literally” and of “taking a joke and distorting it,” before becoming downright surly and calling him “unethical” and questioning his honesty. According to Issenberg’s account of the conversation, Brooks concluded with a mixture of defiance and condescension:
This is dishonest research. You’re not approaching the piece in the spirit of an honest reporter. . . . Is this how you’re going to start your career? I mean, really, doing this sort of piece? I used to do ’em, I know ’em, how one starts, but it’s just something you’ll mature beyond.
One hopes Issenberg won’t mature beyond valuing accuracy in journalism. Remarking on a journalism trend where he sees genuine intellectual discussion increasingly replaced by shallow intellectual faddishness, Issenberg wrote:
This culture shift has rewarded Brooks, who translates echt nerd appearance (glasses, toothy grin, blue blazer) and intellectual bearing into journalistic credibility, which allows him to take amusing dinner-party chatter—Was that map an electoral-college breakdown or a marketing plan for Mighty Aphrodite?—and sell it to editors as well-argued wisdom on American society. Brooks satisfies the features desk’s appetite for scholarly authority in much the same way that Jayson Blair fed the newsroom’s compulsion for scoops.