Sep 1 2008

David Brooks vs. the Real World

Columnist dreams up his own reality

David Brooks--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Miller_Center

David Brooks (cc photo: Miller Center)

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.

‘Dishonest research’

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.

‘Prescient’ on Iraq?

Since Brooks emerged as a national pundit, there has been no more dominant story than that of the Iraq War—and Brooks has not distinguished himself on the subject. In his war commentary, which has been fraught with contradiction, Brooks has taken a succession of positions, quietly jettisoning each as mounting facts made them untenable, with little or no acknowledgment that those abandoned positions had been mistaken.

While still at Rupert Murdoch’s neo-conservative Weekly Standard, Brooks signed on early to the Iraq War cause, hawking White House WMD deceptions relentlessly. He accused war skeptics of living in “the fog of peace” (9/30/02), heedless of the consequences if Saddam Hussein were “permitted to remain in power in Baghdad, working away on his biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs.” Brooks (London Times, 3/7/03) cheered George W. Bush for his “reckless tendency not to be murky, hesitant or evasive,” and attacked those who weren’t so sure about an invasion.

The day Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad (Daily Standard, 4/9/03), Brooks was full of triumphant bravado, assailing doubters as “tolerant of tyranny,” while hailing some of the very war planners he would later disdain as incompetent:

I’m glad that the much maligned hawks are around to watch the images of Saddam’s statue falling and the torture chambers emptying. Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld deserve their share of the glory.

Once Brooks landed a coveted slot on the Times op-ed page, and it was becoming clear the war was a disaster based on falsehoods, he tried to put a positive spin on the White House deception and incompetence. The mistakes did not result from low motives, as so many were beginning to believe, but were due to a surplus of White House idealism. Still identifying with the policy, and employing the royal “we,” Brooks wrote off the whole thing as a matter of Bush administration innocence (New York Times, 5/11/04):

We were so sure we were using our might for noble purposes, we assumed that sooner or later, everybody else would see that as well. Far from being blinded by greed, we were blinded by idealism.

When the disaster could no longer be rationally denied, Brooks quietly morphed into a White House critic, attacking the administration’s conduct of the war while avoiding mention of his earlier praise. At the same time, as Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher pointed out (3/25/08), Brooks argued (New York Times, 3/16/06) that “prescient” pundits—including war boosters-turned-critics like himself (e.g., David Ignatius, Ralph Peters)—had largely gotten the war right. Looking back on five years of Brooks’ war commentary, Mitchell wrote,

Brooks is among those who have long argued that they actually got the war right, but Donald Rumsfeld made it wrong. In other words, war good, Rummy bad. He has emphasized that he and many of his fellow pundits had it right at the time in urging more boots on the ground. They were “prescient,” he relates. But Rumsfeld and his crowd “got things wrong, and the pundits often got things right.”

In the summer of 2004, touting White House policy (“Bush’s Winning Strategy,” New York Times, 7/3/04), Brooks wrote with sunny optimism about the long-term chances democracy would take root in Iraq:

Iraq now has a popular government with a tough, capable minister. Democratic institutions are emerging, including a culture of compromise. . . . Thanks, in part, to [U.S. administrator Paul] Bremer’s decisiveness, the political transition is going well. . . . This administration can adapt, and stick to a winning strategy once it finds it. . . . The Iraqis really do have a galvanizing hunger for democracy . . . that makes the long-term prospects for success brighter than they appeared a few months ago.

But two years hence (9/24/06), lowering the expectations he’d previously boosted,Brooks described a very different place:

Iraq is the most xenophobic, sexist and reactionary society on the earth . . . . The larger lesson, as we think about future efforts to reform the Middle East and combat extremism, is that the Chinese model probably works best. That is, it’s best to champion economic reform before political reform.

Though he avoids mentioning that he was a major booster of the war at its outset, Brooks hasn’t always been successful in concealing his methods for supporting his arguments. Appearing on a Meet the Press panel (7/22/07) where he argued against withdrawal from Iraq, Brooks suggested that pulling out would cause the deaths of 10,000 Iraqis each month. When co-panelist Bob Woodward challenged the claim, and argued that the outcome couldn’t be predicted, Brooks acknowledged making up the number: “So I just picked that 10,000 out of the air.”

Affable exploitation

David Brooks has parlayed his affable brand of pseudo-scholarly commentary into a cottage industry. In addition to his New York Times column, he appears every Friday night as the conservative voice on PBS’s NewsHour. He’s also a regular commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered and Diane Rehm Show. His relatively soft-spoken and quirky conservative views—he offers a traditionalist position in support of same-sex marriage, and occasionally has something nice to say about a Democrat—have prompted some to dub him the liberals’ favorite conservative.

No one would argue that he is the most consistently right-wing pundit on the New York Times op-ed page, a distinction that belongs to his old boss, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. The problem with Brooks is not his ideology; op-ed pages and political panels should feature voices from varying positions on the right, left and center. His problem is his disdain for reality—for facts that don’t submit to his view of the way things ought to be.

It’s bad enough when he is hoodwinking the public about his stance on the Iraq War, but there’s something even creepier about his myth-making and affected concern for the simple heartland folks. In concocting politically serviceable stories portraying “downscale people” as something akin to noble savages, Brooks goes beyond patronizing condescension into the realm of exploitation.

The attraction that Brooks holds for media decision makers at staid outlets like the New York Times, PBS and NPR is that he is not a shouter, nor perceived as being an ideological extremist. The fact that he reinforces a meme that media hold dear—that people in small towns and exurban areas are more wholesome, religious and politically sensible than those in the brash cities and on the coasts—is an added bonus. That he doesn’t tell the truth about—or worse, exploits—the very people they stoop to idealize is apparently of less concern.

Research assistance provided by Dina Marguerite Jacir.