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So What Do You Do, David Brooks?

The New York Times op-ed columnist on his new book, his old one, and how badly liberals are treating their allegedly favorite conservative.

- June 22, 2004

David Brooks has just about had it with the bobos. The New York Times op-ed columnist may have coined the nickname for so-called "bourgeois bohemians" in his 2000 bestseller, Bobos in Paradise, but his bobo critics haven't been kind to its follow-up, this summer's On Paradise Drive. Both books attempt to trace the sociological contours of upper-middle-class America, the first focusing on cheerful, middle-aged liberals in the Northeast, and the latter on cheerful middle-aged conservatives in the multiplying "exurbs" of the Southwest. While Bobos attracted great reviews, this time around Michael Kinsley delivered a 2,000-word smackdown of Paradise in The New York Times Book Review—Brooks's own paper!—accusing him of the mortal sins of jokiness and generalizations. But Kinsley admitted the real reason liberals feel betrayed by Brooks in the first paragraph of his review: "Liberals suspect that a writer as amiable as Brooks must be a liberal at heart." He's not, as he proves twice a week on the Times op-ed page. This, Kinsley wrote, is his "prize for being the liberals' favorite conservative." If so, Brooks thinks they have a funny way of showing it.

Birthdate: August 11, 1961
Hometown: Born in Toronto, raised in New York City
First section of the Sunday Times: "I always told myself that if I ever gave up reading the sports page first, I'd have to retire."

Tell me about your career—how does one end up on the op-ed page of The New York Times?
I worked as a columnist at my school paper, at the University of Chicago, and then I worked for a free Southside weekly in Chicago, which didn't last long. Then I worked for the City News Bureau, which is the legendary police-reporting wire service owned by the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. Then I went from covering rapes on the Southside to the National Review, and that's sort of my most interesting story. When I was at Chicago writing a humor column, I wrote a parody of Bill Buckley's life, and he said to an audience in Chicago, "David Brooks, if you're in the audience, I'd like to offer you a job." Three years later I'd gotten a little more conservative, so I called him and asked, "Is the offer still open?"

I went to work at the National Review for a year, and then I went to work at The Washington Times, where I did some work as a movie critic and editorial writer. During that time I started writing magazine pieces about the supply-side movement, and I was hired to be a book-review editor at The Wall Street Journal in 1985. So I worked there as a book-review editor, then editorial page correspondent in Europe for four years, then as op-ed editor. I'd done that for a year-and-a half when my friends, along with Rupert Murdoch, started a magazine: The Weekly Standard. And I thought it would be fun to hang around my friends. So I moved down to Washington to do that.

How did you develop the ideas of On Paradise Drive? I recognized many of them—"Patio Man," "Red & Blue America," "The Organization Kid," etc.—from your recent magazine pieces. Did you start with a thesis and explore it in magazines, or did writing the stories lead you to your concept?
A little of both. While I was touring for the last book, I found millions of places where nobody ate organic vegetables. And at the same time there was all this growth out in the suburbs. So I thought, "Why don't I write about these people, who are very much mainstream Americans?" Then 9/11 happened, which made American identity seem more important to me. And then it was sort of an evolution of my being curious about this while working at magazines, so it led to a bunch of magazine pieces. But it was also part of a general interest that I thought I would probably get a book out of it.

Are you worried about being a one-trick pony? There's a groundswell of pop sociology books out right now, and you seem to be the leader of this cottage industry.
I think people like reading about themselves. In the '50s and '60s, there was a whole bunch of these books about popular sociology, and it just sort of died away after that, which I thought was weird. So I think we're returning to a more normal state. As for me, I think I've probably run the string out on this kind of book. I think the Kinsley review showed that people are less inclined to want this kind of book from me. They see me as political, and they're less willing to play along, especially if they don't share my political views. I think the reality is I just can't do this kind of book anymore.

What do you think of your "liberals' favorite conservative" title? Did you make a deal with yourself to embrace that role when you took the Times job?
I'm a New Yorker, I'm Jewish, and my style of conservatism is sort of Teddy Roosevelt's style, or Alexander Hamilton's style, and that's who I am. That sometimes puts me two-thirds of the way in the normal conservative camp and one-third of the way out, and I think that's one of the reasons why I'm culturally liberals' favorite conservative. I'm from the Northeast; I'm not a big-hair guy from Texas.

Do you think Bobos in particular cemented that stereotype? Because you seemed to be writing about liberals, or at least how liberals saw themselves?
I didn't think of it at the time as being about liberals. They've turned more liberal because of Bush and the war. But I didn't think of that as a political book. I don't see On Paradise Drive as a political book—I don't think the words "George Bush" or "Iraq" appear in it. It's turned out in the reviews that the reviewers who have identified themselves as liberals have been much more negative about the books than about the people who have identified themselves as conservatives. It may just be a fact that in a polarized age you just can't write nonpolitical books anymore if you have my job.

How does the media class fit into your scheme of things? It seems to me they'd be contemptuous of the people featured in On Paradise Drive—the super-prosperous neo-suburban families.
If there's a generalization of the media class, it's that it tends to be more urban than the rest of the country. I think that while the media's done a much better job in the past four or five of covering religion, there's still a ways to go. Pentecostalism is the most important social movement of the 20th century. There were zero Pentecostals in the world in 1900. Now there are 500 million. If you went to a newsroom and asked, "What's a Pentecostal?" not many people would give you an intelligent answer. And one of the things I've tried to do in this book is try to understand why people move to these "exurbs." They get castigated as these vacuous sprawl zones, and I think there's an easy put-down of the people who live there—they're supposedly shallow, materialistic, complacent. I think it's a lot more complicated why people move out to places like that.

Can the media understand that? Do we need to embed top editors and producers in the heartland before we can fix this?
I'm for ideological and cultural diversity. I still think there's not enough. If you walk through Conde Nast or walk through any large corporation, there aren't enough Pentecostals, not enough conservatives. There's just not much of a media landscape that looks like America. I'm not sure I'm the answer either, because I'm from New York.

When Philadelphia magazine sent a reporter to exurban Pennsylvania, where you had set a number of first-hand anecdotes about life in semi-rural, "red" America, the reporter discovered a list of small inaccuracies and overreaching generalizations. On the one hand, it was extremely petty. On the other, it raises questions about your methodology.
A couple of things. First, if you applied that sort of standard or investigation to any story, you couldn't do anything except straight sociological treatises. You couldn't do any humor, any sort of broad writing. In the Atlantic piece—my red/blue piece that he analyzed—90 percent was straight, and heavily fact-checked by the Atlantic, and most of his examples were drawn from this initial, broad riff I opened the piece with. And in some cases I thought he got things exactly wrong and he knew he got them wrong. I made a joke about there being more book stores in blue America than red America, and he says I got that wrong. But that's just not true.

There were some things where my writing was overly careless. Out of all the facts in that piece, I'm not sure these were the damning ones that any fair-minded person would pull out to analyze that piece. I think he was being picky. But that's the difference between being a Times columnist and not. When you get up to being a Times columnist—especially if you're a conservative—there's just going to be a greater tendency to want to pull you down. So that piece was not written out of any fair investigation of who I am, it was a piece to try to pull me down a peg. And there's just going to be more of that. But that's life. It comes with the territory.

What's the reader response to these passages? Being a Midwest-bred, New York-dwelling liberal, all of your cracks about the heartland ring true to me. Do some people say, "That's exactly right," or "That's not true at all?"
Most people seemed to say I get the feel of things right. Some people say I got it wrong. That sort of style is imprecise—you're describing a mood or a zeitgeist of a place, and there's inevitably a level of imprecision you can't capture in sociological data. The reader has to be willing to play along and sort of laugh or not laugh, and say that's right or that's wrong. It's written in a playful manner and has to be read in a playful manner. If someone's coming to do a hit-job, you're leaving yourself vulnerable for somebody who doesn't want to play along, who wants to be hostile.

One of the things I've noticed with this book and my new status, is that it's been positively reviewed by most people who were conservative or didn't declare their political allegiance, and negatively reviewed by most people who've declared their liberalism. It could just be that we're in a war, and Abu Ghraib and all that, and they don't want to play along. They're not in the mood to be amused by me. Look at my Amazon.com page, and there are two or three reviews that mention Ahmed Chalabi. I've never met Chalabi, I don't think I've ever written about Chalabi. There are a bunch of people who attack me for supposedly being a part of the war cabal. Whatever I write, they're just not in the mood to be amused by me, because they're angry about this or that.

On the flip side, do conservatives see you as being part of the liberal media machinery? Do you get tarred from both sides?
I do, but not so much from conservatives. Those who know me know that I'm a sort of Teddy Roosevelt in any case, so they didn't expect me to be Robert Novak. There is criticism from the right, but I happen to think—maybe I just feel it from where I'm sitting—that the rage is mostly from the left these days. The right is more or less in power, and therefore they're less enraged at the world. And you sort of know the Bush Administration has screwed up a few things, so they're not in the mood to be rageful. They're in the mood to be self-lacerating. One of the things that's been striking about this job is the number of people who call me in the middle of night and leave messages insulting me one way after another. There's just a level of howling that goes on that I haven't encountered before.

What are you writing about next? If you're done with the bobos, what's the next big thing?
I'm not writing a book these days. I'm just going to work on the column. In theory, I'd like to write another book, but I've obviously got to wait to see how Iraq winds up, how the election winds up, how the culture war winds up.

Do you want to do an even-bigger picture book then?
I haven't really thought about it. I'd like to find a subject that really engages me. Thomas Friedman has done books on globalization, because he's found a big subject that engages him. I don't think I'd do it on foreign policy. Maybe I'll find a domestic policy issue that really engages me. The problem is that for it to work, I'd want the book to sell, and at the moment, only the political sells. The only nonfiction books that sell—

—Are the pure vitriol adhering to party lines.
I'd rather shoot myself. I don't want to write that kind of book, and maybe it's just the wrong climate for the kind of book I want to write. In which case, I'll just play with my kids.

Greg Lindsay is a freelance writer who has covered media for Inside.com and Women's Wear Daily. You can buy On Paradise Drive at Amazon.com.



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