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David Brooks Explains More Than He Intended

12/17/2013 03:03 pm ET | Updated Feb 16, 2014

Some Yale students who took David Brooks' faintly self-serving course on "Humility" last year are buzzing about his New York Times column today, which skewers a certain type of elite college student's ambition to become a "Thought Leader."

"The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler," Brooks explains, using his best comic-sociology idiom. "Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited. Month after month, he gets to be a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it's like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts."

Brooks quickly turns some bitter thoughts of his own toward recent college grads -- like those he taught at Yale last year and in 2002 -- who are "networking" desperately to make it as writers but will end up like flies trapped in spider webs of assignments that may earn them some real money but leave them "incapable of thinking outside of consultantese." But then, suddenly, Brooks seems to turn to writing about himself.

The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity. By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.

What makes the column still more revealing and sad is that, far from serving up an older but wiser man's humility, it recycles what Brooks has been saying quite often since even when he was younger and, one might have hoped, less cynical. Read the chapter on "The Intellectual Life" in his breakout book, Bobos in Paradise. It's all there, from youthful networking to end-of-the road emptiness.

Or consider the following excerpts from his columns of 2004 and 2005, about college-grad anxieties. Amid his endless efforts to ingratiate himself to bright undergraduates, Brooks often discloses a cankered, gnawing, neo-connish resentment as dark and deep as the brilliant humor he wields in order to insinuate it into our perceptions of social life. Now, though, this game seems to be circling disturbingly back to Brooks himself.

Brooks began his career looking worshipfully for something solid to believe in, something he tried to find in William F. Buckley and later thought he saw in George Bush and the WASP prep school and collegiate traditions that had shaped both Buckley and Bush and that Brooks had always envied from somewhere just outside the gates. (He attended the University of Chicago, a truly fine university, but never got over having missed out on joining the WASP elite at Yale whose graces he'd glimpsed at the Grace Church elementary school in Manhattan.)

Far more important to Brooks than George Bush himself was a kind of social and personal strength for which Brooks yearned so ardently that he'd projected it onto a whole class: His very first column for The New York Times -- "Bred for Power," September 13, 2003 -- pondered how the old prep schools had forged the Yale-burnished confidence of two of that year's emerging presidential candidates -- not only Bush but also his most prominent challenger at that point, "Howard Brush Dean III," as Brooks made a point of identifying him.

Far from lampooning Dean's privilege -- as he would John Kerry's a few months later, when Kerry had become the actual Democratic nominee -- Brooks credited Dean as well as Bush with an "amazing faith in their gut instincts" and "impregnable" self-esteem. This he attributed to their rigorous rites of passage in the wealthy, reigning Protestant Establishment of their youth.

They and their cohort had become "tough, loyal to each other, and ready to take command without self-doubt," according to a book on the subject that Brooks quoted. But even more revealingly, Brooks added, Bush and Dean "appear unplagued by the sensation, which destroyed Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, that there is some group in society higher than themselves."

That sensation plagues and obsesses Brooks himself. Never mind that it fits Bush imperfectly and that Brooks claimed that it didn't apply at all to the prep-school and Yale-bred candidate who became Bush's Democratic opponent, John Kerry -- or to Ted Kennedy, whom Brooks called a "Chicken Little" for his opposition to the War in Iraq. The heart of Brooks' insight here lies in his mentioning Nixon and Johnson. That signals his struggles with his own inner Richard Nixon and his gnawing anxieties about class, ethnicity, and assimilation.

"The Protestant Establishment is dead now, and nobody wants it back," Brooks claims disingenuously at the end of that column, adding quickly that at least that establishment "did have a formula for producing leaders. Our culture, which is freer and fairer, does not."

He has left, us and himself, with an important question: What can we do if we lack an establishment that's at least cohesive enough to resent, as Nixon resented it?

The problem is that Brooks has been stuck trying to answer that question for almost as long as he has been writing. "I went around looking for well-bred WASPs who would defend WASPdom," he told the Atlantic in 2000, "but they've internalized their own oppression and they don't. I mean, you could make a case that the world of John McCloy and Dean Acheson was a better world than we have now. I half considered making that case. But as a Jewish kid from New York it's not really my place to defend the people who would keep people like me out."

"Not really?" Shortly before 9/11 and barely a year after saying that it wasn't his place to defend the old WASP establishment, Brooks, an editor at the conservative Weekly Standard, wrote "The Organization Kid," a long article for the Atlantic about Princeton that mourned the loss of the old Ivy establishment's character-building ways, foreshadowing his maiden Times column about Bush and Dean.

The article was a sensation in the Ivy colleges, and soon after 9/11, barely a year after praising the old establishment in it, Brooks, an editor at the conservative Weekly Standard, was invited to teach a course at Yale by Donald Kagan, John Gaddis, Charles Hill, and other conservatives who were working to restore Yale's old conduits to that very establishment and to toughen Yale students up for the Iraq War.

Yale offered the perfect place and occasion for Brooks to urge whatever remained of the old establishment to renew itself in its war-making glory under its own legatee, President George W. Bush, Yale Class of 1968. Kagan, Gaddis, and Hill were passionately committed to Bush's grand strategies; Brooks, in a column for the weekly Yale student paper The Herald of Nov. 8 2002, urged Yale students to support the impending war. He admonished campus critics of the war as follows:

...idealism seems in short supply these days, even at Yale. I've been amazed at how many people think we can retreat into the gated community of our affluent campuses and not take action to defeat tyranny abroad. There seems to be a pervasive micromania afoot: We have to think small because grand visions never work, and if we try to champion democracy in Iraq we will only screw it up. This micromania tips over into cynicism, so you hear pseudo-sophisticates say the interest in Iraqi regime change is all about oil -- a concept so detached from the realities of the world petroleum markets that it doesn't bear a minute's scrutiny.

"I don't expect that most people at Yale are going to support the efforts of President George W. Bush, DC '68, to change the Iraqi regime," Brooks concluded. "All I ask is that if there is a war, you rethink your position. Then the principled position will be: Now that we're here, let's do it right. Because at that point the people who truly want to champion democracy in Iraq, rather than just kill Saddam, will need all the help they can get."

So effective were Brooks, Kagan, Gaddis, Hill and their ilk in discrediting and defeating critics of the war like Howard Dean and John Kerry that they helped to stampede Americans into destroying Iraqi hopes and American interests in the Middle East in the grandest strategic foreign-policy blunder in our history. (Here's how it ended, for Iraqis, and for Kagan, Gaddis, and Hill.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Brooks lampooned, hilariously, the hordes of liberal Thought Leaders who rushed to John Kerry's side like Athenian warriors lusting to make something triumphant out of what Brooks called the "melted marshmallow" at the candidate's core. His delight back then in filleting bi-coastal liberals leaves me wondering now what thoughts the "wait staff" must have as it glides through dinners at the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, where people don't bother to talk about what it's like to live in poverty.

Brooks wonders about that, too, now, of course. During the 2008 campaign, he saw that American conservatives were doomed, if not indeed dangerous, because they couldn't reconcile their sincere yearning for ordered, even sacred republican liberty with their knee-jerk obeisance to every whim and riptide of the casino-like financing, consumer marketing juggernaut that's dissolving republican virtues and even sovereignty before their very eyes.

They couldn't keep blaming all this on liberals, feckless and hypocritical though liberal elites can certainly be. Brooks had begun his career by working for William F. Buckley, Jr., who wrote that conservatives "should stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'" But even Buckley realized toward the end of his life what most voters, too, had seen: Too much of what conservatives claim to want to stop is coming from themselves for them to displace the blame onto people like Kerry, whom Brooks now finds himself covering as Secretary of State, a man trained, after all, by that good old WASP establishment, not the flip-flopper with only sculpted marshmallow at his core whom Brooks gave us in 2004.

Brooks' fine-spun, Ivy-obsessed ressentiment (here's a quick explanation of that term) emerged again in 2005 his "Life Lessons From Watergate," a column prompted by the news that a long-time Washington bureaucrat, Mark Felt, had been the real "Deep Throat" in Watergate.

What should have prompted fresh reckonings with the American republic's triumph over Nixonian perversity at that time and of the public's continuing need for official truth-telling and reportorial vigilance prompted instead a snarky account by Brooks of what he thinks we should all resent about Ivy elitists who'd brought Nixon down in the Watergate scandal.

"The most interesting part of this Deep Throat business," Brooks began -- the dismissiveness of that phrase "Deep Throat business" already signaling that he'll dodge the profound importance of Watergate -- "is [the Washington Post reporter and recent Yale graduate] Bob Woodward's description... of the state he was in when he met Mark Felt. He had graduated from Yale,... but he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life."

Brooks tells us that Woodward was gripped by "starting-gate frenzy," which he characterized as the fate of all elite college grads, who must scramble disingenuously and sometimes brutally to ingratiate themselves with the right people, especially the more privileged of their classmates and alumni, to blunt the shock of their being "spit out into the vast, anarchic world of adulthood, surrounded by a teeming horde of scrambling peers."

Sound familiar? Today's column merely reprises this, for the umpteenth time. In 2005, Brooks continued,

Their elders tell them to take their time and explore, advice that is of absolutely no comfort. Failure seems but a step away. Loneliness hovers. They often feel stunted and restless (I haven't moved up in six months!), so they adopt a conversational mode -- ironic, self-deprecatory, post-pubescent fatalism -- that masks their anxiety. .... In college they were discussing Dostoyevsky; now they are trapped in copy-machine serfdom...

They find that people who used to be just friends are now competitors in the frantic scramble... Entering the world of the Higher Shamelessness, they begin networking like mad, cultivating the fine art of false modesty and calculated friendships,... weighing who will be crucial members of their cohort, engaging in the dangerous game of lateral kissing up, hunting for the spouse who will look handsomely supportive during some future confirmation hearing....

Here Brooks is close to his knowing resignation of today, describing the qualities his hero Edmund Burke would have dreaded in a protégé. In 2005, as in 2013, he tells young readers that there's no escape:

This is now a normal stage of life. And if Bob Woodward could get through something like it, perhaps they will, too. For that is the purpose of Watergate in today's culture. It isn't about Nixon and the cover-up anymore. It's ... about the two young men who found exciting and challenging jobs, who slew the dragon, who became rich and famous by doing good.... Woodward was nervous once, like you.

But Woodward is not a man whom admires. The column is deeply cynical, in a fine-spun way, even with its faux-upbeat, ironical ending. And the message being telegraphed to us from Brooks' inner Nixon is that since Woodward wasn't really as bold and high-souled in exposing the Watergate scandal as you have thought, we might as well forget about Nixon's faiblesses.

The same day that this Watergate column ran, Brooks' Times Washington bureau colleague Elisabeth Bumiller, like Woodward a Yale graduate, wrote an eerily similar put-down of Woodward masquerading as "News Analysis." Bumiller called Woodward's account of his first meetings with Felt "a parable about how the city really works. Aficionados ferreted it out instantly in the first paragraphs of Bob Woodward's tale...."

Almost as if she were determined to echo Brooks, Bumiller wrote that "Mr. Woodward, anxious and confused about his future, nonetheless displayed the kind of terrier instincts that would later serve him so well." Thus she joined Brooks in casting Woodward as a reporter who comforts the comfortable by following them around and transcribing their thoughts.

Bumiller's Woodward story ran under the apparently irreverent headline, "If They Gave Nobels for Networking...," and it told readers this:

"If I hadn't taken a course with Paul Wolfowitz decades ago, I probably wouldn't be in Washington," said I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, who in 1973 was a student in Mr. Wolfowitz's political science class at Yale.

Admittedly, Wolfowitz, Libby, and Cheney weren't models for too many Yale undergraduates by 2005. But Woodward recruits Yale undergraduates as his research assistants every year. So why shouldn't young, would-be Thought Leaders at Yale have the benefit of Bumiller's and Brooks' competitive inside coaching, as well? Every morning, a stack of free New York Times editions appears in the vestibules of Yale's twelve residential-college dining halls, where students can read columns like these over breakfast.

They're eating out of Brooks' hand. He's writing to them about themselves, with a presumptive intimacy few columnists can muster, because he's writing about something that's arrested in him, for reasons I'll explain on another occasion. Lion of punditry though Brooks has certainly become, part of him is still too much with the kids who are reading his columns and lining up to take his courses.

Today's column announces, more honestly than the one about Woodward and perhaps even more honestly than Brooks intends, that those who set out to follow him will likely end up not as Platonic guardians of the American republic in the best Yale tradition but as what he, himself, remains: a fatalistic, "lateral-kissing up," consultanese-spouting pitch-man for our casino-financing, consumer-groping juggernaut.

Perhaps Brooks' forthcoming book will succeed where even his most brilliant successes as a Thought Leader have failed. Perhaps his new book will summon from the old colleges whose traditions still obsess him a new generation of Burkean, civic-republican leaders, more noble than "Thought Leaders" for whom "the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity" and "is gravely concerned about the way everything is going to hell."