David Brooks: The New York Times' Favorite Conservative Con Man

At some point in our lives, we all dream of playing in the big leagues. But what if our fantasies came true? What if we were suddenly plucked from our crabgrass and dead clover and dropped magically onto the emerald outfield of Yankee Stadium? What would we feel -- ecstasy or terror?

I suspect that something like this happened to David Brooks when he was summoned from the obscure nook of the Weekly Standard and asked to write a regular op-ed column for the New York Times. Here was someone who had edited a cranky right-wing journal and written a clever book poking fun at baby-boomer bohemians suddenly being required to render informed opinion on everything from global warming to stem cell research. Is it any wonder that for the past three years we have watched a drowning man flounder in a froth of chatty drivel?

Fortunately, his legions of exasperated readers don't have to wonder whether he'll ever get his just reward. The truth is that Brooks is already being punished. Deep beneath his protective sheath of psychic blubber, he knows what the Wizard of Oz knew -- that he's a fake and a failure.

To stand in Brooks's wingtips as I have and to feel the self-doubts that consume him, all you have to do is look back over the columns he has written. What you'll see is precisely what Brooks himself sees -- an astounding inconsistency. I'm not suggesting that in print he often changes his mind. In fact, this is exactly what he does not do. He doesn't say, "I thought it was going to be sunny, but it looks like rain." He says: "It's going to be sunny." And then three days later: "It's going to rain."

Mercifully, most of his readers hardly notice how often and how rapidly he jerks from one position to another. Because an op-ed column is by nature (or genre) a series of flashes surrounded by stretches of darkness, they don't remember what Brooks wrote last week, much less last month or last year. His many self-contradictions become clear only when his pieces are placed back-to-back and read quickly, one after the other, as if flipping through matchstick drawings to create a little movie. Like this:

July 3, 2004: "Iraq now has a popular government with a tough, capable minister. Democratic institutions are emerging, including a culture of compromise. ... Thanks in part to 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."

Sept. 24, 2006: "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."

July 24, 2004: "Only 10 percent of our efforts from now on will be military. The rest will be ideological ... We've got a long struggle ahead, but at least we're beginning to understand it."

Oct. 5, 2004: "The pace of events seems to be quickening in Iraq; ... an Iraqi-U.S. military offensive took back Samarra, and Rumsfeld said yesterday that Samarra is a model for what is about to happen in other towns in Iraq."

Jan. 28, 2007: "Ethnic cleansing is dividing Baghdad, millions are moving, thousands are dying and the future looks horrific. The best answer, then, is soft partitition; separate the sectarian groups as much as possible. In practice that means, first, modifying the Iraqi Constitution."

October 2007: "Most American experts and policy makers wasted the past few years assuming that change in Iraq could come from the center and move outward ... Now at last the smartest analysts and policy makers are starting to think like sociologists. They are finally acknowledging that the key Iraqi figures are not in the center but in the provinces and the tribes."

One day Brooks is praising the Iraqis' hunger for democracy and their political transition toward democracy. Two years later, without a backward glance at his earlier column, he's saying the Iraqis are much too reactionary to become democratic and that economic reform has to pave the way for political transition. One day Brooks reports that the top strategists who confide in him are redefining the war as ideological, not military, and he opines that this signals our improved understanding of the struggle. Then, two months later, he reports that the top planners are renewing their commitment to a primarily military strategy. One piece suggests that U.S. policy should focus on revising the Constitution, loosening the federal structure of Iraq, and shepherding Shias, Sunnis and Kurds into separated and distinct regions. A subsequent piece recommends a quite different policy: Ignore the endless constitutional debate, stop seeing everything in terms of metacategories like Sunni, Shia and Kurd, and focus instead on "the agglomeration of order, tribe by tribe and street by street."

Because later columns never acknowledge the existence of the earlier ones, Brooks never reveals how often he has changed his position on such important matters. No plasma of mental activity connects these different pieces. No single mind moves from one to the other. They could have been written by six different people, for six different newspapers, about six different wars. Only when you put all six together do the sharp outlines of six very different policy recommendations emerge into view: focus on political transition, focus on economic reform, focus on ideological struggle, focus on military action, focus on revising the Constitution, focus on the tribes and local leadership.

The obvious purpose of Brooks's willful amnesia is that it allows him to dodge responsibility. But it also gives him a more subtle advantage: Unfettered by anything he has written before, he is free to surf the wave of time as it breaks onto the shore of the future. Because neither he nor his underlying convictions are definitively located, he can claim implicitly to be ahead of everyone else. That's exactly what he's signaling with those little words at last and finally when he writes, "Now at last the smartest analysts and policy makers are starting to think like sociologists. They are finally acknowledging that the key Iraqi figures are not in the center but in the provinces and the tribes." He doesn't explicitly claim that he was thinking like a sociologist before they were, because for Brooks there is no before. Instead, his phrasing ambiguously implies that the "smartest analysts" have caught up to his unlocatable position over the horizon -- out in that unnameable vector beyond the end of history.

In short, the fact that Brooks is playing in the wrong league doesn't mean that he isn't clever. On the contrary -- his fundamental incompetence for the job stimulates his purely rhetorical genius. And this is the secret of his survival at the Times. He's turned a liability into an asset, like the legless athlete whose titanium prostheses can overtake and pass the heavy-limbed stride of his merely muscular competitors.

Instinctively promoting his gift for transforming weakness into strength, Brooks often turns vice into virtue when he defends his heroes in the Bush administration. Take, for example, Brooks's paired editorials of May 4 and May 11, 2004, written just as the nation was becoming aware that our mission in Iraq was far from accomplished.

May 4: Bush's failure to anticipate the problems of post-Saddam Iraq, Brooks asserts, should not be condemned as incompetence, chicanery or some combination of the two. It should be understood, rather, as the unintended consequence of innate nobility of purpose. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld were simply too high-minded, too idealistic and, yes, too innocent for this wicked world they found themselves cast into. "We were so sure we were using our might for noble purposes," Brooks writes, "we assumed that sooner or later everybody else would see that as well. Far from being blinded by greed, we were blinded by idealism."

All is changed utterly, and a terrible beauty is born: Rumsfeld and Cheney are no longer "the phalanx of sober experts, corporate buddies and GOP bigwigs" Brooks had celebrated in an op-ed piece four years earlier (July 21, 2000). With a flourish of his rhetorical wand, he has transformed those "boring ... grinds" into starry-eyed idealists, men too innocent for the world, too noble of purpose to understand the "the tragic irony that our power is also our weakness." Now, we can forget about Colin Powell's embarrassing U.N. presentation. All those slides of satellite photos can disappear -- poof! -- because blinded idealists aren't really interested in the "facts." Now Dick and Don are dreamers, just like John and Yoko.

May 11: If Cheney and Rumsfeld chuckled when they read this column, they must have laughed aloud when when they read Brooks' next piece. "There's something about our venture into Iraq that is inspiringly, painfully, embarrassingly and quintesentially American," Brooks writes. "No other nation would have been hopeful enough to evangelize for democracy across the Middle East. No other nation would have been naïve enough to do it this badly. No other nation would be adaptable enough to recover from its own innocence and muddle its way to success, as I suspect we are about to do."

Through this metamorphosis of personal failure into what he calls "national style," Brooks is able to dissolve the granite egos of Cheney and Rumseld in the warm soup of a national "we." They didn't plan the war, the national psyche did. They didn't blunder, the national style did. The beauty of his thesis is that it leaves everyone as innocent at the end as they were at the beginning. No one can be blamed, so why search for accountability? Why look for a substantive conclusion about right and wrong, competence and blunders, when the scene of action is the national character, not the Oval Office?

Brilliantly effective as it often is, however, Brooks' rhetorical shape-shifting also expresses the desperation of someone who knows that, intellectually, he is way out of his depth -- yet who must go on forging an opinion twice a week, week after week, for all the world to contemplate and judge. Take, as the last and most example, his utterly fickle musings on the nature of conservatism itself.

April 5, 2005: Brooks praises conservatives for not "thinking about policy prescriptions" and focusing instead on broad philosophical questions about "the order of the universe, and how the social order should reflect it." He goes on to chastise liberals because "they have not had a comparable public philosophy debate."

Nov. 30, 2006: A year and a half later, Brooks is singing a different tune. In an open letter to Republicans, he advises them to "focus on problems," to "be policy-centric, not philosophy-centric."

August 2005: In a piece titled "All Cultures Are Not Equal," Brooks espouses a gloomy view of globalization: "while global economies are converging, cultures are diverging, and the widening cultural differences are leading us into a period of conflict, inequality, and segmentation. ... People like ... Samuel Huntington ... have given us an inkling of how to think about this stuff, but for the most part, this is open ground."

March 23, 2006: Less than a year later, Brooks takes precisely the opposite position: praising the "lofty sentiments of President Bush's second inaugural: that freedom is God's gift to humanity, that people everywhere have a hunger for liberty." He criticizes the "cultural determinism" of people like Samuel Huntington who argue that not every culture in the world thirsts for America's fundamental "universal" values.

Oct. 5, 2007: Another year passes, and Brooks reverses course again. He agrees with the Huntington thesis about the importance of culture. He criticizes the Bush administration for "operating on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow." And he celebrates the wisdom of "the Burkean conservative" who "believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition, and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation's unique network of moral and social restraints."

So what exactly is conservatism? Should it be more philosophical, or more policy-oriented? More idealistic, or more pragmatic? More committed to "universal" values like Bush, or more cognizant of the inertial force of culture, like Burke and Huntington? If there's nothing consistent about Brooks' conservatism, that's because there's nothing consistent about his thought. In fact, "thought" isn't really the word for what Brooks puts into print. He is always running so hard to catch up that he doesn't have time to think things through. His improvisations are iridescent verbal bubbles that burst and disappear within 48 hours.

While Brooks must be consoled to think that his words' ephemerality conceals their inconsistency, inwardly he knows better than anyone what's really going on. And this knowledge is the source of his agony. He knows that he's doomed to go on posturing because he has no core convictions. He knows that he must go on arguing multiple sides of the same issues and steadfastly averting his eyes from his multiple self-contradictions. He knows that each of his positions is just a fleeting pose in an endless jig of rhetorical cleverness, a dance whose essential meaninglessness threatens to become more obvious with each new column he writes.

Even the recent addition of William Kristol to the Times editorial page is of little help, since Kristol is essentially Brooks' Gepetto. (Now Times readers can get one for the price of two.) In all likelihood, a tortured Brooks is at this very moment longing for his palmy days at the Weekly Standard, when his minions surrounded him and his audience applauded before they even read him. But it's too late to turn back now. As the tide of the times pulls him ever further away from shore, he has no choice but to keep thrashing in the dark, trusting that his next 900 words will keep him afloat for just a few more days. Meanwhile, the world looks on for a few moments -- and then turns mercifully away.

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