December 16, 2003


A New Backbone? (Mugger, 12/16/03, NY Press)

I don’t care much for the writing of David Brooks–his Bobos in Paradise was an abomination–and so I was disappointed, if hardly stunned, when he was anointed the heir apparent to the 73-year-old William Safire as the New York Times’ token conservative op-ed columnist. (If publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had a real desire to balance the idiocy of Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, he’d have hired the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby or the Weekly Standard’s David Tell.) Safire told the New York Observer’s George Gurley that he has no intention of retiring soon, but given the rude walking-the-plank exit of Russell Baker, I’m skeptical the ex-Nixon speechwriter will still have a Times slot a year from now.

Brooks is a squishy conservative, the kind that liberals will deign to break bread with. He supported John McCain in 2000, told Gurley he’s not a supporter of Bush’s tax cuts and believes the president is "intellectually insecure." I wouldn’t be surprised if, when the 2008 election nears, Brooks completes his conversion and favors a moderate Democrat like Sen. Evan Bayh for president.

Brooks: Bubeleh in Paradise (George Gurley, NY Observer)
In May of this year, The New York Times was in full meltdown over the Jayson Blair scandal. By June, executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd had been pushed out and a new executive editor, longtime Timesman Bill Keller, was given a mission to smack some good old boring news sense into the paper.

Around this time, David Brooks got a phone call. He was in his ninth year writing for the conservative Weekly Standard, was appearing every Friday on PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and his book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, had been a New York Times best-seller. He’d also written for The Times’ Sunday magazine, Book Review and Week in Review section. After a few lunches with Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Mr. Brooks was asked if he’d be interested in becoming a twice-a-week columnist on the Op-Ed page.

"Has anybody ever said no to that question?" he replied.

The subtext behind the question? According to a Times insider, it’s "no secret" that the search for a successor to the paper’s big-gun conservative columnist, William Safire, began "two or three years ago." Mr. Safire, who is 73, has been a columnist since 1973. "I don’t think there’s been a date set, but you can just look at his age and when columnists typically and reasonably have retired," said the source. "There’s not forced retirement for writers at The Times, only for editors, but I think it’s been on their mind for some time who would succeed him. And I think that they’ve actually found the best possible person, in that he’s a lovely guy and he’s a good writer." (Asked about his plans to retire, Mr. Safire said, "Some day, but not soon.") [...]

"He’s every liberal’s favorite conservative," said Michael Kinsley, founding editor of Slate. "He may have no enemies, but that will change: If he still has no enemies writing a column for The New York Times for a couple years, he’s failed."

"People were always stopping me, saying that they liked his stuff," said The Times’ Ms. Collins. "There is something about him—he’s like the conservative guy who can talk to liberals."

"Obviously he’s a post-Raines hire, and a very, very smart one," said Andrew Sullivan, the conservative blogger and occasional Times contributor. "He’s every liberal’s idea of a sane conservative, and he’s every conservative’s idea of what a liberal’s idea of a sane conservative is. He’s not a fire-breather. My boyfriend much prefers his stuff to mine. But I can deal with that." [...]

Mr. Brooks said he’s against the death penalty, "incredibly mushy-headed" on whether a second-trimester abortion should be legal (he thinks it’s O.K. in the first, not in the third), and believes in gay marriage and gays in the military. "It’s from personal observation that gay people don’t have a choice in being gay," he said.

Although he’s not enamored of the Bush tax cuts, he’s upbeat about the economy ("The numbers speak for themselves," he said), but the big domestic issue for him is polarization. "We’re increasingly dividing—geographically, culturally, religiously, commercially—into totally different segments," he said. "People don’t even talk to each other."

And don’t call him a neocon. [...]

Could Mr. Brooks ever become a leftist again?

"Sometimes I do think that," he said. "If I was with the Nation left, I’d be depressed. If I was with the centrist–Joe Lieberman left, I’d be happy."

Of course, Mr. Safire is no prize. He broke the dam when he announced he was voting for Bill Clinton, giving all kinds of wifty Republicans just the cover they were looking for to bolt George H. W. Bush. It does make one wonder if the Timesmen are so insecure that they fear adding a genuinely conservative voice to their pages.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 16, 2003 11:37 PM

"makes one wonder if the Timesmen are so insecure that they fear adding a genuine conservative"

Nah say it so OJ.

Posted by: h-man at December 17, 2003 5:43 AM

The above post should read "say it ain't so"

But since I am back to make a correction. The question is "if I ran a conservative newspaper which liberal/leftist would I choose to present the balanced view". For the life of me they all are insufferable. I used to think in terms of Kinsley, but many liberals would probably protest that I was insecure to pick such a wimp. He seems to me to be sufficiently dishonest and misleadingly to drive conservatives crazy. Furthermore his real modus operandi is to constantly search for hypocracy on the right while never addressing the actual conflict of ideas and premises of the two sides.

Posted by: h-man at December 17, 2003 6:06 AM

I think it says more about the Times that they feel they need a conservative columnist than who they choose. Frankly, I think they're a liberal organ and should no more have a conservative columnist than Brothers Judd should have a liberal poster. They see themselves as the dead center voice of the establishment, which is scary, and they might be right, which is scarier.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 17, 2003 7:46 AM

Brooks supports gay marriage, is pro-abortion, is anti-death penalty, thinks tax cuts are bad. Can someone please explain what makes him a conservative?

Posted by: Bob at December 17, 2003 9:27 AM

Brooks is what Buchanan means when he thinks

Posted by: J.H. at December 17, 2003 10:31 AM