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David Brooks’ talk in Minneapolis: very smart, very funny

David Brooks just completed a terrific, very funny, very smart presentation at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minnapolis.

David Brooks just completed a terrific, very funny, very smart presentation at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minnapolis.

More impressive than Brooks was the turnout. Westminster has been running their lecture series for decades. I have covered bigger names than Brooks there (Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu comes to mind). But I have never seen the huge room completely full. Today, well before Brooks started, all of the seats on the ground floor and all of the balcony were packed. Then the choir area (where I was able to sit on a chair carried in at the last minute). Temporary chairs likewise around the room (fire marshal, please do not read any further).  An overflow was set up with closed-circuit TVs. (All this for a talk that was also carried live on MPR.) I estimate about 2,000 came, and I’m not sure how many more left because they couldn’t get in. I take this as further evidence of Obamania.

The talk itself was incorrectly advertised as “Restoring America’s Standing in the World.” He spent little time on that topic, and ranged instead across many observations coming out of the election. I’ll put his funniest remarks at the bottom, but on more serious notes:

The meaning of Obama
Brooks hailed the election of the first African-American president. In my own election night “Meaning of Obama” post, I said we are still a racist society but not as racist as we thought. Brooks went me one better, saying: “There are racists in this country, but this is not a racist country.”

In addition to the breakthrough on race, Brooks said the election represented the end of three other historical moments: the 25-year economic boom; the domination of the White House by baby boomers (which lasted for only four terms and two presidents), and the end of the era of conservative domination that began with Reagan.

Character turns out to be 98 percent of what matters in the presidency, Brooks said, and “looking back over the past two years, Obama passed all the character tests.”

Strengths of Obama
Backing each observation with an anecdote, Brooks said Obama’s persona is characterized by his intellect, how perceptive he is, how calm he is, and his ability to surround himself with smart, talented people who work together well.

Brooks’ anecdote to illustrate Obama’s intellect was this. In a long interview, Brooks happened to ask Obama whether he had read much of the leading 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama replied that yes, he had read some Niebuhr, and then launched into a 20-minute overview of Niebuhr’s thinking that, Brooks said, was a perfect summary. “There aren’t too many other senators that could do that. Let’s face it, there aren’t any other senators that could do that.”

Weaknesses of Obama

With journalistic fairness, Brooks gave an overview of Obama’s shortcoming:

He was a mediocre senator, who accomplished little and did not show the kind of focus and attention to detail that marks the great legislators.

His ambition is so great that it has led him to move quickly through every phase of his life and many institutions and mini-careers, from community organizing, to academia, to the practice of law, to the state Legislature, to the Senate without staying long enough to get the full benefit of any of the experiences.

His self-confidence, which Brooks said “is supreme,” leaves little room for humility. He read a quote in which Obama said that he was a better speechwriter than his full-time professional speechwriters, a better political strategist than his professional strategists and knew more about policy than his policy advisers.

The challenges
Brooks said that dealing with a huge agenda in a period of scarcity (Brooks said next year’s deficit would be $750 billion and would break $1 trillion in the following years), made it difficult for Obama to know whether to hold back in some areas or go for everything at once.

I don’t recall whether Brooks came down firmly on that question, but it seemed to me he said Obama should focus on economic stimulus first and that both health care and energy were too complicated and politically difficult to do until the new administration builds up some trust and confidence.

The challenges facing his own party, the Republicans, are “just gruesome.” Republicans are not ready to deal with these challenges because “they’re still in denial.” Brooks particularly dismissed those (he mentioned Karl Rove) who think the chief answer for Republicans is to return to Goldwater conservatism.

Democrats are winning in every segment that shows growth or has a long future, including young voters, Hispanics and suburbanites, and they aren’t going to make progress with those groups with Goldwater revivalism. He said, tongue-in-cheek but not completely, that Republican strength was among over-65 less-well-educated voters.

He also gave a strong plug to Tim Pawlenty (whom he thinks John McCain should have put on the ticket) as a young, forward-looking Republican who can attract moderates with an argument that there are things government can do to help people move ahead.

Painful solutions, pain-free campaigns
During the Q & A, Brooks was asked whether deregulation of the financial sector was the key reason for the economic and financial crisis. He said no, “the core issue is that we spent a decade or two living beyond our means, financed by Chinese savings.” The cure would have to be learning how to live within our means. But, in answer to another question about the need for Americans to make sacrifices to solve collective problems, he said that neither Obama nor McCain called for sacrifice and both “ran essentially pain-free campaigns.”

Asked how serious a problem it was that politicians are beholden to their contributors, Brooks said campaign finance is “not in my top five of what’s corrupting Washington.” At the top of his list, Brooks said “team mentality,” by which he meant “we’re all either on the Republican team or the Democratic team and we don’t talk to one another.”

Me preaching on open-mindedness

I don’t agree with Brooks about where money ranks as a corrupting influence. But I strongly agree with his team mentality pitch. Too many of us, not just in Washington, want to hear only the facts that are good for our own team and bad for the other. Too many of us listen to opposing arguments only to figure out how to trash them. Too many of us have decided that anyone on the other team must be crazy, evil or stupid.

Brooks is a Republican and a moderate conservative, and he has written things that seemed like carrying water for his team, but who hasn’t? He has also written things that risked getting him thrown out of his own club (in his Westminster talk, he said that same-sex marriage should be not only allowed but encouraged). He is a conservative whom liberals should be able to read without going into attack mode.

If I can judge by the audience responses at Westminster, there were plenty of liberals in the church who turned out at noon on a Thursday to listen with open-minds to a smart, rational conservative and left the better for it.

Jokes as promised
Brooks is very funny, in a friendly, self-deprecating way. As promised, a few of his funniest remarks:

He knows well and has talked at length with all of the presidential candidates and they all suffer from “logorrhea dementia,” which means “they talk so much they drive themselves insane.”

He once got to travel around the Middle East with New York Times colleague (and Minnesota local boy) Tom Friedman. “Going to the Middle East with Tom Friedman is like going to a mall with Britney Spears.”

Commenting on the combative style of Obama’s chief of staff designee Rahm Emanuel, who lost the middle finger on one hand in an accident, Brooks quoted a joke by Obama, who said that when Emanuel lost that finger, “he was rendered mute.”