Even before Thanksgiving forces me to admit it, I’m feeling like one very lucky guy. One reason is that I get to do cool, fun stuff and call it work. Yesterday, I attended a luncheon at which columnist David Brooks was the speaker. He was smart, insightful, jovial and reasonable, as he usually is in his column, which makes him one of those conservatives to whom fair-minded liberals can stand to listen. But he was also very, very funny — much funnier than in his column or in his regular TV gig opposite Mark Shields on the “The NewsHour” with Jim Lehrer.
So — and this is something I could never have gotten away with at the newspaper — I plan to save his more substantive points for short shrift at the end of this post and devote most of the space to his jokes. Here were some of the wisecracks, not necessarily verbatim quotes:
About his every Friday TV partner, liberal columnist Mark Shields:
Mark Shields has to get first billing in their weekly act, because otherwise it would be “Brooks Shields.” (Barump bump.)
“It used to be Shields and Gigot. And before that Gergen and Shields. And before that I think it was Shields and Calvin Coolidge. (Barump.) Before that, Shields and Thomas Aquinas.”
About his Minnesota connection:
Brooks married a girl whose family is from Detroit Lakes. “If you’re from New York, as I am, you hear Detroit Lakes you think ‘Newark Gardens?'”
By the time they got married, his wife was working for Sen. Dave Durenberger, who came to their wedding: “Sen. Durenberger pulled me aside and said, ‘David, you should become a moderate Republican. It’s the wave of the future…’ That was good advice.”
After paying tribute to Walter Mondale, whom he called one of his heroes (I forgot to mention, this luncheon was part of an annual symposium put on by Mondale’s employer, the Dorsey law firm, and Mondale introduced Brooks at the event), Brooks said that Minnesota politicians are closer to being normal than most of the politicians he covers. Most politicians suffer from what Brooks calls “logorrhea dementia,” which means “they talk so much that they drive themselves insane.”
Brooks recalled traveling around New Hampshire with Mitt Romney. Romney would introduce himself to the people in a diner and ask them what town they were from. They would name a town and Romney “would describe the home he owned in their town.”
The first coming of Obama
Brooks described the dinner he attended, with Barack Obama as the guest of honor, at George Will’s house, on the night before Obama’s inauguration:
“Obama was actually carried in by cherubs… Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Springsteen came ahead of him scattering rose petals…. Obama said to me, ‘David, what kind of wine would you like me to turn your water into?”
Obama has hired all these very smart aides. Half of them went to Harvard and half of them went to Yale. “I always say that if we get attacked in the middle of the Harvard-Yale game, we’re screwed.”
President Bush (the second) was actually smarter when you talked to him in person than people realized. Brooks said he used to tell his liberal friends that and Bush’s IQ is 60 points higher in private than what comes across in public. And they would say: “OK, that gets him up to 80.”
Obamian niceness and self-confidence
Brooks discussed the key traits that differentiate Obama and his administration from others he had covered. One is extreme niceness. During previous administrations, when he would write a critical column, one of the aides would call him up and say, “David, you’re a complete and total idiot.” But when he writes something critical of Obama, one of the aides calls up and says: “David, we like you. We admire your work. It’s so sad you’re a complete and total idiot.”
The other key traits of Obama that Brooks mentioned were perceptiveness, intelligence and total self-control. But he ended with: “The defining trait is self-confidence. I’m convinced that in 80 years the word ‘Obama’ will become a unit of self-confidence. People say, ‘Oh, so and so, he has 80 Obamas.”
A few serious thoughts
This wasn’t a joke (but perhaps a bit of sucking up to the locals — I doubt he says this when he visits other states, except maybe South Carolina, but Brooks also said that when he asks himself which two current senators will have the greatest impact on America over the next 20 years, it’s Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. He called Klobuchar “an absolute star, not just with her intelligence but with her style and being. She’s going to modernize the meaning of being a U.S. senator.”
Brooks likes many of the things Obama is trying to do, especially his ideas about education (because Brooks fears that the decline in U.S. education over recent decades has frittered away the essential quality that kept us at the head of the world pack). But he also thinks Obama is trying to do too many things too fast, and that Obama is spending too much money.
Obama is caught between two wings of his own Democratic coalition, liberals who think he’s not proceeding quickly enough, and moderates who think he’s proceeding too quickly. “Balancing these two will be a tremendous challenge,” Brooks said. But by far the more important group is the moderates because without them you can’t govern nor win elections.
Independents are now the largest single group of Americans and over recent cycles, Democrats have been winning them. The key to the Republican successes in New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday were Republican success in the fast growing suburban counties where moderates and independents predominate. To Brooks, the most important results were not the two races for governor but a number of suburban counties where the voters threw out Dem-controlled county governments and voted in Republicans.
Brooks does not think Repubs are poised for a big comeback. Their problems are too deep, and these moderates and independents he’s talking about are not turning into reliable Republican voters. But several recent polls have shown that among independents, there’s been a sharp recent move to the right. The number who think government is doing too much leapt from 38 percent to 50 in the most recent sounding. The portion of self-identified independents who said they consider themselves conservative has leapt up, and the portion who said that unions are labor unions are too powerful hit a record high. These are the political challenges facing Obama and his party.
OK, enough seriosity (yes, I know it’s not a word). At the end of his prepared remarks, Brooks said that he starts to get depressed about America, especially when contemplating the fiscal hole we have been digging for some years. But when he needs to feel cheerful and hopeful, he goes to the places where America shops. This set him off on a riff that featured the less political side of Brooks’ work, as a satirist observer of American culture, as this brief audio clip below demostrates.