David Brooks, the comedian

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.”

Logorrhea dementia

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.”

Mitt Romney

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.”

Bush’s IQ

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.

AUDIO: David Brooks on American culture

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by John Reinan on 11/06/2009 - 09:46 am.

    It’s interesting to note, in light of Brooks’ praise of Lindsey Graham, that the right wing of the GOP is already talking enthusiastically about mounting a primary challenge to him. The result will surely be either to push Graham to the right or to replace him with someone who moves hearts and minds in the state that produced Pitchfork Ben Tillman and the attack on Fort Sumter.

  2. Submitted by Howard Miller on 11/06/2009 - 10:09 am.

    After 18 hours of nonstop Fort Hood shooting coverage, it was a most welcome break to read humor and grace in a chattering class speech.

    Mr. Brooks is a thoughtful commentator, one easy to hear because it’s easy to believe he listens at least as well as he speaks.

    Thanks for passing these along, Mr. Black.

  3. Submitted by Stephan Flister on 11/06/2009 - 11:04 am.

    I don’t have any data so this is a guess: wouldn’t the ‘turn to the right’ noted among independents really just be a reflection of those same people having abandoned the Republican label? When a bunch of Republicans stop calling themselves that and start calling themselves Independents, what else would you expect to see happen to the ideological makeup of so-called Independents?

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/06/2009 - 11:56 am.

    Eric, thanks. Good stuff.

    Stephan Flister writes:
    “wouldn’t the ‘turn to the right’ noted among independents really just be a reflection of those same people having abandoned the Republican label?”

    Partly, yes, I think you’re correct. Partly also I think the pundits have a habit of assuming any given contest’s participants as representative of non-participants as well. Instead, I think what we saw on Tuesday, in NJ & VA in particular, was a higher level of enthusiasm by Repubs & more conservative independents. Deeds and Corzine did not inspire many people to participate. Clearly last year the enthusiasm was driven by Obama. Who can most effectively motivate voters next year is the Big Question.

  5. Submitted by Stephan Flister on 11/06/2009 - 01:00 pm.

    I think Brian Simon’s election result analysis is correct. However, my relabeling thought refers to polling data, not voting.

    Eric wrote:
    But several recent polls have shown that among independents, there’s been a sharp recent move to the right.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/06/2009 - 04:33 pm.

    And of course off year elections have a low turnout, which traditionally favors Republicans.

  7. Submitted by Matt Pettis on 11/06/2009 - 04:56 pm.

    As a liberal, I have no clue why you might think Brooks is more palatable to me than a Hannity, O’Reilly, or Beck. Or George Will. Or George Stephanopoulos. Or even Thomas “Suck on This, Afghanistan” Friedman, a putative liberal. The fact that Brooks is funny as a speaker has about as much interest to me as the fact that Tom Delay might not be a bad dancer. Heck, just as a person who remembers what these people said in the past, and the way they conduct journalism, I have no idea why you’d think I’d find any of them palatable.

    Brooks, and all of the other people mentioned here, are part of a larger problem of the accountability-free Washington punditry. No matter what he or any of these people say and how off the mark it is, they never suffer professionally for such incompetence. No one reflects on their track record, and no one calls them on the carpet for their partisan hackery or wrongness. And frankly, puff pieces like this only serve to enable them to keep spewing their accountability free schlock and make money at it.

    Brooks worries about the deficit? Did he vociferously oppose electing GWB, even after it was clear that he was running up the deficit? Or his hero, Reagan? What was his stance on the war, and how correct was he? Was he even appropriately skeptical, like a good journalist should? Take a quick spin around Google to find out that he was not. And he worries about education? How have the Republican policies he has endorsed impacted the quality of education? There’s a saying about urination on my leg and claiming rain that seems to apply here.

    I don’t really mind when people disagree with me. But it bothers me to no end the people who disagree with me, make money off of their opinions, can be documented as being horribly wrong, and continue to make money because they are a good source of opinion. And it rankles me even further when they espouse pieties about things like deficit and education when the enacting of their opinions directly leads to the degradation of the things they bemoan. And they keep getting paid! These things should have impact on whether or not we listen thoughtfully and enjoy their humor, or laugh them off the stage for their incompetence. I think this article, an the many articles like this that puff up the likes of David Brooks, does more damage to our discourse than it does encourage an open exchange of ideas. Before I take any of Brooks observations seriously, he needs to explain how the body of work is has contributed to the things he sees as ‘depressing’. Short of that, he is not credible, and this article on him makes me nauseous.

  8. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/07/2009 - 01:43 pm.

    I watch David Brooks FACE when Shields is going on and on, because he seldom gets “equal time” to oppose him. But his face as Shields speaks tells volumes.

    As a political opinion spot I find this segment of the News Hour more a showplace for liberal opinions than a balanced presentation. And I suspect Brooks keeps a place on it because he can be counted on to countenance this slanted presentation.

    That said, I read his column in the Sunday papers, and often find his remarks thoughtful.

    And I think “Leave them laughing when you go” was a smart way to defuse opposition to unwelcome views.

  9. Submitted by Kirk Anderson on 11/07/2009 - 08:15 pm.

    Any writer who challenges me and makes me challenge my own assumptions is doing me a favor, and Brooks does both. It is a rare opinion writer who speaks to more than the choir, and if any other lefties can suggest other conservative writers whose views they may revile but who nonetheless spur and inform their thinking, please share. George Will used to, for me, but now seems to be running for office in a district of tea-baggers. I have always admired Doug Tice’s writing for preaching far beyond the choir, making me think, and for asking difficult questions. (I think Eric also does an excellent job of this, asking difficult questions and honestly challenging people’s assumptions, but I usually already agree with him anyway!)

    I once saw Shields speak at a convention, and, similarly to the experience with Brooks, was stunned when he was hilarious! The excellent political comedian Will Durst was in the audience, and was howling along with everybody else. Mark Shields? Funny?!

  10. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/08/2009 - 01:23 pm.

    I think one reason for Republican wins is that they don’t explain that their claim “I’ll lower your taxes” means they are riding the Grover Norquist bus leading to government as a shrunken, impotent (except for public safety and the military) shadow of itself as guardian of the common good.

    In New Jersey, for instance, the Pioneer Press (Opinion Exchange, November 6) noted that the election “…was certainly not a referendum on Republican orthodoxy, since Christie did not run as a social conservative. And while Christie did run a traditional antitax campaign, most voters polled on the eve of the election said they did not know much about his views.”

    And in Iowa (Bill Salisbury,PPress 10/07/09), one activist named Barnes said before Pawlenty’s speech that he knew “absolutely nothing” about him and after the speech said, “He would make an outstanding candidate. He’s got a lot of charm, and he has a hell of a way of emoting a message.”

    I guess we know in Minnesota how “charming” it is to cut tens of thousands of people off access to health care, to cut payments to those hospitals who treat the indigent in their emergency rooms, to starve cities and counties of needed and expected funding, and to deny renters the property-tax credit due them.

    Salisbury quotes Pawlenty as saying that Republicans must offer “positive alternatives,” first among them that “the federal government needs to live within its means.” “Paraphrasing Sinatra,” says our Tim in reference to his record in Minnesota, “if we can do it there, we can do it anywhere.”

    New Jersey doesn’t know what it’s in for. Pawlenty II, but starting out with a shortfall that Christie doesn’t even have to create with tax cuts for the wealthy.

  11. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/09/2009 - 07:39 am.

    BTW – YOU might think Brooks is different than Beck, et. al, but the difference is only a matter of degree, not a matter of integrity.


  12. Submitted by jim hughes on 11/09/2009 - 10:48 am.

    Comparing David Brooks to Glenn Beck is like comparing astronomy to astrology.

  13. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/10/2009 - 10:03 am.

    Ready all about the blood-thirsty hypocrite who Eric Black seems to think represents thoughtful Republicans:


  14. Submitted by Matt Pettis on 11/13/2009 - 08:48 am.

    No, comparing Brooks to Beck is like comparing Intelligent Design to Astrology: both are BS, but the former is dressed up in slicker clothes, and a different cross-section of people swallow each.

  15. Submitted by Matt Pettis on 11/16/2009 - 12:43 pm.

    More on Brooks… to wit: intellectual dishonesty: http://mediamatters.org/blog/200911160019

Leave a Reply