Conservative Charm

He might not always have solid proof, but in sizing up America, David Brooks is onto something.

David Brooks is utterly charming. The ascendant star among conservative pundits, Brooks appears regularly on PBS's The News Hour With Jim Lehrer and NPR's All Things Considered, and he has a twice-weekly column in The New York Times. In an interview, Brooks has none of the hauteur associated with the East Coast power elite, instead expressing an ambivalence and humility that make him seem vulnerable. Intellectually, he is an intriguing mixture of the flaneur and the well-sourced political journalist. None of these merits is earning him an easy ride of late.

First, in April's Philadelphia magazine, Sasha Issenberg questioned whether Brooks' sweeping observations about American culture were supported by facts. Then, in a long review of Brooks' new book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense, in The New York Times Book Review, Slate's Michael Kinsley called him French. Brooks noted that since he's become a Times columnist, everybody wants to take him down a notch. "It's the same reason everybody hates the Yankees," he jokes.

Brooks defends his book's method of "comic sociology," explaining that his intention is to find a nonfiction form to express the insights of a novelist or a poet. He wants to get at the zeitgeist of the American suburbs, not by crunching data but by hanging out in malls, observing people and their shopping habits, and thinking up jokes. "There are some things you can't get at with data, and those are the important things," he contends. While novelists are trying to represent this same sort of truth, he thinks, they are missing something vital. Novelists "never describe anyone as happy," he says. The American suburbs contain a great deal of happiness, Brooks says, that remains unrecognized by artists or social scientists. He describes how a lot of the joy in the past decade has come from the creation of segmented but variegated communities as different subgroups have adopted individual communities as their own.

"[D]riving through the suburbs one sees the most amazing things: lesbian dentists, Iranian McMansions, Korean megachurches, nuclear-free-zone subdevelopments, Orthodox shtetls with Hasidic families walking past strip malls on their way to shul," he writes. Brooks divides the suburbs into types—the crunchy suburbs for countercultural urbanites who now have kids, professional zones for Volvo-driving lawyers and doctors who shop at Trader Joe's, immigrant enclaves with their light-industrial manufacturing centers, and exurbia with its Zen-like pursuit of the golf ideal. He challenges critics of the suburbs who believe these areas and their vast consumption are a cultural wasteland that portends imminent decline. Instead, he notes that America continues to be the most powerful nation on Earth, propelled by an incredible work ethic and a constant geographical dispersion. The suburbs, for Brooks, are the eternal frontier, a bastion of constant reinvention and innovation.

This optimistic view of the American suburbs is mirrored in Brooks' view of President Bush's transformation in the past two years. "He came into office opposed to nation building, then Sept. 11 happened and he started talking like Walt Whitman," says Brooks. "It's a sign that he has absorbed the national creed. He was tapping into something. We are perpetually going off on these moral crusades to purge the world of evil." He believes Bush's sincere motivation for the invasion of Iraq was to bring the beacon of democracy to places suffering under the yoke of totalitarianism. Bush, having been infused with our national myth, now is embroiled in a grand project to democratize the entire Middle East.

At the same time, Brooks has no compunction in pointing out that this grand project is being carried out terribly. He observes that the Bush administration suffered from such strong internal dissension over the nature of the project that it was unable to adequately prepare for it. "It was the basic disagreement among the members of the administration that led to all these mistakes," he says. "They tried to do a big thing with a small army."

His views of suburban culture, George W. Bush, the American creed, and the war in Iraq could not be farther from my own, but Brooks' articulation of these ideas is so nuanced, sophisticated, surprising, and funny that agreement seems beside the point. One simply marvels at the exuberance of the exposition. In this way, Brooks realizes the goal, not only for his "comic sociology" but also for his political journalism, of producing in the listener or reader the same explosion of endorphins that great novels or poems do.

David Brooks appears at the City Club of Seattle, Women's University Club (1105 Sixth Ave., 206-682-7395), noon–1:30 p.m. Mon., June 21, $30–$40; and Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-652-4255), 7:30 p.m. Mon., June 21, $5.

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