The Man Behind the Column AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID BROOKS
— DAVID STEINER & RISHABH BHANDARI —
David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, is one of the most recognized and highly regarded political pundits in the country. Often known as the liberals’ favorite conservative, Brooks is teaching two courses at Yale this semester: “Humility” and “Studies in Grand Strategy.” He sat down with The Politic to talk about President Obama, the Republican Party, Yale, and journalism.
TP Can you walk us through your process of writing a column? DB I am always collecting strings on about seven or eight columns, with one due every three and a half days. I’ve got piles of paper for gun control, immigration — whatever the issue of the day is — and then some intellectual things or cultural things. Based on what happens on the day before it’s due or the day it’s due, I’ll decide, “Okay, I’m gonna do this one.” I have all this paper, documentation, notes I’ve taken from interviews, and I think geographically. I lay it out on the floor of my office in piles of paper. Every pile is a paragraph. I pick up a pile. Write that paragraph. Throw it in the garbage. And repeat for the next pile. By the time I start writing, the column is already 80 percent done. It’s the organizing of the piles that’s the key process. Judges have a saying: “That opinion won’t write.” They think they know what they’re going to say, but when they sit down to start, it won’t flow. That happens frequently. I don’t try to fix the column if it’s not flowing. Usually, I’ll just start from scratch. 12
TP Would you write differently — either in style or in content — for a more conservative audience, such as the one that reads the National Review, than for a more liberal readership, like that of The New York Times? DB Yes. When I wrote for the more conservative audiences, I focused more on humor because people are more willing to laugh with you, but they don’t want to laugh against you if you don’t already say what they believe. Humor is a lot harder. I did one humor piece this year called “The Real Mitt Romney,” which made fun of Mitt Romney. All my Democratic friends said, “Oh, that was hilarious!” and all my Republican friends were saying, “You’re really not that funny. You shouldn’t do that.” Humor has become totally partisan. The other thing is you want to show respect to those who disagree with you. Then the final thing is I’m a big fan of the nonfiction that took place between 1955 and 1965 with people like Jane Jacobs, David Riesman, and Daniel Bell. They were sort of high-brow journalists and low-brow academics, and that’s about where I try to be.
TP Who are some thinkers or intellectuals who have helped shape your convictions and political philosophy? DB When I was a freshman in college, I was assigned Edmund Burke and I hated it. I was a big leftie and I reacted so viscerally, I think, because he was touching something I actually believe. Later, I came to take a very similar view of the world that he had, which is that our power of reason is very weak so we should be suspicious of central planning. The core of my philosophy is epistemological modesty in that we can’t know much about the world. It’s quite complicated, but that’s the core of my belief system. TP Can you identify one moment when you changed from being a “big leftie” to a conservative? DB There wasn’t one moment, but I was a police reporter in Chicago and I saw the effects of the social policies of what I think of as the Great Society of the 1960s. In some of the povertyridden neighborhoods, I thought they were making things worse and that disabused some of the more liberal 13
Published on Jun 2, 2013