David Brooks is known as a Conservative voice—he was a senior editor at The Weekly Standard—but former Obama advisor David Axelrod described him as a “true public thinker.” Brooks has been a New York Times op-ed columnist since 2003 and speaks to Alec about writing a humor column in college, about his evolution of opinion toward the Iraq war, and he gives his two cents about the possibility of Hillary Clinton in 2016. He also tells Alec his basic feeling about college education: "Every course you take in college should be about who to marry."
Alec spoke with David Brooks on stage at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in Manhattan as part of the Public Forum series.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you are listening to Here's the Thing. I don’t know about you, but after my last interview with George Will, I can’t seem to get enough of conservative commentary. This week we are at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in lower Manhattan for the Public Forum, a series of conversations pairing someone like me, I've been connected to the Public in various ways over the years with a voice from outside the world of theater. Today, I’ll be speaking with one of the leading public intellectuals of our time.
David Brooks is a writer whose political opinions and judgment are so revered that he often gets calls from the White House in anticipation of a column. At the same time, he's also willing to say things like “every kid should take a course on how to choose a marriage partner.” Few topics are off limits to Brooks.
He's been a New York Times Op Ed columnist since 2003. He is known as a Conservative voice. Brooks was senior editor at The Weekly Standard. But former Obama advisor, David Axelrod described him as a “true public thinker.” I was lucky to have David Brooks join me on stage in New York City.
Joe's Pub is cozy and it holds just a couple hundred people who are eating and drinking throughout the program. The Pub sits right on top of the subway and sometimes you could hear and feel the number six train rumbled below. Take a listen to my conversation with David Brooks recorded last week on October 1, 2012 at Joe's Pub as part of the Public Theater’s Public Forum series.
Alec Baldwin: Thank you all for coming, by the way. I don't have much time to read the Op Ed page of The New York Times as I'd like to these days because of my schedule. So I thought to make it easy, I would just invite someone and hang out with someone who writes for the Op Ed page and kind of get a whole kind of a background of what I have been missing in political opinion. But thank you very much to David Brooks –
David Brooks: It's okay. I haven't seen 30 Rock in months.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. And I just wanted to begin by asking you just first to describe your own background and where you grew up in what was politics in your life when you were in high school and beyond as an undergraduate.
David Brooks: So I grew up here, in Stuyvesant Town, not too far away from here. I grew up in a somewhat left-wing background. When I was five in 1965, my parents took me to a be-in in Central Park where –
Alec Baldwin: That explains everything, actually.
David Brooks: Yeah, hippies would go to just be. And so one of the things they did was they set a garbage can on fire and threw their wallets into it to demonstrate their liberation from money and material things. And I was five and I saw a five dollar bill on fire in the garbage can and I ran up and grabbed it and ran away.
David Brooks: And that was my first step over to the Right.
David Brooks: And then even closer to here, my father was teaching at NYU. I went to Grace Church School where I was part of the All Jewish Boys Davaning Choir so we were about 50% Jewish and we would sing the hymns but we would say the word Jesus to square it with our religion. So the volume would drop and then it would come back up.
And so I grew up here, went to Philadelphia and then went to college at the University of Chicago, the school where fun goes to die.
Alec Baldwin: And what did your dad teach at NYU?
David Brooks: He taught English literature. We were part of a culture, in New York Jewish circles; the culture was called “think Yiddish, act British.” And so you are very Anglophilic and so he taught Victorian literature. And actually, this is true in my grandfather's generation, all the Jews wanted to fit in so they gave themselves names which they thought were super English. So nobody would think they were Jewish.
Alec Baldwin: Like Ian.
David Brooks: Well, no they picked Irving, Sidney, Milton. So it didn't really work out.
Alec Baldwin: What did you study in Chicago?
David Brooks: I studied American history. The other thing about Chicago was, if I can get this right, it's a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas.
David Brooks: And so, actually I began to turn there.
Alec Baldwin: So how did that evolve when you are in Chicago?
David Brooks: Yeah, so I was a lefty and I was assigned a book called "The Reflections of the Revolution in France" by Edmund Burke. And here is a guy saying you really shouldn't think for yourself. The power of reason is weak. What you should do is rely on the just prejudices that have survived the test of time. And I just loathed that book, that idea -- because I thought 'I want to think for myself. I want to come up with my own ideas.'
But as I got older, and especially I became a police reporter covering crime, murders and rapes in the south side of Chicago, I began to see that he's right. Our power of reason is weak. And part of the core of my conservatism is the phrase 'epistemological modesty;' the world is incredibly complicated; we can’t know much about it. We should be very suspicious that we can plan.
And then I covered really horrible housing projects in Chicago, Cabrini Green and others.
Alec Baldwin: Legendary.
David Brooks: Yeah. And so to me, they were part of the unintended consequences of pretty bad welfare policy which enabled families to break up and tore down good neighborhoods.
Alec Baldwin: What year was that when you were covering Cabrini Green?
David Brooks: That was the early 80s and so I became more conservative of a certain sort.
Alec Baldwin: And would you say that alone, like kind of failed urban policy? Were there other things as well?
David Brooks: Well, it was partly – it was a period of incredible social decay. If you look at all of the social indicators, they really started about 1965 or 1970, they just collapsed. Divorce, drugs, crime. And so you are growing up in that and you think what's going wrong?
Alec Baldwin: But did you think – I'm sorry for spitting on you, even from this distance I can actually spit on you.
David Brooks: I'm used to it in this part of New York.
Alec Baldwin: I would never spit on you intentionally. Do you think the people that are more left-leaning, that they are the ones who would say drugs, divorce, and crime are the results of other failed social policies and those policies preceded that? That those things are symptoms of something which is failed public policies in terms of jobs and fairer taxes. Did you think that some of the problems that were facing our society in the 60s and 70s were the result of other bad policies that might have some conservative fingerprints on them as well?
David Brooks: Well, I have gotten more educated about it since and I think sort of the classic more liberal positions, William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at Harvard, he said the real problem was all the urban jobs went away. And when the jobs went away for the working class, then the social decay came.
And I think there's a lot of truth to that. I would say there was also a breakdown in social mores. They should stick around –
Alec Baldwin: Well, the two went hand-in-hand.
David Brooks: That is exactly my view now, that they became a spiral. And so now, I had a conversation with – I always have conversations with let's say senior administration officials. And I say you know, the breakdown of the family, 40% of kids are born out of wedlock right now. If that remains true and we all know people who are born with single parents and they are doing great. But the odds are higher.
And so I say if that remains true, then 30 years from now we will have more inequality than we do now and the skills gap will be greater from that fact alone. So why don't you take on family policy? And if you are going to do it right, you got to do it in two ways. One, you've got to encourage people to get married and stay married and not have kids until they get married. And you've also got to give men money so they are worth marrying. And that's basically the problem. You have got to give them an earned income tax credit or some other wage subsidy.
Alec Baldwin: By that you mean also give women money so they are worth marrying.
[Laughter and applause]
David Brooks: Yeah, no, see –
Alec Baldwin: Yes, you did mean that. You just don't know it but you didn't mean it.
Alec Baldwin: We are here in Joe's Pub –
David Brooks: Don't try to make me popular.
Alec Baldwin: I'm just trying to make you more popular then you already are.
David Brooks: When I think one of the reasons why marriage is falling apart, it's mostly I think on the male side.
Alec Baldwin: Right. When you talk about the decay of the family and stuff and you talk about – I mean, do you have any particular opinions about birth control?
David Brooks: Well, I might have a little different view. I mean, first on social issues, I am still as left wing as the day is long. I am not only –
Alec Baldwin: For example?
David Brooks: Well, so I'm not only for supporting gay marriage, I am for coercing gay marriage.
David Brooks: I think we should say are you guys married yet? Are you married yet? Did you guys get married?
But say in Africa, you know, I was at a village in Mozambique a couple years ago where there were no adults. There were grandparents and kids. All the adults were dead from AIDS. And so you ask the grandparents 'Are the kids replicating the behaviors that killed their parents after they nursed them to their deaths?' And they said 'Yes, they are doing all the same stuff.'
And so the question becomes 'How do you change that behavior?' And the short answer is, 'You give contraception and you try to change behavior by lectures at the same time.' But who has been most effective at changing behavior? In my experience, it's not us Westerners with our technical expertise. It's the Church and the Church will say it's about your soul. Here is how you should live. And one of the reasons so many religions there, the Protestants and Catholics are so incredibly conservative is because they need that ammunition to change behavior. And if you don't follow these rules, your soul is damned. That I find is a pretty persuasive as a way to get people to change their behavior when you are living with a life-threatening disease.
Alec Baldwin: But they haven’t been successful, have they?
David Brooks: Well, it’s hard –
Alec Baldwin: I mean, the Catholics are opposed; the Catholics in terms of the brass if you will, of the Catholic Church. They are opposed to contraception. That's the very issue I'm talking about. Yeah, that's my point.
David Brooks: Yeah, I think you are absolutely right about that. I guess my point is, they are opposed in theory but you go into a Catholic mission and Namibia or anywhere and the rubbers are sitting right there on the table. They don't have the luxury of being abstract about this. And they say if you got a 13-year-old kid who comes in, you preach abstinence. If you have an 18-year-old, you hand them a rubber.
Alec Baldwin: Right. I want to make out that check. I want to write pay to the order of the Vatican, $10,000 and then in the memo I want to write for rubbers and send that off to Rome and just see what happens. Just to see what happens. Now, from Cabrini Green, where did you go? What happens after you – you are in Chicago for how much longer?
David Brooks: So we all have these weird things that happen in our lives. While I was in college, I wrote a humor column which is hard to believe if anybody reads my current column, they know.
Alec Baldwin: No, I still think you write a humor column.
David Brooks: Yeah, thank you.
Alec Baldwin: Some of it is pretty funny.
David Brooks: Yeah. Back then, I was trying to be funny and so William F. Buckley came to campus and I wrote a piece calling him a name dropping blowhard, basically. And so I said he wrote the first three volumes of his memoirs on the day of his birth, all of human history up to Buckley was this glorious dawn and then in college he founded two magazines, one called The National Buckley, one called The Buckley Review which he merged to form The Buckley Buckley. And so it was all just one joke after another.
And he came to campus and he gave a talk to the student body and he said 'David Brooks, if you are in the audience, I want to give you a job.' And so that was my big break.
Now sadly, I wasn't in the audience and I wasn't that conservative. But three years later, I was drifting a little to the right and I called him up and I said 'Is that job still open?' And he said 'Yeah.' And so literally from 24 hours I was covering a murder on the West side of Chicago, 24 hours later I was up at his Park Avenue apartment having dinner with finger bowls. And I thought it was watery soup.
But so when you became his associate editor, you became a pseudo-son for a year and a half. So he took me yachting, he took me to Bach concerts, he asked my opinion. And so it was one of those magical experiences where you have this guy was a real mentor. And so I worked at National Review for a year and a half and he was –
Alec Baldwin: What did you admire most about him? Because many people who have worked with him speak glowingly about him. What was it you admire most about him?
David Brooks: And he had, by the way, and incredibly diverse group of people; Joan Didion and John Leonard, a lot of people. And so his greatest capacity was his capacity for friendship.
Alec Baldwin: Beyond partisanship.
David Brooks: Oh, if you went over to his house for dinner, first of all there were not that many conservatives there. There were not that many political people. It was writers mostly, Anatole Broyard - a literary critic was a –
Alec Baldwin: Thinkers.
David Brooks: Yeah. And so we never talked about what the tax policy was. It was what Dostoyevsky had written about this. One of his biographers estimated he wrote more personal letters than anybody else in the 20th century. He was one of those guys whose brain just couldn't stop; output had to become and he wrote all these letters, cultivated all these friendships. And so it was an intoxicating experience to be 23, 24 –
Alec Baldwin: And you worked for him based in DC or here?
David Brooks: Here.
Alec Baldwin: How long were you with him?
David Brooks: About 18 months.
Alec Baldwin: And then what happened?
David Brooks: So then he sends me off to start my career and I went and became a movie critic at The Washington Times. And then I became a book review editor at The Wall Street Journal and then a movie critic for The Wall Street Journal.
Alec Baldwin: Who owned The Washington Times when you were doing the movie criticism there?
David Brooks: The Messiah.
Alec Baldwin: The Messiah. Yeah, the Reverend –
David Brooks: The late, the great –
Alec Baldwin: The late - he was a big movie fan, Sun Myung Moon?
David Brooks: Yeah, you like movies.
Alec Baldwin: Was he like a Jennifer Aniston fan? What was his ilk? What did he go for? Adam Sandler?
David Brooks: It was more "[The] Hunt for Red October," that sort of thing.
Alec Baldwin: Did he really? Oh my God. No, he’s a great man.
David Brooks: Yeah, yeah. Actually, he funded a movie. I think he funded "Pearl Harbor?" He funded some movie that bombed. And so –
Alec Baldwin: I was in "Pearl Harbor" and it did bomb, actually.
David Brooks: Oh, really? Is that true?
Alec Baldwin: But thank you. No, thank you.
David Brooks: Well, you asked me for Rev. Moon. I had to go there.
Alec Baldwin: What was it like writing movie criticisms for – The Washington Times is a very, very conservative paper.
David Brooks: Yeah, and I must say, when I was there, we had a very talented staff. So Malcolm Gladwell was one of my co-authors.
Alec Baldwin: So they had good writers. And you are untouchable; you were free to write whatever you wanted.
David Brooks: Yeah, and I had the best interview of my life until this one.
David Brooks: It was with Jackie Gleason. And he was just about the funniest person I ever met in my life.
Alec Baldwin: Well, when you wrote movie criticism, wasn't the classic saying where the movie critic died and you were writing the gardening column? And somebody said 'Kid, you are the movie critic.' What was your passion for film?
David Brooks: Well, that happened to me at The Wall Street Journal.
Alec Baldwin: I kind of resent right now that you were the movie critic for The Washington Times because what was your background in film? You are covering murders in Cabrini Green.
David Brooks: I had a Ph.D in film from USC. No, I didn't. Because of my rich social life at the University of Chicago, I saw a movie almost every night.
David Brooks: And so I recall in one 11 week period, I saw 77 movies.
Alec Baldwin: You’re kidding.
David Brooks: I would do my homework from 7:00 to 9:00, go to the student thing, we had an outstanding film thing. I would go then I would go to the bar and that was my life. I didn’t really have friends.
Alec Baldwin: So you loved films.
David Brooks: Yeah, I did love films.
Alec Baldwin: And that lasted 18 months. Why did that end?
David Brooks: Because I got hired by The Wall Street Journal to come up here.
Alec Baldwin: Okay, so how do you from The Washington Times writing film to the Journal? Who mentored that?
David Brooks: Because I got a good piece of advice and I don’t know if you follow this but never say 'No' to anything. Say 'Yes' to everything, at least in a certain point in your life.
Alec Baldwin: I said yes to "Pearl Harbor" and I would …
David Brooks: I had forgotten you were in it.
Alec Baldwin: I have to beg to differ with you. I’ve said "Yes" to a lot of things I shouldn’t have said "Yes" to. But we’re in a different business. The credo in my business is, say "No" until you have to say "Yes." But go ahead.
David Brooks: Really? Huh.
Alec Baldwin: So never say "No," and who rang your bell for Wall Street Journal? Who came after you?
David Brooks: Somebody asked me to do a piece on economics and because of my deep background in film, I wrote an essay on economics. And the editor of The Wall Street Journal saw it and liked it and called me up and said "We need a book review editor." So I edited the book review section and then I went out –
Alec Baldwin: From DC?
David Brooks: From New York. And then I went out and covered the decline of the Soviet Union. For five years I was covering half the world.
Alec Baldwin: Traveling.
David Brooks: Yes, I lived in Brussels but I was covering the Soviet Union, Mandela coming out of prison –
Alec Baldwin: Were you married at the time?
David Brooks: I was married at the time.
Alec Baldwin: So you have a very patient wife.
David Brooks: If I told my wife we were moving back to Brussels, she would put an ax in my head.
Alec Baldwin: Right, right. You are at The Journal for how long?
David Brooks: For nine years.
Alec Baldwin: And then where do you go?
David Brooks: So then I go to The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine owned by Rupert Murdoch at that point.
Alec Baldwin: What was that like?
David Brooks: That was the best experience of my life.
Alec Baldwin: Murdoch is a lot like Buckley, people say. People who know Murdoch personally, they all say that he's like Buckley. He's this very charming, very devoted to his friends. Was he that way when you worked with him?
David Brooks: I confess, I never talked to him.
Alec Baldwin: Right.
David Brooks: And the one time I did was at a party and he mumbled and I couldn't understand what he was saying. But you know, the problem with writing, especially at my current job, it is solitary. And so at the magazine, it was all my friends getting together to write a magazine. I was here for a panel about a year or two ago and we were backstage and it was like my little glimpse of the theater world. It was like group hugs. And I remember there was even tissues out on stage here in case we started crying.
David Brooks: And believe me, if you go to the Brookings Institution and you are doing a panel on tax policy, there's not a lot of group hugging. And so I sort of, the magazine was my closest experience being part of a team, putting on something together as a group. So I really liked it.
Alec Baldwin: Well, being on a team that way and having that kind of collegiality with people is really – I'm going to come and do a play in New York in February only because it means I am literally starving for the oxygen of being part of an ensemble and being part of a work where the best work is done when we all do it together and integrate it together.
David Brooks: Now, if you are in the theater, can you put on a good production if people don't like each other? Do people have to genuinely like each other?
Alec Baldwin: I think in the theater because more, presumably more thought goes into the piece. Like we did "Streetcar" on Broadway in 1992 and Greg Mosher said the great line, he said “Well, we know the material works. If we bomb, it's us.”
Alec Baldwin: It's like we know, like when you do revivals – if you do original pieces, it's different. But then from Weekly Standard what happens? You were there for how long?
David Brooks: I was there also for nine years.
Alec Baldwin: Nine years? What evolved for you during that – were you traveling all around the world at that time?
David Brooks: Mostly – a little. I did a lot of Middle East stuff and I wrote a book called "Bobos in Paradise."
Alec Baldwin: What years was that?
David Brooks: That was 1996 to 2003, if I've got the numbers right. 1995?
Alec Baldwin: So you were at Weekly Standard when 9/11 happened?
David Brooks: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: You are at Weekly Standard at the end of the Clinton years and the beginning of the Bush years and 9/11 and the war.
David Brooks: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: So you were there during a very –
David Brooks: The war might have turned when I was just joined The Times but it was somewhere around there.
Alec Baldwin: You were there during the Clinton – think about that. You were there during the Clinton impeachment, Bush is elected, 9/11, the war in Iraq is declared. How did your politics evolved during that time?
David Brooks: Well, I married Ken Starr's daughter. No, I didn't.
Alec Baldwin: Good night, everybody.
David Brooks: Uh, I am going to say this and this is not to curry favor but it's on the record. If you go back, I was doing a show called The NewsHour on PBS which I still do and on NPR and All Things Considered, I was not a big "Impeach Clinton" guy. I basically am a believer; I am sort of an older style conservative that human nature is extremely complicated and flawed. And a lot of people do a lot of horrible things but they can still be, serve their purpose in society.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, they can still run GM.
David Brooks: Having said that, to turn the other way, I definitely supported the war.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, why? Yellow cake, all of it and even with all the Valerie Plame, all the Valerie Plame, all that hocus pocus, you still supported attacking Iraq? Why?
David Brooks: Yes, yes. Basically, I covered the Middle East a bunch. I basically thought, you drive through small towns in Jordan and Egypt and it's just deadly dull. And these people have no lives and no prospects because they live in stagnant societies overseen by oligarchs or worse, dictators in the case of some.
Alec Baldwin: Some of whom we created, correct?
David Brooks: Absolutely true. But I thought if that part of the region is ever going to be healthy, they have to have normal societies where young men and women can rise and have normal lives.
Alec Baldwin: And do you believe that in pursuit of having that normal society in pursuit of – because whenever anybody says they want to – this was about exporting democracy to an area and so forth, I support that in theory. But I think that in practice with the Bush administration, I think that was complete bullshit. I never for one second – I would bet everything that I own that Dick Cheney doesn't roll over in bed and his wife says "Dick, what's wrong darling?" And Cheney says "God, I can't sleep. I just have got to export democracy to the Middle East."
Alec Baldwin: "I just got to get this thing done. I really care so much about these people. Lynn, I'm sorry. Let me get up and get it glass of water. I've got to figure this out."
So I mean to me, Iraq was about what we ultimately got to and this was now the war had moved on to Afghanistan and the press had moved on to Afghanistan. What was under-reported was they lifted the ban on the US oil companies coming in and pumping oil which was their ultimate goal.
David Brooks: Right.
Alec Baldwin: So what is your opinion about that?
David Brooks: So first of all –
Alec Baldwin: Okay. You disagree that that happened or you disagree that was the goal?
David Brooks: I dispute that was the goal. I don't know anybody in the oil business who wants instability. Saddam was pumping oil. They had a stable market and that’s what they wanted. I never heard of any oil company, is anybody in the energy business lobbying for. They were lobbying against.
Alec Baldwin: So why did they go after Saddam? If Saddam was pumping oil and we knew that he wasn't making weapons of mass distruction -- you still think he might've been?
David Brooks: I think we thought that at the time. So I would say there were multiple schools within the Bush Administration. There was the Cheney/Rumsfeld school who did not – you're right, did not care about democracy. They were afraid of the weapons of mass instruction. And they were afraid that he would pass them off to some terror group…
Alec Baldwin: So they bought the whole yellowcake thing?
David Brooks: Right. They bought – yes, that he wanted to do it; he wanted to pass them off. And so did the Clinton Administration by the way. And so that was their reasoning. They did not want to establish democracy. They wanted to get in, take them out and get out of there.
The other people, I think mostly including President Bush but a lot of other people like Wolfowitz, they wanted to do the human rights and democracy thing. And I think those were the two factions and the problem was faction democracy and human rights championed the war, faction let's get out fought the war or planned the war and as a result, it was a big screw-up.
You know, the war has had a huge effect on me in the years since and so I mention Edmund Burke earlier. Be careful what you can plan because societies are extremely complicated. And so I am sitting there and I am torn before the war. I'm thinking 'I really think we need to help promote normal societies, not democracies but just normal societies.' But then Edmund Burke teaches me 'Don't go in there.' It's way more complicated than you think. And so I had this little internal debate. And I wrote a column at The Times and said 'Oh, all these concerns, Burke would like this. Burke wouldn't like this.' And then in the last paragraph I said, 'But we've got to do it anyway.' And so I think that last paragraph was probably wrong.
Alec Baldwin: And I know that this is a bogus question but I will ask you anyway, because I think you have an interesting answer to this, and that is if we had it to do over again, what would you do differently? Would you go to Pakistan instead?
Alec Baldwin: I know I would.
David Brooks: I wouldn't go there now.
Alec Baldwin: I'm saying from the beginning, back in 2003. I would've gone to Pakistan first because that's where they all were ultimately, the ones that we were after.
David Brooks: You think Iraq was complicated.
Alec Baldwin: Iraq was not behind 9/11 and Iraq was not a training ground of Al Qaeda. For what the stated purposes of the attack in 2003 were, Pakistan would have been the better place to go, correct? Potentially.
David Brooks: That is certainly true. Yeah. I mean, it's worth pointing out that more Iraqis died in the 10 years before the American invasion of Iraq than the 10 years after. It was a pretty horrible regime.
Alec Baldwin: But if we are going to be worried about horrible regimes, we could be –
David Brooks: But it was a horrible, it was an exporting regime. It was monstrous.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think needs to happen now?
David Brooks: So I have been humbled since then about what we can achieve. And it took me multiple stages, even in Afghanistan; I have been there a couple times. And you would go there and the people in the NGOs, at the UN, they really believed in the nation building part when I was there. And even that hasn't worked. It's just cultures are really hard.
I was interviewing a Bush administration official and I can't tell you who she was because we were off the record. But I once asked her didn't you guys kind of get the culture of Iraq wrong? And she said I don't really believe in culture. I think you change institutions or society changes society. But that's wrong, that's wrong. Cultures are really hard to change.
One of my favorite quotes, by the way, is by Daniel Patrick Moynihan which was if I can remember it correctly, “The central conservative truth is that culture matters most. The central liberal truth is that government can change culture." And I think that's generally true, but you have to do it very slowly and cautiously.
Alec Baldwin: I think in my lifetime, and I could be wrong because I want to switch to the current election. What is your assessment – what do you think the American military, our military policy should be in or what do you predict it might be in a Romney administration if he wins in a couple weeks? Or if Obama continues? What changes might we see?
David Brooks: Well, first I wouldn't romanticize how popular we were. Nixon, when he was Vice President, went to Latin America and they had a riot and nearly killed him.
Alec Baldwin: I think we were popular pre-1960. I'm saying during Vietnam it all sort of, all the wheels started to fall off.
David Brooks: Yeah, people never liked number one. I was at Camden Yards when the Orioles played and there was a Yankee hat in the parking lot and out of the way of the game, the fans started kicking the Yankee hat. And the crowd gathered, all of them kicking and chanting at this Yankee hat. If you are the Yankees, you are not going to be popular.
Nonetheless, I happen to think we are in a period of relative bipartisanship on foreign policy no matter whether Obama wins or Romney wins. We are unpopular, you are right about that. We are usually less unpopular then whoever the local power is. So the Japanese and the Koreans definitely want us around to ward off the Chinese. The central Europeans definitely want us around to ward off the Russians.
And so I think our role will be to – we are not going to be going abroad doing a lot of stuff. Our self-confidence isn't there. Our money isn't there.
Alec Baldwin: And that budget will be cut significantly.
David Brooks: Right, exactly. But I do think we still have a role to just try to stabilize the world and to keep various regional hegemonies from taking over.
Alec Baldwin: Right. So let's talk about the election and I wanted to ask you, for me and my lifetime, I remember and again, this is my recollection. I'm not saying this is a fact. But in my lifetime, there was a way that the Democrats behaved and there was a way that the Republicans behaved during the nominating process and beyond. And they seem to have switched places over the last 10 or 12 years. Why are the Republicans now like the Democrats? And they are just fumbling the ball inside the red zone here? What the hell is going on? Because Obama was theirs for the taking, do you agree?
David Brooks: I completely agree. If you ask people in the country heading in the right direction? 36% say yes. Should Obama be reelected? 43% say yes. We should be able to beat this guy. We might still.
Alec Baldwin: What happened?
David Brooks: Well, I do think that people who happen to be hired by Romney are not the A-Team. And that would be the consensus in Washington. There is an A-Team and he didn't want them.
Alec Baldwin: Why do you think he didn't want them?
David Brooks: He didn't know. I think he generally didn't know who the A-Team was. But I think you could take Karl Rove, Michael Deaver and Nicola Machiavellian and put them up in Boston and they still couldn't have run a good campaign with this guy. It's always a candidate. Reagan knew who he was. Romney knows who he is but he is not running as that guy. And he's not that great an actor.
David Brooks: I think he's genuinely a non-ideological guy running in an ideological time.
Alec Baldwin: Romney does make Reagan look like Marlon Brando, I must say.
David Brooks: Yeah, I must say – by the way –
Alec Baldwin: Olivier.
David Brooks: One of the really interesting conversations I once had with Bush, W. was you know, when you do a press conference, you walk out of the hallway and then you walk up to the podium about 30 yards. And you are on national TV with that walk. And he once spent about 5 minutes describing to me how you do that walk; where you put your hands, how you stride. He had thought it all through. And there is just some level of acting I guess how you present yourself.
Romney is pretending to be much more ideological than he really is. I don't think he really engages himself. He's pretending to be much more –
Alec Baldwin: Is that it right there? That he is just not being true to himself and that's coming through? That's leaking out of his essence.
David Brooks: I genuinely think you can't fake it. I once got to have dinner with Tom Clancy when I was book review editor and he –
Alec Baldwin: I really like him.
David Brooks: Really? This was my one and only meeting.
Alec Baldwin: He's a good guy.
David Brooks: Okay. And my memory of that dinner was, he just gone on a battleship and seen a new weapon system and he was really excited. It was fascinating to him. And as he was enthusing about it, I was thinking you can't fake that. Unless you feel that, you can't write Tom Clancy novels.
And so Mitt Romney is pretending to be a Tea Party guy. That's just not who he is. And so as a result, sometimes he gets to hard-core. He steps on it too strong. Sometimes he pulls back. I would just wish – I think he will spend the rest of his life, assuming he loses, regretting that he didn't run as himself.
Alec Baldwin: Now, interesting. When you talk about running as yourself, and this may be a very naïve question because I really don't know how these things work. Why don't people who are running in the GOP now, I mean Bush is a born-again Christian and he operated from that vantage point as such. And Romney of course is not a born-again Christian. He is of a different faith. I think that there is a critical element in our society where they are not so clear about Obama and they are waiting to be wooed but they are not going to be wooed by an ultra-right wing conservative crowd, especially on social issues.
And I think that the Republican candidate who would come in, this is just an opinion, the Republican candidate who would come in and tame the conservative right wing, who got the heads of six or eight of these groups in a room and said you've got to shut up and don't be behind me squawking like some kind of a chorus until this thing is over. I've got to get out there and I got to play this a little more moderately and we are going to win. As long as you just tone it down, we are going to win. They don't do that. But don't you think it's going to cost him the election?
David Brooks: Yes. Well, I think it's already cost them a bunch of Senate seats and could cost them a bunch more. And so of course from where I stand, I would much rather they ran a much more moderate –
Alec Baldwin: What is the guy’s name in Missouri?
David Brooks: Akin, Todd Akin.
Alec Baldwin: Why isn't he gone? How the hell did that happen?
David Brooks: He may win, he may win.
Alec Baldwin: He may win? Do you think he'll be clear?
David Brooks: He is about 50-50 right now.
David Brooks: Missouri is a funny state. It's going the other way.
Alec Baldwin: Funny, that's an interesting word.
Alec Baldwin: Go ahead.
David Brooks: It's illegitimate. One of the odd things about why he is losing right now is that he's losing like 2% or 3% nationally but by 10% or 11% in these key swing states which is why he's really behind. So why is that? Why is there a disjunction? It's because the Obama administration has gone brilliantly after – they know they can't win white working-class men but they have hit white working-class women. They have run these brilliant ads on Judge Judy, on Dr. Phil and it's all, 'This guy is rich, he does not get you.'
And they started it with Bain, and then folded it with Medicare and so if you look at the polling; white working-class women nationwide, maybe about 39% support Obama. In the swing states where they are seeing these ads, it's 49%. And that's the margin right there. And so his problem I think is not so much ideology, it's that he is just a rich guy who doesn't get you. I have defended him on this because people say that you know, he's got a house in San Diego where he has a garage with elevators. And I have tried to point out that he has many other houses where the garages do not have elevators.
David Brooks: And it's not fair.
Alec Baldwin: He needs you, boy.
David Brooks: Yeah.
David Brooks: But I think essentially, he would be running more right than me but I think he would be winning if he were a candidate who related.
Alec Baldwin: What is your opinion of campaign finance reform? As you see the numbers pile up now, it will be a record again in terms of spending in the presidential race. What’s your opinion of campaign finance reform?
David Brooks: So I’m for reform. I think our system –
Alec Baldwin: What style of reform would you favor of what you’ve seen?
David Brooks: Well, I’ve grown tired and exhausted by changing the rules here and there. I think you’ve either got to go to full disclosure, complete disclosure or full public finance, just one or the other. Because where we are now – and to me, say for example, on tax reform, I’m a big believer we have to simplify the tax code. But if every little provision in the tax code has some special interest who can drop $5 million in their congressional district, there’s no way we’re going to do that.
Alec Baldwin: How would you simplify the tax code?
David Brooks: I would eliminate –
Alec Baldwin: There would essentially be a flat tax?
David Brooks: Well, no –
Alec Baldwin: Or stages of a flat tax without …
David Brooks: I would – there’s a consensus. I would do what Simpson Bowles suggests. Get rid of – I would cap the mortgage interest deduction. A lot of the deductions for people earning let’s say above $150,000 and then lower the rates.
Alec Baldwin: You’d cap the mortgage deduction at what? Because what is it now, $1 million?
David Brooks: Well, what I’d do is I’d say if you – say you earn over $250,000; you can only take so many deductions. And how you want to parcel out your deductions, that’s fine by you.
Alec Baldwin: Charitable deductions?
David Brooks: Yeah, I might – I want to preserve that one. I’ve given that one.
Alec Baldwin: Right.
David Brooks: But having said that, I think that the Bush tax cuts should be repealed top to bottom. The middle class parts, all of them, because you can tax the rich to forever, until this island is empty and you will not raise enough money to pay –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. People always threaten they’re going to leave but they really don’t leave. They say that.
David Brooks: They’re always about to go to Canada. Maybe they move to Brooklyn.
Alec Baldwin: And what do you think of term limits?
David Brooks: Definitely against them.
Alec Baldwin: You are? Why?
David Brooks: They empower staffs; it’s also politics is really hard and legislation is really hard. And things take a long time to learn. One of the things –
Alec Baldwin: I’m in favor or term limits now.
David Brooks: You are?
Alec Baldwin: Oh, yeah, in the Congress I am, yeah.
David Brooks: If you’re in and out in four years, first of all, you’re thinking about your next job right away. Second, the permanent staff just takes over.
Alec Baldwin: I don’t think anybody should serve in the congress for more than 12 years. More importantly, you have to have one or the other; you either have to have the campaign finance reform at a level that’s meaningful or you have to have the term limits because right now, my friends who work in Washington, the old – this was nauseating enough. Right when you think it can’t get any more disgusting, my friends who all work on the Hill told me that these men and women in the US Senate spend one full day, one full day out of five days on the phone raising money. All they do is – they don’t do any Senate business. One day out of the week. My friends said to me in the last six years, it’s become two full days. They’re on the phone two days out of five, not doing any work that you sent them to do. And that they are raising money for their campaigns. That’s a sin. That’s a crime. That makes me sick.
So I think that to me, two six year terms and get them out of there. And I’m a liberal.
David Brooks: Yeah, I think the problem is more tribalism than money. We haven’t had tax reform. We haven’t had complicated legislation with the possible exception of health care because we don’t have the legislative skills of a Lyndon Johnson. People just don’t know how to do it.
Like I covered tax reform, there was a guy name Packwood, Bob Packwood, Dan Rostenkowski - both of whom, it occurs to me either went to jail or resigned in disgrace -
David Brooks: But they knew how to legislate. They were really good at it. Bill Bradley - and that takes time. You got to learn to do that. And by the way, I think the people in their first year are just as money grubbers as the people in their 32nd year.
Alec Baldwin: But I want to just finish by asking you that you also, you wrote a book or you wrote a segment of your book about marriage. What was your –?
David Brooks: I wrote a book called "The Social Animal" which is really a compendium of the research on conscious processes and what leads to happiness.
Alec Baldwin: What motivated you to write that book?
David Brooks: Well, the official answer is that I wanted to know why kids drop out of high school. And it turns out the factors are determined very early and within the first 18 months of life. You can take a look at a kid who is 18 months, how the kid relates to mom and predict with 77% accuracy who is going to graduate from high school. There are certain emotional attachments. A kid who can form an attachment early on is going to know how to form an attachment with teachers and peers -- life is going to be okay. If you can't form attachments, life will be very frustrating. That doesn't mean you are determined or you are sentenced to a life at 18 months, you can have a mentor later on that will change you. But those early formations are very important.
Alec Baldwin: You been married to the same woman for how many years?
David Brooks: 26 years, I think.
Alec Baldwin: What's the secret?
Alec Baldwin: I just got remarried. What's the secret?
David Brooks: I am not smart on this but I did read a really good blog post on this. My wife would kill me if I started giving advice on how to do this. Marry someone really patient.
But I read this blog post and one of the pieces of advice was brag about your spouse and let them overhear you.
David Brooks: And that seemed like very good advice. Another piece of advice she gave was sometimes they tell you never go to bed mad, sometimes you've just got to go to bed. Go to sleep, sleep on it, cook breakfast for the other person. Sometimes you just go to sleep. And this struck me as very realistic advice.
But part of what the book was about was first how we find our mates. And so a lot of it is unconscious.
Alec Baldwin: And what a critical decision you were saying, how –
David Brooks: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Because I feel the same way. I wrote a book about that was a critique of the family law system and the divorce system when I got divorced and how it was just being thrown into this quicksand. It was just so painful and so agonizing. And I say that to people all the time. I say this decision is – it is fundamentally the most critical decision you're going to make in your life, who you – I mean, if you are of that mind to marry and to make that kind of a home with somebody and make it legal. And the criteria with which people use to get married now.
My dear friend who left the country for several years, he is an artist and he and his wife, after running an art gallery in New York for many years, they just took off and they went to the Italian countryside or something. He was gone for like nine years and I said 'What's one thing you noticed?' And he said 'All these kids with these devices in their hands.' He said 'I came home and they have all these devices in their hands.' I said 'Yeah, that really is alarming, isn't it?' He says these kids will never get to know each other in real time. They are never going to stare into each other's eyes over a table with a checkered tablecloth and a candle shoved into a bottle of Mateus eating a really shitty Italian meal. But over the course of a couple of hours, really get to know each other in real time. 'Everybody is in such a hurry to get to the fast no,' he said to me, that’s created this horrible mechanism for intimacy in our society.
David Brooks: Yeah, so I go to colleges and I tell kids if you have a great career and a crappy marriage, you will be miserable. If you have a crappy career and a great marriage, you'll be happy. So every course you take in college should be about who to marry. So like you should take literature courses, theater courses, science courses. Think hard about this one. They look at me like I'm crazy. But that is absolutely true. So if you want to know what correlates to happiness, money correlates a little but when you hit a certain point, it stops. Age correlates to happiness so people in their 20s are happy and then they go through a shallow, U-shaped curve and the nadir of happiness for the average person is age 47. And that's called having teenage children.
Alec Baldwin: You are spot on, you are spot on.
David Brooks: And then the peak happiness is the first 10 years after retirement. But the people who are happy, marriage is equal to double your income; having a good marriage produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income.
Alec Baldwin: I tell people that the role in marriage is the rule that I failed to apply in my movie career which is just say 'No' until you have to say 'Yes.'
Alec Baldwin: Until you meet that woman where you say to yourself, 'She's out there and the idea that she is out there and I don't have her,' it just drives you insane. You have to have her. Well, then you marry her. Until you feel that way, then maybe you just have to take your time.
We are going to take some questions, I think. Yes?
Announcer: One audience member asked about the gridlock in Washington and wondered about a pathway to resolve that problem. This was Brooks’s response:
David Brooks: Say when you are at GW, if you asked people 'Do you trust government to do the right thing most of the time?' In those days 70% said yes, 77% said yes. Now if you ask people 'Do you trust government to do the right thing most of the time?' its 19%. And so there's just no trust that the government can do the big things.
And so I am in favor of doing some big things. And if I had my druthers, we would have just this big human capital agenda where we would do a lot of early childhood education –
Alec Baldwin: Alternative energy, would that be one of them?
David Brooks: Well, I think that would be one of them. I happen to think fracking is a good thing.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
David Brooks: Why?
Alec Baldwin: Why?
David Brooks: Because I think it provides us, um, cheaper energy that's much cleaner than coal and oil.
Alec Baldwin: Let's talk about that because fracking, where and I would love to hear your opinion and/or your facts for that matter because everybody seems –
David Brooks: I've got my own set.
Alec Baldwin: Everybody's got their own set of facts about fracking because I am very anti-fracking because of course, the natural gas being cleaner than coal thing is a given. But we can't have a Price Anderson act for the natural gas industry where if they spoil all the water in the southern tier of the state of New York in these designated zones, I mean, Andrew Cuomo is going to say here's a zone, and I am being very glib about it, but it’s basically like everybody raise your hand who wants to have fracking down in the southern tier of New York and those Binghamton adjacent areas that want it, he’s going to probably let them have it.
And then when all that water gets screwed up, if it does, if all that water gets contaminated, who are they going to come to clean up that water? Who are they going to hand the bill to clean up that water? You want to say that burning natural gas is cleaner than oil, I agree with you.
But the same argument goes with nukes; the nuclear industry will sit there – before 9/11. Before we got into the terrorist target issue, they were sitting there going well, Yucca Mountain, we don't know and the stuff is just going to sit there in a pile and we haven't figured it out yet but nuclear is cleaner than oil, I mean, coal. Everybody just keeps saying it's cleaner than coal. But I'm saying, what happens if the water issue becomes a big problem? Let alone all the stuff that Bobby Kennedy riffs on about the roads they're going to build and who's going to pay – they've got trucks going up there now that are smashing all the roads to pieces. And do you think that those natural gas companies are going to pay for it?
Here's the PS. I don't mean to mug you here now. But here's the PS. LNG is building all these ports right now on the East Coast and is that gas? Do all these companies that are fracking say we're going to go down into the southern tier of New York end up in Ohio and northern Pennsylvania and we are going to blow all these holes into the ground and maybe risk having some earthquakes and maybe spoiling all these trillions of gallons of water because we’re going to get this gas which is going to lower the price of natural gas and fuel here in the United States. Bullshit. They are going to pipe that stuff to the coast and put it on tankers and put it on the market and go sell it to the Chinese or sell it on the open market. It's not going to lower the cost of energy here. So why are you in favor of frack?
Alec Baldwin: Let me get my pen.
David Brooks: I guess I want to hear your opinion first.
Alec Baldwin: No, but I'm just burning on this issue.
David Brooks: Okay. So I am where President Obama is. So I'm a good Democrat on this issue and where I think the Republicans are –
Alec Baldwin: Touché.
David Brooks: And so basically there has been a ton of research done on this and like every single energy source, it has costs and it has environmental costs. The benefits to fracking, I saw a Yale study on this, are measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The costs including what you just mentioned are measured in the hundreds millions of dollars. So you can take some of the benefits and regulated so the costs are mitigated.
Alec Baldwin: And the report that calculated those costs was written by whom?
David Brooks: It was Yale University. I don't know, some scholar. So a very fine institution. And so basically if you think the – there is one price of gas in the world. There is one price of oil in the world. So if we lower the – if we increase the supply tremendously which is what's happening, the cost is going down. If you are making $25,000 a year or $35,000 a year, it really actually kind of matters to you. If you are sitting out there in Western Pennsylvania or South Dakota or North Dakota without a job, it kind of matters to you that there is a 50 buck an hour job to you. If you want there to be working class, this kind of stuff actually kind of matters.
Alec Baldwin: But it's proven that it's a 50 buck an hour job up in the Southern tier of New York and up in northern Pennsylvania for people that are coming from Oklahoma and Texas and Louisiana. None of those people that are getting high-paying jobs are from that area. They are bringing gas people down from the South and bringing them up there. You go up to the fracking zones of New York and all the license plates are from down south. And they're going to take that job and they're going to take that money and they're going to spend it on condoms and cigarettes up there and then they're going to go home.
David Brooks: There are a lot of condom makers. You keep coming back to condoms.
Alec Baldwin: It's a big issue. It's an umbrella.
David Brooks: If you go to North Dakota and you pull into a McDonald's and you push the button at the drive through, you are talking to somebody from Texas because they cannot find anybody to work at McDonald's in the drive-through because everyone is out on the oilfields as a gas fields. And those places are becoming extremely wealthy.
Alec Baldwin: I'm a vegetarian so I don't care.
David Brooks: Okay. But I'm saying, this is – sure there are costs. And sure it has to be regulated and by the way, the responsible gas companies want to regulate it. They don't want the responsibility –
Alec Baldwin: But the minute you talk about them, and again I know that there is a good cover for this. I've heard it before. But the minute you talk about well, it's hundreds of billions in benefits and hundreds of millions in costs and it's cleaner than coal, and I want to say then why are we going renewable? All of my friends who work in renewable say if you build derricks on the Great Lakes for wind turbine, we have enough power for wind turbines on the Great Lakes, on derricks they would build on the Great Lakes; floating derricks on the Great Lakes would power one third of the country.
And if you put photovoltaic elements in the southwestern United States, you would power another quarter of the country with photovoltaic. And if you want to get serious about cutting costs and America's energy independence, we need to have the Apollo Project of renewable energy. Why don't they spend any money on that?
Alec Baldwin: What you think about that?
David Brooks: I think gas is the gateway to those renewables. We are not there yet. It is just simply not competitive.
Alec Baldwin: When will we be there and how do we get there?
David Brooks: We have to have more technological advance so they are economically competitive. They are simply not economically competitive.
Alec Baldwin: But the government has to kick start that.
David Brooks: China is now closing down their renewables because even they, with the massive subsidies cannot export. They have run out of places to export to. They just can't afford it. These renewable industries are growing, they are going to be the future, but it's going to take a little while to get to them.
Alec Baldwin: When, until we the pump the last drop of gas out of the ground?
David Brooks: No, well it will probably be a two course thing. As renewables get cheaper, they will come down to a market price and as gas becomes dearer, it will rise up.
Alec Baldwin: I think that the government has to make renewables cheaper by investing that money themselves to kick start the program.
Alec Baldwin: The last thing I want to say before we go is one thing I am mindful of is Obama's term may end and who knows what's going to happen, we really don't know what's going to happen. We live in that world now where if the election were called now, they're saying Obama would win but we really don't know what's going to happen.
And if Obama were gone, what I wanted to ask you is, what do you think would have been different in a Hillary Clinton administration if she had been president? And what do you think will become of Hillary Clinton now in her career henceforth?
David Brooks: Let me answer the second one while think about the first. Um, first of all, I think the Democrats have a reasonably weak bench for 2016 no matter who, whether he wins it or not. So I think there will be a big 'Draft Hillary' movement. I don't think at the moment from what I understand of people who really know her that she is of a mind to do that right now. She's tired. But a few years of resting, I think the opportunity will be – it's tough to not be the first woman president. So I think she still has a future in part because there are just not a lot of Democrats who are sort of obvious candidates.
As for the difference between the two –
Alec Baldwin: Well, there are some who view themselves as obvious candidates.
David Brooks: Yeah, every Democrat in the U.S. Senate. But as for the differences, one of the things – I am a big personal admirer of Obama. I have known him for a long time. I have covered him and spoken to him a lot. But one of his weaknesses that I think she would have done a better job is personal relationships with fellow Democrats.
Alec Baldwin: He is a bit antiseptic they say.
David Brooks: When you – most politicians they say, they grab you, they rub your cheek, they just invade your personal space. You have spent a lot of time around them, they are just animalistic in their – but they connect. Obama, with his staff, they'll say 'Were going to such and such a city. Why don’t you call the mayor up and invite them to ride with you from the airport downtown?' He'd say 'I don't want to do that. I don't want to do that.'
Alec Baldwin: He's playing Words with Friends maybe.
David Brooks: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: He has his priorities.
David Brooks: They kicked them off Air Force One.
Alec Baldwin: But he really won't, no retail politics for him.
David Brooks: In my view, he has a writer's personality. He likes the solitary time to think. And so he just doesn't do that and even going up to the Hill, there was a call that was made to the White House a couple years ago. They wanted to send him up to lobby for a piece of legislation. The senators called up and said, don't send him. He doesn't like us, we know it, it won't help.
Alec Baldwin: That's a bad place to be when you are told preemptively that it's undoable. That's kind of a tough thing.
David Brooks: So I think she would have been a little bit – she wouldn't have been as great as her husband. One of the people in his administration – Obama doesn't make the call to the Hill. Clinton would sit there and make 32 calls in a row. His problem was his position on call 32 was 180° from where it was on call one. But he would make the calls. And so I do think she would've done the inside game a little better.
Alec Baldwin: Do you think she's done a good job in the position she's in now?
David Brooks: Yes, I do. I do. I think she's – yeah.
Alec Baldwin: So do I. I think she's been a great Secretary of State. Great Secretary of State. I wanted to end by saying, and I mean this sincerely, not only are you the most likable and charming conservative I've ever met, you are by far the most likable and charming writer from The New York Times I've ever met. So thank you very much for coming.
Alec Baldwin: I’m Alec Baldwin. Here’s The Thing is produced by WNYC Radio. Thanks this week to the Public Theater and to Jeremy McCarter of the Public Forum.
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