JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 6, 2010
This quite good New York magazine profile of David Brooks made me feel sad for him:
"Every column is a failure,” says Brooks. “I always wish I did something different.” Part of the problem is the format. There’s only so much you can do with 800 words. “I’m a 3,000-word person,” he says.
Deadline days end with fourteen piles of paper stacked around his office—printouts, notes, index cards, photocopies—one for each paragraph of the story. If the column doesn’t come together, he resorts to the laundry list, beginning each paragraph with “First,” “Second,” etc. “Usually when I do that, I’ve written another version of the column and it sucked,” he says, “so those are usually acts of sheer desperation.”
Plus Brooks just isn’t that opinionated. “I look at Andrew Sullivan or Jonathan Chait, churning out opinions,” he says. “I don’t have that many.” Brooks’s goal isn’t to change minds, he says. “Do I expect someone with View X on a policy, and I argue View Anti-X, that somehow they’re gonna totally change their mind? I don’t think I’ve ever had that effect on anybody.” He can “strengthen and highlight certain feelings,” he says. But that’s about it.
Obviously, every column Brooks writes is not a failure. But many of them are. Brooks is very good at making observations, but not especially good at making arguments. He's miscast in the role of an op-ed columnist. You can see that in today's column. It's primarily a set of Brooksian observations -- Keynesian economists are very smart and rely upon models, businessmen distrust the government. Brooks presents these observations as an argument against large-scale stimulus, but they really aren't. They could just as easily be presented as an argument for why businessmen are ignorant of macroeconomics.
Brooks says that it's very hard to change peoples' minds. I agree. Very few people have the sorts of minds that base their beliefs upon factual premises building to a logical conclusion, and which can therefore change their minds in the face of contrary evidence. The problem is that Brooks doesn't make the kind of arguments that could convince a person like that. (This isn't ideological: Ross Douthat does make those kind of arguments pretty effectively.)
Brooks used to be known mainly for his long-form journalism. I doubt anybody read his work and thought, "This man should be writing an op-ed column." But what happened is that the New York Times needed a conservative who liberals would find amenable, and there were few candidates other than Brooks. The role of New York Times columnist is very prestigious and lucrative, so Brooks obviously felt he couldn't turn it down. From the perspective of the Times, he's quite valuable, even though he's in a role that misuses his considerable talents. The sad thing is that Brooks understands the dilemma. Here's something he told Howard Kurtz in 2008:
When Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. offered him an op-ed spot soon after the 2003 invasion, Brooks wanted to turn it down, figuring it would be hard to compress his ideas to column length. But, he said, "I had a failure of courage."
It's easy for me to say that he should quit the op-ed gig and go write 3,000 word reported essays -- that would be better for Brooks' readers but (I would surmise) bad for his income. I don't mean this pejoratively -- when you have a family, looking after your income is not pure selfishness. In any case, he's trapped in the wrong genre.