David Brooks gave the crowd at Tuesday night's convocation at Centre College plenty to smile about when he wasn't offering an insider’s view of the current presidential tickets and a somewhat dim picture of realities facing the country.
The New York Times columnist and bestselling author was at Centre for a pre-debate talk that concluded the series of Press Distinguished Lectures started in 2000 in conjunction with the last vice-presidential debate.
Brooks, who delivered the lecture in 2010, is the only person to speak twice in the series that began with a lecture by late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. shortly before the debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman.
Brooks has spent much of his space in the opinion pages and his books, including 2000’s “Bobos in Paradise” and last year’s “The Social Animal,” musing about what he sees as a narcissistic society of people increasingly focused on shallow goals, like fame, and clueless about their own shortcomings.
Brooks said the code of self-effacement in America, which bound people to sublimate their own vanity, was long ago replaced by a culture of self-aggrandizement.
He compared humility he heard in American voices during the re-broadcast of a radio program originally aired on the day Japan surrendered during World War II with the “look at me” theatrics of today's athletes after they complete routine acts on the playing field.
The proof is measurable, Brooks said, in recent polls showing 80 percent of students who believe they are “very important” versus only 12 percent in 1950.
“We told a generation of young people how special they are, and they believed us,” Brooks said.
Among the most jarring effects of unchecked egotism are the country’s astronomical debt, bloated compensation for top executives, and political and philosophical polarization.
While he established conservative credentials as a writer for William F. Buckley's magazine National Review, Brooks has confounded both ends of the political spectrum with his critiques of, among other themes, the endless struggle over the size of government.
He said the unwillingness to concede any fallibility in one’s own argument and an inclination to see anyone with a disagreement as being “in the way,” has left the country divided for decades.
The author said the country is likely headed for a fiscal cliff and budgetary disaster in large part because of the stuborness of its political leaders.
Brooks called for a new tradition in the spirit of his political hero Alexander Hamilton. To him, that would entail a “limited and energetic government” dedicated to increasing chances for social and economic mobility.
Despite the dreary outlook on where the country is headed, Brooks flashed his wit and incisive eye for the ridiculous in American culture often during his talk. He drew laughs from the mostly packed house, including with his observation that the best time to understand a man is by watching him buy a new grill at a big box store.
The longtime beltway watcher also gave the audience the inside dope on the candidates and what, for his money, have been underwhelming campaigns so far. He sounded much more positive about the men who will face each other for the vice-presidential debate at Centre in just over a week.
Brooks likely has spent the most up close and personal time with Democrat Joe Biden, a fact he said isn't surprising considering the vice president’s warmth and openness. He praised the former Delaware senator for his candor, saying Biden loved talking to people so much the two had shared lunches before when Brooks realized he had never said a word.
Republican Paul Ryan quickly made an impression on Brooks as one of the few “entrepreneurs” among lawmakers when it came to new ideas, and a rare intellectual in the nation’s capital, a designation Brooks quipped was probably “damning him with faint praise.”
Brooks said people like Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp used to arrive in Washington bursting with concepts they wanted to test, but Ryan currently stands almost alone.
It is the aspirants to the top job that apparently have troubled Brooks, albeit for different reasons.
Although Brooks believes Mitt Romney to be an extraordinary person, he said the former Massachusetts governor is a “hidden man,” who is hesitant to reveal any more of himself in large part because of his reluctance and that of his handlers to discuss his Mormon faith.