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May 9, 2008

Columnist David Brooks visits alma mater for talk

[img id="80590" align="alignleft"] New York Times columnist David Brooks (A.B. ’83) discussed Barack Obama, John McCain, the Middle East, and his time at the U of C in a talk yesterday sponsored by the Chicago Friends of Israel, the UCDems, and the College Republicans.

In his speech to more than 180 receptive students and faculty in a Kent lecture hall, the conservative columnist evaluated the current contenders for Oval Office, comparing and contrasting the experiences and abilities of Obama and McCain.

Brooks drew on his experience with politicians, many of whom he said he knew personally. Relaying his perceptions of the current presidential campaign, Brooks said that Obama is “now carried in by cherubs,” eliciting audience laughter.

“I could talk about Clinton, but I don’t think that it’s necessary,” Brooks said, referring to the widespread expectation that Obama will become the Democratic nominee.

“Obama has the heart of the world,” he said, praising Obama for both his ability to have perceptive, intellectual discussion and to see history as being driven by grassroots forces, rather than forces in a palace.

Brooks also took shots at the candidates, claiming that Obama “was a mediocre senator” and that McCain “does not have intellectual sensibilities.”

Obama sees global warming, hunger, and other “amorphous” problems as the big challenges facing the United States, Brooks said. McCain, on the other hand, sees China, Russia, and Iran as the main threats facing America.

Brooks said that he remains an “unabashed fan of McCain.” Keeping with McCain’s “straight-talk” campaign slogan, Brooks said that when McCain tells him something, he has no problem putting it in his column, because he trusts that McCain is not lying.

Brooks lightheartedly recommended that both candidates pick Dwight Eisenhower, who passed away in 1969, as their running mate, to laugher from the audience. Eisenhower is both older than Obama and younger than McCain, Brooks joked.

Brooks said that politicians “are all emotional freaks,” observing that while they often become adept at fostering strong relationships with those both more and less powerful than themselves as they ascend the political ladder, they often overlook relationships with their equals.

He said that part of the journalist’s job is to bridge gaps in communication among politicians.

“Journalists are like ambassadors telling politicians about each other,” Brooks said.

Brooks also expressed his pessimism about the ability of Middle Easterners and Americans to imagine a shared future both with members of their respective societies and within the global community, as Americans become more divided by educational achievement and Middle Easterners remain divided by religious ideology.

“The tragedy of the post–9-11 world is that a world that seemed to be coming together is not,” Brooks said.

Americans carried a “powerful sense of universalism,” during the 1990s after the Cold War, Brooks said. U.S. ideology seemed triumphant and the Soviet Union had apparently embraced democracy, with other European countries in tow.

September 11 and the vagaries of the Iraq war broke this notion, Brooks said, leading to a return among U.S. conservatives to what he called “epistemological modesty,” which he said involves a more serious understanding of cultural divides and how differing perceptions affect political outcomes.

This leads to a “great hesitancy to get enmeshed” in the affairs of other countries, Brooks said.

Some students disagreed with Brooks’s global perceptions.

“As far as the rifts, as a demographer that’s kind of his job,” fourth-year Nabeel Ebeid said. Ebeid said that while he agreed with Brooks on several accounts, he felt Brooks ignored the willingness of many people to reach across cultural barriers if given the chance.

Throughout the evening, Brooks interspersed his talk with humorous and self-deprecating memories of his U of C days as an undergraduate, recalling that he once received a D on a French exam in a nearby lecture room.

A former MAROON editorial columnist, Brooks said that he broke into the world of journalism after publishing in the paper a parody of William F. Buckley, the conservative journalist, political commentator, and founder of National Review, in anticipation of Buckley’s visit to campus.

“David Brooks, if you’re in the audience, I’d like to offer you a job,” Buckley announced during his U of C lecture.

Brooks said that he was not, in fact, in the audience at the time. However, upon graduating from the University with a degree in history, Brooks called Buckley and landed a reporting job at the Review. He worked as a reporter and columnist for several publications before joining the Times as a columnist in 2003.

“I can’t tell you how weird it is to be back here,” Brooks said.