META-BROOKS. It was weird to crack open The New York Times this weekend and see David Brooks publishing not an op-ed column, but a meta-op-ed column. If he ever did publish a compendium of his columns entitled The Essential David Brooks, it would require only one page, on which would be printed Sunday's piece.
Brooks' subject was a series of leaked requirement lists used by political advance teams to ensure the comfort and contentment of their peripatetic employers. Dick Cheney, famously, needs all his televisions preset to Fox News, while John Kerry doesn't like celery. The documents include favored meals, disfavored foods, bottled water, and all the rest. It's obvious stuff: guidelines for advance teams who need to scope out dinner locations while their bosses give speeches, or add in some snacks so they've a few reliable comfort foods or healthful meals while on the road.
Brooks, for his part, spins these documents into an extended meditation on the nature of the political character. The whey protein and bottled water and Caesar salads are, he writes, the best guarantors of "sensual pleasure" that these pols and their hyperambitious staffers could come up with. Successful politicians, he says, have repressed their "Dionysian side" in order to achieve intellectual actualization, moving to DC ("a city with an erogenous zone the size of a pea") and sacrificing sex, drugs, and rock and roll for a "dweeb decadence" of bottled water, preset televisions, and fine tea selection.
It's all very gracefully written and the column is, in places, piercingly funny. The only problem is the premise: It's simply not true. The lists weren't a rundown of Kerry or Cheney's deepest desires; they were prep documents for advance teams that have to provide meals without the diner's input. Moreover, Kerry and Cheney, whatever else you'll say about them, are hardly men who lack sufficient taste for the finer things: JK is a notorious gourmand who constantly visits the world's finest ski resorts, loves nothing more than to hang with the many classic rockers he calls friends, and routinely windsurfs. Dick Cheney just shot a dude in the face, but he did so during a lavish hunting trip set on the rolling estate of an unimaginably rich donor. And I don't think anyone dares accuse Bill Clinton of having been too much a mentor magnet or A-student to enjoy life's more sensual pleasures.
In this way, the story is classic Brooks. The thesis is flawed from the start, but the column built upon that cracked foundation is so gracefully constructed, so wonderfully compatible with our own internal biases, that you hardly notice the basement crashing in. The intellectual set that Brooks writes for is, deep down, certain that they could do Kerry or Cheney's job better, and not at all certain why they didn't rise to the same elevated position as the soporific senator or sneering grand vizier. So Brooks gives them a reason: They live too good, love too much, eat too well. Their erogenous zones are bigger than a pea. But even such fully developed pleasure centers are dwarfed by the vast territories devoted to schadenfreude, and this is the territory that David Brooks seeks to conquer.