jimsleeper.com » David Brooks’ Dreams of Ivy

David Brooks’ Dreams of Ivy

November 21, 2008

Look Who Loves Ivy Neoliberal Leadership Now!

By Jim Sleeper

I’ve seen columnists become obsessed; I’ve seen them rage at or swoon over the objects of their obsessions. But nothing – not even my own supposed obsession with New York Times columnist David Brooks — compares with his decade-long, love-hate fixation on the Ivy League, the “love” side of which is on display in his column today celebrating an influx of Clinton Ivy Leaguers into the Obama administration.

Brooks’ “hate” side surfaces and re-surfaces, too, though. In a gloating, 2001 Wall Street Journal essay, “Bush In, Ivy Out,” he ridiculed Clinton Ivy Leaguers who were then being replaced by real Americans “from inland state schools” under two apostate Yalies, Bush and Cheney: “You couldn’t have swung an ax in Bill Clinton’s cabinet room without hitting a bunch of Ivy League grads,” Brooks snarked, getting meaner from then on. To him and all conservative propagandists, they were all liberal elitists.

Now Brooks is stroking many of the very same people as they return to Washington. He begins by teasing them, much as he did in 2001: “If a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard-Yale game [in] the next four years, we’re screwed.” This time his column gets nicer, but something more troubling is driving Brooks than his desire to have these people return his calls.

For years, Brooks’ Ivy fixation has kept him see-sawing: On the one hand, he often displays a pariah’s bitter ressentiment toward Yale and Harvard, borne of attraction to his heart’s lost desire (he went to the University of Chicago, so near and yet so far). On the other hand, in 2002 Brooks began to display a parvenu’s compulsive ingratiation, praising Yale lavishly in the Weekly Standard shortly before its Cold War historian John Gaddis, the Reagan diplomat Charles Hill, and other Yale neo-cons welcomed him for a semester to teach a course, to sell the Iraq War to students, and to promote his hosts’ Bush-worshipping Grand Strategy program in subsequent columns in the Times.

Only a year before, in the Wall Street Journal essay, Brooks had gloated that cleansing Washington of Ivy Leaguers had relieved the republic of their characteristic erudite bluffing, arrogant insouciance, and other presumptions of superiority that arouse “both awe and silent hatred” in regular Americans.

Surveying the Bush team, he’d exulted that Condoleezza Rice had gone to the University of Denver, Colin Powell to the City College of New York, Paul O’Neill to Fresno State, and Dick Cheney to the University of Wyoming after dropping out of Yale, and that “Karl Rove, the brains behind the whole operation, has no college degree at all.”

At last, Brooks enthused, we’d be free of Ivy Leaguers who “know three facts about absolutely everything, and have been taught to weave these meager strands into conversational patter so fluid that it renders their full-of-it-ness irrelevant.” No longer would we suffer the “Paranoiaphilia” of Yalies like Hillary Clinton who assume “that there is a small, tightly knit conspiracy that secretly runs the world” and who, “instead of hating this elite, …love it because they think they are in it.”

Fortunately, Brooks announced, “The skills [George Bush] acquired in the Texas oil business are suited for a world in which success and failure are measured by tangible accomplishments, like oil production levels and after-tax profits” — so unlike Ivy League presumptions “suited to a world in which the definition of success is totally unrelated to tangible accomplishment of any kind.”

Brooks wasn’t far off the mark in spotting what mesmerizes but at the same time galls so many about the Ivy League, often with good reason. In 2003, he devoted his very first Times column, “Bred for Power, to that very subject.

In 2005, Deep Throat’s self-disclosure prompted a nasty Brooks column, supposedly on the lessons of Watergate but really all about the compulsive networking of Ivy grads like Bob Woodward, who as a young reporter had met DeepThroat through just such ingratiation.

Brooks does understand that while America owes a lot historically to Yale’s and Harvard’s once-deep, now iffy civic-republican leadership training, it owes just as much to graduates of “inland state schools” and even of no schools at all. I’ve argued that the Ivies now risk becoming career factories and cultural gallerias for a global ruling class accountable to no polity or moral code. The American republic and the world deserve better.

So what does Brooks say now that the pseudo-omniscient Ivy grads he took down a peg in 2001 are returning to Washington under Obama? He writes that they’re wonderful! Gone are his japes about the know-it-all bluffing, paranoiaphilia, and other presumptions he spotlighted in 2001. Now, he decides that “much as I want to resent these over-educated Achievatrons …, I find myself tremendously impressed…..”

Brooks names many of these impressive people, but some are the same people he had in mind when he lampooned Ivy know-it-alls in 2001.

This time, they “are twice as smart as the poor reporters who have to cover them, three times if you include the columnists.” This time, they’re “open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence….. They are admired professionals, ….hardheaded and pragmatic.” This time, “They’re thinking holistically — there’s a nice balance of policy wonks, governors and legislators. They’re also thinking strategically.”

Mirabile dictu, they are “the best of the Washington insiders. Obama seems to have dispensed with the romantic and failed notion that you need inexperienced ‘fresh faces’ to change things.” This time, “Obama is not bringing along an insular coterie of lifelong aides who depend upon him for their well-being.” (Such as Karl Rove, whom Brooks defended to the end?)

Finally, gone is Brooks’ claim that the Ivy definition of success “is totally unrelated to tangible accomplishment of any kind,” unlike Bush’s success (??!!) in the oil fields of Texas. This time, the Ivy grads on Obama’s team approach problems “with practical creativity. Any think tanker can come up with broad doctrines, but it is rare to find people who can give the president a list of concrete steps he can do day by day to advance American interests.”

Have the Ivy stars all had civic-republican epiphanies and moved in Brooks’ direction since 2001? Nope. Has Brooks changed, then? Not really, although it’s fair to say that he’s gotten confused. He knows that the country has repudiated the conservative movement and Republican Party which he defended sinuously for all of his adult life until corruption, Katrina, the revelations of Cobra II about the Iraq War, and the financial meltdown began forcing him to distance himself from most of what he’d championed.

So here he is, a man without a clear partisan position on the media’s color-coded spectrum, fighting for a niche by congratulating the “liberal elitist” victors for not veering too far to the left. Yet his emotional Ivy see-saw continues, and while he’ll purr happily if these people return his calls, he’ll waste no time rediscovering their arrogance and myopia when they don’t. What he won’t do is give up his obsession with Ivies.

What a waste of energy and attention. The moment Obama and the enlarged Democratic Congress take office and try to clean up the mess we’re in, conservatives will pretend that it wasn’t really George Bush, Henry Paulson, and other Republicans who reconstituted themselves literally as Marx’s ruling committee of the bourgeoisie and made “the corporate state” not a shibboleth but a reality. No, conservatives will be back to blaming Fanny Mae, Freddie Mac, Barney Frank, and Ivy League elitists for having brought us to statist socialism.

Brooks knows better, and he desperately wants these likely targets of right-wing venom to think well of him and talk to him. But he’ll betray them in the end, because his damning and praising are but two sides of the same coin of obsessive attraction and ressentiment he shares with too many of his readers.