Arthur Brooks Transcript
Taped October 13, 2015
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. My guest today is Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute, the best think tank in Washington.
BROOKS: Or the world, depending on your point of view.
KRISTOL: Good point. I agree with that. Let’s talk about that. What does it mean to be president of a think tank? What do you do every day, and what does a think tank do every day?
BROOKS: I ask myself that question a lot. A lot of times sitting in planes. It’s actually changed a lot.
By the way, thank you for having me on this terrific series. I know the audience is expanding. The best commentary about the intellectual firmament of the right that’s actually on the Web today – so congratulations.
KRISTOL: Thank you.
BROOKS: Running a think tank has changed a lot certainly over the past few decades, but even as I’ve taken over seven years ago at AEI. In the 70s and 80s, when think tanks were in their heyday, there was a time of effectively building something and letting people come to it. And the reason that conservative think tanks were important was because people realized that universities simply weren’t going to produce the ideas that represented a conservative point of view, which was a mainstream point of view.
Think tanks would do these things, and lawmakers would come to the think tanks, and intellectuals would come to think tanks, and by about the 90s, people were realizing that that wasn’t happening quite as much and the search for relevance started to happen.
So the result has been – we knew what think tanks were in the 70s and 80s, and today it sort of means everything and nothing, so you find some that are advocacy organizations, some are quasi-lobbying organizations and some like AEI have tried to stay true to the more academic context that was our nature for decades and decades.
KRISTOL: What was that? How does it work? I mean, people are in this building – we’re filming this in the current American Enterprise’s building; you’re moving into a new one in a few months.
So you recruit scholars, do you tell them what to work on? They work on what they want to work on? How do they interact with Congressmen, Senators, the Executive branch? What does it sort of – what’s a day in the life of AEI?
BROOKS: AEI is 225 full-time people so it’s a lot of people and it’s grown a lot. It’s about doubled in size over the past seven years. Which is good but it’s difficult. We hire scholars in particular areas so we don’t hire some scholars and say, “Just be smart in absolutely everything.” That would be impractical given how much knowledge you have to have to be an expert at this point.
We have our economists, foreign policy people, health, education. We’re a full-spectrum think tank. We hire people and say, “You set your research agenda. The important thing is to be right, be smart, and work for the fundamental values of our institution and for the betterment of the nation and the world.”
What are the values that we have? Basically, we have two institutional values. Human dignity and human potential. We believe there is sort of a natural right that people have that is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence but also the natural rights of men that people should pursue their happiness, and that dignity is something everybody should get and that depends a lot on culture and it depends even on public policy.
The other issue in progress, we believe that potential is something that people can attain. We’re not European conservatives who believe that we should just conserve things the way that they were – bring back the king. We’re a little – we have a touch of this utopian spirit of believing that things can get better and there is a true north in the improvement of the individual.
And that comes from this concept that drives us, that makes us such optimists in the conservative American movement that you’ve been part of for such a long time. That we came here – your family, I’m going to guess that your grandparents came here running for their lives.
KRISTOL: Correct. More or less.
BROOKS: And mine came here with a first-grade education, orphans, dirt-poor, not speaking a word of English and simply wanting to start a farm. The truth is, you and I are nothing more than riffraff. At least one generation removed from it, with one direction to go and that’s up.
Remembering that is what’s sets us apart from all of the conservative movements around the world and certainly from the liberal movement in this country. That we believe that people can improve. But you have to remember certain truths and you have to uphold certain things that are good and true and moral and right.
That also requires a conservative intellectual movement that helps us to understand how culture and policy can be propelled forward. That’s how we think of ourselves. So experts – true experts who are on the level of the best university professors – that are dedicated to the ideas of freedom, and opportunity and enterprise and human betterment and flourishing working together for a better world.
KRISTOL: I think people would be surprised hearing this by sort of how ambitious, big the underlying idea of AEI. As people look at the think tanks, my sense is they see the healthcare experts, unemployment insurance experts, and the foreign policy experts of different regions. Has AEI always had sot of this bigger vision?
You mentioned the history – let’s go back a little bit to the history of the people – I’d be interested. I should know more about this, but probably don’t. It was founded, what, in the 1930s?
BROOKS: 1938 by businessmen from, largely members of the National Association of Manufacturers, who were the great men of the American economy at the time. What was going on, the context that started AEI was pretty bold. It’s sort of what we’re talking about here about thriving and flourishing. In 1938, the ninth year of the Great Depression, America was in minus four percent economic growth.
KRISTOL: Despite the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt’s allegedly successful policies.
BROOKS: Because of the New Deal and because of bad Fed policy. That was the idea that – our founders were not intellectuals, they were not university men, they were businessmen – and they believed that this idea of scientific socialism that was around all of the greatest economists at the time at American universities, this pervasive left-wing thinking, was wrong. That what you needed was not less free enterprise but more free enterprise, pushed all the way to the bottom so ordinary people could build their own lives.
KRISTOL: I didn’t realize that. Sort of as an alternative of what was dominant at the universities – even back then?
BROOKS: It started as a counterpoint to universities and with it an ideal of human flourishing and potential and dignity. That’s how it was built. Now, that’s great as far as I’m concerned. It was different than any other institution that had ever been built, certainly on the so-called political right and it developed along those lines. Necessarily, it had the stove pipe into certain levels of expertise, or certain areas of expertise.
And so there were economists originally, that was what it was all about. And later in foreign policy and the foreign-policy wing came up because of another ideal, which is we realized – when I say we, I say they, but the great men and women that build this institution. If you believed in freedom for all Americans to build their lives, and you had the confidence in Americans to want to build their lives, you can’t stop at the water’s edge. You have to stop just talking about Americans and start talking about all people.
We have a reputation for what is popularly understood as neoconservatism. But neoconservatism at its root is basically just saying what’s good is good for everybody. Not everybody all the time, and not everybody at the exact right level to absorb these ideas but freedom is not something that’s limited to Americans. And we have to share these ideals. It’s important morally to share these ideals, and that’s how the foreign-policy wing of AEI started and then it spread to all the areas.
Now, I don’t ask that every AEI scholar come to work every day and say, “What am I going to do to save the world? What am I going to do to serve my fellow men and women?” That, of course, lurks in the background, but what AEI scholars are doing is saying, “I’m working on a paper. I’m working on a book. I’m working on a testimony. I’m setting up an event to look at one facet of this and to get that just right, to pursue the truth of this.”
Before the political victory by the way. Because truth comes before victory. That’s an axiom of the American Enterprise Institute, and it should be of the conservative movement as far as I’m concerned. Together – that comes together kind of as a seamless garment of this human flourishing context that we’ve tried to use to build the institution.
BROOKS: It seems to me that when my father was here and so many, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bob Bork, that whole generation.
BROOKS: Your father Irving Kristol, one of the true greats of AEI.
KRISTOL: Thank you. He had a sense though that I don’t know if it was easier, it was as little more settled what a think tank did and I think politicians knew what they wouldn’t get from visiting a think tank or listening to think-tank scholars. Their work product was more – I don’t know, it seems like there was less competition back then.
It does seem like now we’re in a very different world. You’ve obviously thought a lot about that since taking over AEI. How different is the world of politics and, I guess, technology even? What kind of challenge does that pose for you?
BROOKS: What’s revolutionized the world of journalism has also perturbed the world of think tanks. So journalists who thought they knew what their business was by the 70s and 80s, realized by the late 90s and early 2000s and even today, realized they don’t have the slightest idea what their industry is all about. That – how can it be that newspapers are shutting down? The answer is that they’ve become less – it’s not that they’ve become less good, they’ve just become less necessary to people.
The same thing has happened all over the idea industries. We are in the idea business, we’re not in the think-tank business per se. There’s not a lot of thinking in tanks. I mean, it was descriptive for a while but we’re really in the idea business and we have be agnostic with respect to form if we want ideas to propel the society.
And by the way, an early motto of AEI from one of our great founders, Bill Baroody, who was the son of a Lebanese stonecutter and was a true believer of these ideas, said that the competition of ideas is fundamental to a free society. Which in the 50s was utterly subversive. The whole idea of a competition of ideas was wrong because there was an established wisdom, there was a trajectory that inexorably pointed toward scientific public administration and, indeed, scientific social democracy. And we had to go that direction. And it was subversive to say we should have a competition of ideas.
And that competition of ideas is something that we have to remember, and not be stuck on the form, or the expression of those particular ideas, to say, “We write books.” It’s a mistake. I mean, we do in fact write books. Or to say, “We do testimony in television, we do events, we write journal articles, we write op-eds.” These things are all true but they’re going to change. We have to adhere to the power of ideas to propel people in a better direction to build their lives.
Once we understand that then we can see the think-tank industry has fragmented a lot. That the relevance and importance of it has changed according to the form the other ones take, and AEI now is very different than its peers. And they were quite similar as recently as the early 1980s.
KRISTOL: I do think AEI was always more contrarian and countercultural almost than people now think. It became very well-established, and a lot of people there became very well-known and then respected – Herb Stein, Jeane Kirkpatrick, my father, Bob Bork. There was so many and now still – Chris DeMuth.
BROOKS: My predecessor Chris DeMuth who ran the institution for 22 years, really a great intellectual.
KRISTOL: And did a great job. Charles Murray who is still there.
My memory of coming to Washington and visiting a little when I was in grad school and then moving here in the mid-80s, it was always cutting against the grain, including the conservative grain to some degree. Supply-side economics was to some degree born and fostered here, and foreign policy challenges to some of the established conservative views of foreign policy. I think it’s true in a lot of areas. If people sort of think of AEI as a grand old established institution, but I think that’s never quite been the case.
BROOKS: Well, it hasn’t. And it’s an interesting set of reasons for that. I think it’s – sociologically, it’s worth going into. AEI has traditionally been formed of two social groups that are countercultural to the Republican establishment, to the conservative establishment. When you think of the conservative establishment, you think of country clubs and you think of people whose families started with the Mayflower, etc. AEI has traditionally been formed by two groups – Jews and Catholics.
And the conservative intellectual movement has largely been also propelled by Jews and Catholics. Now, Jews and Catholics are thought of as the base of liberalism, but at the highest intellectual levels, you’ll find that people like your dad, who started off on the left but became a real leader on the right in that hothouse of New York –
KRISTOL: Michael Novak, I guess, on the Catholic side.
BROOKS: Exactly right. Michael Novak. But on the right, there was this nucleus of people – Podhoretz, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Saul Bellow, who are in this sort of Greenwich Village hothouse that said, “You know what? We’re getting a couple things really wrong on the left. Number one is that the libertinism of the Sexual Revolution on the left is destroying our society, and that foreign policy, which is becoming increasingly soft on communism, is horrible for people and subjugating them all around the world.”
And they basically rebelled against, not just the excesses but the fundamental inaccuracies of the worldview of the left and created the new right. That’s what you’d expect from intellectuals. So the result of that is that you would see people that started out on the conventional left and reinvented themselves and reinvented a movement on the right, and that’s countercultural to the conservative movement and to the Republican movement in the United States.
You find people who used to be on the left and now are on the right and who are saying basically, “You know what? Everything you think you know is wrong.” And they’re willing, by the way, to point out the inaccuracies on the right as well because of the culture that’s cropped up around this place.
KRISTOL: So you came here from a university, and you had been associated with AEI, but you hadn’t been physically here. I guess, what has surprised you the most about AEI, about running a think tank and what’s surprised you the most about the world in which you now live, which is really Washington, DC, to some degree, at least?
BROOKS: AEI was kind an inextricable vortex sucking me in forever. I mean, I came from a relatively liberal, democratic family in Seattle, which tells you nothing because there are about eight Republicans in Seattle. Everybody’s from these families.
But not a very political family, but I thought I knew about politics and just sort of took these things by flavor. And when I started to study, which was very late. I dropped out of college when I was 19 and took a “gap decade,” as my parents called it, because I was playing music. I was playing in the Barcelona Symphony among other places.
When I started to study by correspondence in my late 20s, I didn’t have any brain-washing. I had a stack of books in my dining room table – and my wife who had never lived in the United States, she’s from Barcelona. We were living in Barcelona at the time as a matter of fact and so I basically didn’t take anything as given. There was no, you know, hard-core Commie sociology professor who’s telling me that America’s a source of subjugation of all peoples and all this stuff that people labor under when they go to big American universities.
And so I think it actually helped me a lot. I didn’t have any chains to throw off effectively. I started to question when I was reading the facts on economics, which really influenced me a lot. But also I started to read authors that were writing about public policy, which I found fascinating using these tools. And what I noticed along the way, there were people like Michael Novak and Charles Murray and Irving Kristol and Milton Friedman and I started to – and James Q. Wilson – and I said, “Huh, they have one institution in common, the American Enterprise Institute.”
KRISTOL: Let’s just – I was going to talk about this later – let’s talk about, it’s so intriguing so tell us a little bit about this. You’re in high school, you begin college and you’re in Seattle so you just decide, “Forget it”? What year are we in? We are in 19–
BROOKS: I graduated high school in 1982, which is now a long time ago obviously.
KRISTOL: All your peers are trekking off to college and pursuing –
BROOKS: I grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood, working-class neighborhood and most of the people I grew up didn’t go to college. Some did and some went to decent places, but a lot of kids didn’t go to college and most of them sort of specialized in getting high.
KRISTOL: Most of them did not go to Barcelona to join a symphony orchestra.
BROOKS: And it turned out getting high is not a good life strategy. Just observing the trajectory of success of a lot of my friends I grew up with.
KRISTOL: Useful advice for our younger viewers.
BROOKS: Those watching us today should keep that in mind. There are other career paths.
And so I was – my parents went to college. My dad actually was a math professor at a liberal arts college in Seattle, which back in the day – this really gives you an idea of how things have changed – it was such low-paying profession. It was such a lower-middle class profession that he drove a bus during the summers. Can you imagine if here were a tenured college professor that had to drive a bus on the side? It would be a news story. It would be on Slate – scandal! But, you know, that was a normal thing.
So they expected me to go to college, my brother went to college, and I went to a place called California Institute of the Arts. All I wanted to do was be a French horn player. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to play avant-garde music and make my living being a French horn player.
KRISTOL: So you were an avant-garde French horn player, not a classical French horn player?
BROOKS: Well, I was a classical French horn player but I was playing in a lot of new music ensembles and experimenting with experimental jazz, etc. It was a pretty good life although it didn’t – more life advice for the young people watching us today. If you want to be successful as a freshman in college, don’t drop all your required classes and substitute them with classical North Indian drumming and Indonesian dance. Turns out that’s not the path to academic success.
KRISTOL: Worked for you though. You’re giving advice contrary to your own example. Will people believe what you did or believe what you say? That is the question.
BROOKS: I dropped out, or, you know, dropped out/kicked out splitting hairs at this point, and actually I was going to transfer to a place called Curtis, which is a prestigious music school in Philadelphia. And I got a job playing with a brass quintet, playing chamber music traveling all over the world making $14,000 a year, which seemed like pretty good money for a 19-year-old kid. And I did that for a long time and wound up in Barcelona after that for a bunch of seasons where I started my family.
KRISTOL: So you were in the classical music world, you were playing French horn.
BROOKS: And in the jazz world too. I spent a couple of years touring with a jazz player named Charlie Byrd. And we made a couple albums together. Actually, here’s an interesting thing –
KRISTOL: I don’t know anything about jazz but even I know that.
BROOKS: He brought bossa nova over to the United States in the late 50s with Stan Getz and, you know, we used to have this group called “Byrd and Brass,” where there were five brass players in the Charlie Byrd Trio, and his drummer was this guy – great drummer and the first time I hosted AEI’s annual dinner – sort of the conservative prom and you’ve been to it so many times because we give out the Kristol Award, which is our highest academic honor in your father’s honor. And we have a band there every year, and the first year I hosted it, the drummer in the band was the guy I had toured with and made a couple albums with Charlie Byrd. He comes up, it’s been 20 years –
KRISTOL: Unbeknownst to you though?
BROOKS: Totally. And he comes up afterward and I’m standing there with my wife and he says, “Arthur Brooks?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Chuck Redd.” Great drummer Chuck Redd. And he said, “What happened to you man?”
KRISTOL: Good question. But what did happen to you?
BROOKS: My wife said it was clear he was looking at me with an expression of pity on his face. I used to be a French horn player and successful, and now I’m, you know, reduced to running a think tank.
KRISTOL: So you’re playing jazz and classical music, you’re in Barcelona, and what piqued your interest in both coming back here and then this whole other world? You went on to get a degree and PhD, and you became a professor. Just curious.
BROOKS: How does that work? I’m often asked that. It was my wife. I married a girl in Barcelona. Actually went to Barcelona in hot pursuit. I met this girl in the summer of 1988 at a music festival, a chamber music festival in France, in the Burgundy region of France, and we didn’t speak any word of the same language at all. I came back and I told my parents I met the girl I was going to marry.
And I got to know her a little bit better. It was clear I had to make a commitment, a big commitment. So I quit my job in the states and took the job at the Barcelona Symphony without knowing the language and moved over and took about a year and a half to close the deal but she married me. And we’re celebrating our 24th wedding anniversary, and we have a house full of teenagers at this point.
BROOKS: She actually is a big thinker. She comes from – she grew up poor, but she’s bright and interested in a lot of different things and a free-thinker and a free-thinker in Barcelona means you come from an atheist hard-red environment but you look around and you’d say, “Huh.” It’s kind of like your dad. He looks around and say, “I guess, you know, everybody who’s smart is an atheist Trotskyite, but huh.” That stuff is actually studied in a way that it ruins people’s lives, especially poor people.
And so she’s a questioner and she started questioning all of this dogma when we were newly married. People, couples grow together; well, they’re supposed to grow together. And we grew together ideologically, we grew together spiritually. We came from really different cultures, which I think was an interesting thing to do. She said at some point, “You don’t really love being a French horn player.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s right.” “So why do you want to do that for the rest of your life? Why don’t you do something else?”
She was studying – by the way, she had dropped out of high school when she was 16 to sing with a rock band. She graduated from high school at 29. And when she was doing her – when she was studying by correspondence, she was studying calculus by correspondence to get her high school diploma. She said, “You know, have you ever looked at this stuff?” I said, “What stuff?” She said, “Calculus.” I said, “My dad was a math professor; I know nothing about that.” She said, “It’s unbelievable. It’s life-changing. It’s like religion. You got to look at it.” She taught me calculus. And I said, “I need some more of this.” If this is what’s out there. This math is out there, and if there’s something out there, like philosophy and poetry and politics and – who knows what I’ve been missing!
I felt like I’d just taken a look out the prison door and saw beautiful fields out there or something. So I started studying by correspondence, and it rocked my word.
KRISTOL: Which thinkers influenced you he most?
BROOKS: The original, just the great economists, of course. So when I would study, I mean, the first time I read Adam Smith, I said, “Wait a minute, this has been around since 1776? The Wealth of Nations. 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And I said, “How did I not know about this stuff?”
You know, the philosophers, the great poets, of course. As well as some of the true spiritual thinkers, the Stoics who influenced early Christianity, etc. – that had a huge influence at me.
But when I first started looking at public policy, I noticed that there were people like – I started reading Irving Kristol. Who was not a book writer, he was an essay writer. I read his early essays – you know, one in The Public Interest – I heard about his magazine The Public Interest – and he wrote this great essay called “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” which, of course, you’re really familiar with.
And it was when – actually it was called, “When Virtue Loses Its Loveliness,” which was related to the book Two Cheers for Capitalism. It seemed so sensible to me. The intellect in it was unimpeachable, it seemed. Common sense and good ideas based on human welfare. I said, “I want more of that.”
KRISTOL: People watching today think, “Well, that’s easy you just go online and you hear about Irving Kristol,” and now you can go to a website, IrvingKristol.org, part of the “Contemporary Thinkers” series – but not then. So you actually had to send away for or figure out how to get articles?
BROOKS: I would go to a bookstore, sometimes at Barnes & Nobles or Borders – big bookstores were starting to form in the late 80s and early 90s. They would sell some of these serious journals, and I would pick them up and look at these ideas, and I got The Public Interest. It had a big influence on me. I started to look at books by people and asking others who were thinking the same way.
In the early 90s, I read a book by Charles Murray and then wound up reading a lot more by Charles Murray. James Q. Wilson, who seemed like the most sensible man I’d ever read, and he wrote this book called The Moral Sense – and The Moral Sense actually is his most important book. People think of his work, people watching us who know Jim Wilson – and you’ve done work in your archiving his best ideas right now, which is such an important project – think of his “broken-windows” work, which revolutionized crime policy in New York City.
That wasn’t – it was great but it wasn’t his most important work, which was The Moral Sense. The wiring of men and women, that was what the project of that was. Your father’s, I mentioned, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, reading these people, they all came back to the think-tank world and mostly to AEI. And I thought, “If there was some way, some time in some parallel universe where I could be associated with this organization.”
And I decided on the basis of that work, which was mostly applied social science by the way, which used empirical methods to study big questions and try to get at truth not just to win victories. I said, “I want to be a social scientist.” So I left music, finished my bachelor’s degree, and started my PhD. I did a year, I did the core curriculum in economics at the PhD program at Cornell and then I wound up at the Rand Graduate School, which has produced more public-policy analysis PhDs than any other program in the world, as a matter of fact.
And I finished doing theater-level combat modeling for the Air Force, math modeling and applied macroeconomics, because I needed to learn the quantitative skills, while reading this AEI material and I got to know Jim Wilson himself. He sat on my – he endured my dissertation defense. And I have to say he was not very impressed.
KRISTOL: He was pretending to be a tough guy, but I’m sure he liked it.
BROOKS: My advisor when he read the first draft, my dissertation, he said, “Well, son, this is refutation of the axiom that brevity is the soul of wit. It’s brief but it’s not witty.” It wasn’t my best work, but Jim Wilson and I stuck together when I left and went into academia and gave me feedback and help all throughout my career. It brought me closer and closer to the ideas that were coming out of AEI. I became an AEI donor when I was teaching.
KRISTOL: Huge faculty salary, I’m sure.
KRISTOL: Then you were recruited – I remember when there was the search, and you were well-known at that point, you’d written well-received books and were somewhat associated with AEI, but you were a surprising appointment, a little bit. Someone who hadn’t been physically here before.
BROOKS: Or run anything.
KRISTOL: Or run anything. Or been to DC. So how did that happen?
BROOKS: I think, to be honest, that the last words uttered by the board before hiring me to run AEI were, “Aw, what the hell!” It was a counterintuitive pick but it was also a tough search. There’s not an industry standard for leadership in the think-tank world. It’s not as if there’s a think tank on every corner like there are universities. There are 4,500 universities in America. A few hundred think tanks and only a few dozen major national think tanks.
So the result is when there’s a chief executive search nobody knows exactly what you’re looking for. And AEI, which is different – it’s more academic, it has intellectual and academic freedom, compared to most think tanks. We don’t take government money so we’re actually going out to donors and saying, “Hey how about investing in ideas?”
They thought we need somebody who’s an academic. We need somebody with a PhD and who’s a researching, better if it’s a social scientist. But we need somebody who can raise money. And we need somebody who’s a CEO, and it was a null set. Like zero people who fit that characteristic. They looked around a lot of different people. I think some great people said they didn’t want to do it, and they wound up with me.
KRISTOL: It’s worked out well. What surprised you the most both about AEI and about DC? Had you lived in Washington at all?
BROOKS: Never. Washington State.
KRISTOL: The other Washington.
BROOKS: The real Washington. DC is surprising. A couple different things, some negative, some positive. My wife says when people say, “How do you like Washington?” She always says, “Well, it’s great, except for the traffic and the weather and the people.” And she overstates the point. The problem with DC is that well, the good thing is that it’s excellent. Everything from what you’re able to do to the quality of people’s minds is unbelievably high. This is the center of American ideas, Washington, DC. Sad to say because it’s congregating around the state in all kinds of important ways.
But there’s a reason why Irving Kristol moved to Washington, DC. And this is a story in AEI history that he came to Washington, DC, left New York, when he realized New York was no longer the idea capitol and Washington was. And he was an idea man. So he had to bring his magazine and his intellectual infrastructure and his family here and the result is, I’m sure in no small part responsible for your incredible career in the intellectual world, in the journalistic world and the political world, is because you were brought up in this ecosystem and you’re an idea man. That’s great, and I love that. At the same time, it has a kind conventional wisdom about it, and it has its tics.
It’s interested in things – we obsess on things in Washington, and I saw this, that aren’t interesting to most Americans, that aren’t relevant to most Americans. Ordinary Americans, to be sure, are intensely private, they’re worried about soccer games and choir rehearsals and getting to work on time, etc. But beyond that it’s – the ins-and-out of politics, the number of pages in the Affordable Care Act, that stuff is just boring to normal people and we talk about it as if were really not. It’s like talking to sports broadcasters. Having lunch with a bunch of baseball journalists. They’re talking about the statistics – but ordinary people, a little goes a long way. We talk about it as if it was more interesting, more relevant than it really was.
One things that really surprised me about Washington, by the way, I’d never met a Congressmen before I came here, I’d never met a politician and suddenly as President of AEI, I was meeting all these people that I’d only seen on TV. By the way, including you. When I met the Congressmen, the Senators and members of Congress, what really shocked me is that I kind of expected them to be what Americans think of members of Congress. Which is they’re not that great. They’re sort of careerist and they feel like they have tenure and they’re not really into it. Sort of a mediocrity. I was wrong.
Most of the members of Congress I’ve met are really excellent. They’re smart, they’re dedicated, they’re totally patriotic. They want to improve the country. They’re not always successful. And some are not great, to be sure, but by far most of them have just been incredibly impressive to me and that’s something is important for – I tell people. I’m going to go to Texas today, and people will ask about that and I’m telling you they’re better than you think.
KRISTOL: So the dysfunction isn’t so much the people but the system somehow?
BROOKS: There’s a lot of different things but the system has changed very much, and it’s true that the system has changed in a way that’s led to greater fragmentation and change and decentralization of power, and that is that politics is in a period of change just like the think-tank industry and journalism. There are a lot of people that regret it and wish it would stay the way it always was and it’s not going to.
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