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VIDEO: Brooks delivered the Atkinson Lecture to a packed house in Smith Auditorium. (0:45)

Political writer David Brooks met with a group of Willamette MBA students during his visit to campus this week.Political writer David Brooks met with a group of Willamette MBA students during his visit to campus this week.

Brooks discussed the history of American conservatism with a class of Willamette undergraduates.Brooks discussed the history of American conservatism with a class of Willamette undergraduates.

In his public lecture, Brooks addressed the relationships between policy and human nature.In his public lecture, Brooks addressed the relationships between policy and human nature.

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Acclaimed political writer David Brooks visits Willamette

New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has a long history writing about prominent politicians and decision-makers, shared his insights with Willamette University and the community this week as he visited several classes and delivered a public lecture.

Brooks, known as a moderately conservative political commentator, visited as part of Willamette’s Atkinson Lecture Series, which brings internationally prominent authors, leaders, artists and journalists to campus twice a year. Brooks has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the National Review and other publications.

The Willamette community tapped Brooks’ background in a wide variety of topics, including his intimate connections with the history of American conservatism, his inside stories about politicians and public servants in the nation’s capital, and his theories on human nature and the unconscious mind.

Brooks first met with undergraduates in History Professor Seth Cotlar’s class, who were studying the development of American conservatism.

Brooks shared his personal history, including his childhood with liberal parents who took him to “be-ins.” When he was 5, he watched hippies throw their wallets into a fire — when he saw a $5 bill in the flames, he pulled it out and ran away with it.

“It was my first foray into the right,” he joked, one of many times he invoked humor during his visit.

He covered government-created housing projects as a reporter in Chicago during the 1970s, where he said “the government destroyed the social capital of these communities” — one of the first events to turn him toward a more conservative viewpoint. He later was influenced by working for William F. Buckley, Jr. at the National Review and by covering the Reagan administration for the Washington Times.

The students queried Brooks about his definition of “middle class values,” his views on the pro-life movement and his beliefs on how to increase social mobility.

Brooks described his brand of conservatism as going back to a tradition that began with Alexander Hamilton and the Whig Party — “limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility … a government that is not shielding people, but giving them the tools to compete.”

Later he met with MBA students from Willamette’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management. The students are interested in public administration, and they questioned Brooks about the federal budget, the realities of working in government and his process for writing political columns.

“For my columns, the length is everything. My length is 800 words,” Brooks said. “The crucial thing is to only have one point, have that one point unify the whole thing, and then spend a lot of time on traffic management,” meaning the lengthy editing process.

In his public lecture to a packed house in Smith Auditorium, Brooks cited neuroscience and sociology research as he delved into the relationships between politics, policy and human nature. He lamented that politicians tend to lose touch with human nature when they make policy decisions, instead “dealing with things mechanistically.”

“You can’t live well and you can’t govern well unless you tap into the deeper level of human nature,” he said. “Most of our sophisticated thinking is happening below our level of awareness. The unconscious — the passions — are surprisingly intelligent.”

02-18-2011