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Column: A question-and-answer with David Brooks in Tampa Bay

On Wednesday, David Brooks spoke at the Palladium at a fundraiser for the St. Petersburg College Foundation. Before his talk, the conservative New York Times columnist, PBS NewsHour commentator and author (The Road to Character) sat down to answer a few questions.

After a recent sabbatical, you said that you planned to write less about politics and more about the things that are truly important in people's lives. How has that been working out?

Well, politics surprised me this year. The Trump phenomenon has been one of the most surprising phenomena of our lifetimes, so I've been writing about that up the wazoo.

But I still think the things outside politics are more important.

How do you feel now about your column in December, in the early days of the primaries, headlined "No, Donald Trump Won't Win"?

I'm still surprised.

But pretty much all of this year I've been going to a lot of Trump areas and talking to a lot of Trump people, getting off the Northeast corridor, and in many ways it's been a very cheerful experience.

I've been in New Mexico, in Central California, Texas, West Virginia, Kentucky, and everywhere I go there are community healers. They're a little like this college.

I was in Houston, and there's this neighborhood, kind of a little triangle surrounded by highways, mostly Hispanic. They had no after-school programs. This young woman came down from the Northeast and saw that, and now she has 1,400 kids in after-school programs.

But there is also a lot of sense of betrayal out there. It's just a breaking down of the social fabric. There are fewer marriages, fewer relationships, fewer communities people belong to. So people tell me they have just this general sense of betrayal, of anger, of instability, and then they say, "And thus, Trump."

My answer is always that he's the wrong answer to the right question. I don't think he knows anything about government, anything about policy, He's temperamentally unfit for the office, and probably morally unfit.

You have written several times of your admiration for President Barack Obama, of your sense that even when you disagreed with his policies you believed in his character and intelligence. Has that evolved over the years of his administration?

My basic admiration for his character hasn't evolved. I still feel he has great integrity, and he has surrounded himself with people with great integrity. With all this anger and betrayal in the country, can you imagine if he had had a scandal-plagued administration? But he and his wife have brought great integrity and great warmth to the White House. I miss them already.

I wish he had been a better connection-maker in Washington, although that's not original. He has an iPad, and every night at 10 he goes upstairs and reads the blogs, what people say. He has these habits — every night he eats seven cashews. Who can stop at seven cashews?

In these days of political coverage via tweet and all the other technological changes in media, what is the role of an op-ed columnist?

When I started in journalism, most of us were middle-distance runners. You wrote 700 words on a press conference, and you were done.

The Internet has turned everyone into either a sprinter, the person who tweets fastest, or a marathoner, who writes the big concept pieces digging into the meaning of what's happening. The Net has pushed me toward the marathon — and away from politics. It seems to me we've become overpoliticized and undermoralized.

So I try to work some of that lovey, gooshy stuff into columns about politics.

Are there any columns you regret writing?

On the day of publication, all of them. They're all failures at some level. Sometimes they just don't hang together at the stylistic level. All of those columns about how Trump won't win, and I wrote a lot of columns supporting the Iraq War. I've certainly gotten things wrong, but you hope every error teaches you something.

Do any columns stand out as having really accomplished what you set out to do?

Here's one. I barely wrote it, I just summarized what someone else told me. I talked to a young woman who had lost her sister in Iraq, and then she had a terrible bike accident. She talked about how to respond to trauma, how to act, how not to act. She said, "People ask me, should they mention Anna, will it just make me think about something painful. They should know I'm always thinking about Anna, and I'll either say I want to talk about it, or I don't." She said don't make comparisons: "Oh, your sister died? My dog died last week."

Sometimes just showing up and sitting there is the best thing. Someone visited her (while she was recovering from the accident) and noticed she didn't have a shower mat outside the shower, so they biked over to Target and bought her a shower mat.

I feel that column was much more useful than writing my 16th column about why Trump is bad.

What has been the biggest surprise for you (other than Trump's nomination) of this election cycle?

I knew we were segmenting as a society, but I didn't expect it would lead us to this desire for authoritarianism, or the desire for security that leads to the closing off of borders and of trade. I'm also surprised by the return of old-fashioned masculinity.

All of these things seem to be well past their sell-by date. But we're going through the top end of the baby boom, with all of the presidents from 1992 through 2024.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Column: A question-and-answer with David Brooks in Tampa Bay 09/23/16 [Last modified: Friday, September 23, 2016 5:50pm]
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