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Brooks: Politics demands unpleasant trade-offs

March 28, 2008

New York Times columnist, author and commentator David Brooks told an audience of about 700 people at Wake Forest University March 27 that modern politics forces candidates to choose between winning and compromising their personal values.

Brooks made his remarks during the keynote address of a two-day conference at Wake Forest called “Why Work? Business, Professions and the Common Good.”

“Like journalism, politics demands certain concessions,” Brooks said. “The biggest concession that politics actually demands is that it demands people running for office to talk constantly about themselves.  . . . It becomes a form of narcissism, a form of extreme narcissism that few can withstand.”

He said this “me-ism” takes hold regardless of party or ideology, and those who succumb to it gradually see their authentic selves leached away by the process, getting swallowed up in the need to brand oneself.  Brooks recalled an interview with a politician who told him what she found far more disgusting than the vicious negative ads launched against her were the ones she had to run against her opponent.

“Her mother came up to her and said, ‘I’m ashamed of you,’” Brooks reported.

Against the backdrop of this political culture, Brooks said he believes all three current presidential candidates have done a “pretty good job” of maintaining a “zone of reality” in their campaigns in which they have regular people and family members they still talk to in a normal way.

Ironically, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was also in Winston-Salem at the same time as Brooks, campaigning at nearby Forsyth Technical Community College.

Brooks’ political comments were part of a larger discussion about how to balance making a good living with having a meaningful life, and to the many students in the crowd he dismissed the idea that choosing a career is a stark choice between “noble but poor” or “rich sell-out” options.

Americans display an astounding work ethic, putting in far more hours than any other work force in the world, Brooks noted.  But surveys indicate the vast majority are happy with their work.  Those who find their work meaningful do so most often because it gives them an opportunity to transcend themselves.  For some, that means finding a job that serves a larger purpose.  Others find a craft that occupies their attention and get lost in the challenge of what they do.  The most common reason people find meaning at work, Brooks said, is that it gives them a forum to interact with other peopleā€”to form teams and satisfy a craving for sociability.

Recalling his many past journalism jobs, Brooks said he doesn’t remember much of what he wrote, but he remembers most the people with whom he worked.

Following his remarks, Brooks responded to questions from Steven Reinemund, former chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo, and Alex Sink, chief financial officer of the State of Florida, and a graduate and trustee of Wake Forest.

This conference is part of Wake Forest’s “Voices of Our Time” speaker series, which exposes students, the university community and the general public to some of the world’s leading thinkers for discussions on the important national and international issues of our time. Wake Forest President Nathan O. Hatch established the series in 2006.

A recording of Brooks’ remarks will be posted at, where a schedule of March 28 panel discussions may also be viewed.

Press Contacts:

Eric Frazier
(336) 758-5237

Kevin Cox
(336) 758-5237

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