NY Times columnist David Brooks speaks at Whitman College

“We have two good men stuck in a bad situation,” David Brooks, Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, told a capacity crowd Oct. 15, 2012, at Whitman College’s Cordiner Hall.

Speaking about President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney during a lecture on the 2012 presidential election, Brooks, a regular commentator on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” went on to say that he believed both candidates were running poor campaigns because neither candidate had offered an agenda, and both have fallen back to conventional Democratic and Republican slogans.

“I've enjoyed his commentary – whether I’ve agreed with him or not – for the past 20 years. I was pleasantly surprised by his humor during the discussion," said Barbara Bower, who came from Vancouver, Wash.

“I think Whitman deserves a lot of credit for bringing him to campus at such a crucial time, so close to the election,” she added.

Whitman invited Brooks to give a lecture as part of a two-part political speaker series called “The U.S. Presidential Debate.” Shampa Biswas, associate professor of politics, moderated Brooks’ lecture. PBS Newshour Senior Correspondent Ray Suarez will speak Oct. 23.

From the outset, Brooks used humor as he framed his speech around a 1950s ethos of humility and modesty that has, he argued, been replaced by a “culture of self-advancement” characterized by self-promotion and individual consumption.

“It was refreshing to have a speaker at Whitman who wasn’t preaching to the choir," said Alex Ponnaz ’11. "I found it interesting that he labels himself as a conservative when he’s so much more moderate than most conservatives today.”

Brooks offered that in the current political climate U.S. politicians often fail to tell the truth because when they do – about tax increases or cuts in spending – voters punish them.

“Everyone complains about our leaders,” Brooks said. “But we voters are no walk in the park, either. We tend to punish politicians who ask for sacrifice. But most people who go into politics do it for the right reasons. I think that’s true in the presidential race. I think we genuinely have two good men running against each other.”

Brooks went on to warn the audience that the U.S. faced three “cross-cutting problems”: rising debt, rising social inequality and the need to boost growth. He said these problems are in tension with each other, and balancing them would be a challenge that if not met would result in a “fiscal crack up.”

“I think there's a 30 to 40 percent chance we fall off the fiscal cliff in the next few months and slide back into recession,” he warned.

But Brooks didn’t end his lecture on a pessimistic note. He went on to say that after spending the day on Whitman’s campus, visiting classes, the students left him feeling optimistic about America’s future.

“I’m pessimistic about government but optimistic about the country. I’m optimistic about the country not only because I got to spend some time at a class here at Whitman. It’s a beautiful place,” Brooks said.

He added, “If you want to feel good about the country, look at people under 30. They are an incredibly wholesome and responsible generation…”

—Edward Weinman