“Name-Dropping Blowhard” – How David Brooks Won Over a Mentor by Mocking Him

By Mike BergelsonMarch 20, 2014

In this latest installment of our series on famous figures and their mentors we’re taking a look at New York Times political and cultural commentator David Brooks.

As with other famous figures like Bill Clinton, mentoring played an important role in Brooks’s life. Here’s the story of how Brooks found his mentor, what he learned, and how it helped him.

David Brooks’s Mentor

We’ve seen in other stories, such as that of Warren Buffett, that protégés often display great determination in pursuing their chosen mentors. With David Brooks, it’s a very different story. He found his mentor by poking fun at him in his college newspaper’s humor column.

The mentor in question was conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley, who was visiting the University of Chicago to give a speech. Brooks, then a history undergraduate, wrote a parody of Buckley’s memoir, “calling him a name dropping blowhard, basically.”

When Buckley spoke at Chicago the following week, he announced, “David Brooks, if you’re in the audience, I’d like to give you a job.” Brooks was absent, and went on after graduation to become a journalist for local Chicago newspapers. Three years later, he called Buckley and asked if his offer was still open. It was, and he went to work for the National Review.

Although only an intern, Brooks enjoyed “an all-access pass to William F. Buckley’s social life, which was almost as Brooks had described it in his parody: yachting expeditions; Bach concerts; dinners at Buckley’s Park Avenue apartment and villa in Greenwich; a constant stream of writers, politicians, and celebrities.”

For the 24-year-old Brooks, it was an education not only in conservative politics but also in literature, culture and many other aspects of life. He recently called his time with Buckley an “intoxicating experience.” What he most admired about Buckley was his broad outlook and great capacity for friendship.

Buckley’s mentorship made a huge difference to Brooks’s career. From National Review he went on to the Washington Times, then The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard and finally the New York Times. Writing in the Times in 2008, just after his mentor’s death, Brooks called working for Buckley “the big break of my professional life.”

Buckley always asked Brooks’s opinion, “as he did with all his young associates,” and worked hard to polish his protégé’s writing: “My short editorials would come back covered with his red ink.”

After his capacity for friendship, Brooks named leadership as Buckley’s second great talent. “He led through charisma and merit. He was capable of intellectual pyrotechnics none of us could match. But he also exemplified a delicious way of living.” Even decades later, the affection is tangible in Brooks’s account of his mentor.

Brooks was not alone in being mentored by Buckley. This article tells the stories of several protégés, from aspiring journalists to a Russian classical pianist. Journalist James Panero recalls how much Buckley helped him in his career: “It was a remarkable thing to be noticed by someone like him. And he did the same thing for dozens and dozens of people over the years.”

Lessons from Brooks and Buckley

  • Although protégés often choose their mentors deliberately, sometimes the connection can be made in more unusual ways.
  • Mentors often include their protégés in their social lives, introducing them to new ideas in areas far beyond the scope of their careers.
  • Help from a powerful mentor can give a huge break to young protégés, especially in competitive fields like journalism.
  • Good mentors ask for their protégés’ opinions, rather than just giving advice all the time.
  • Good mentors often have multiple protégés.

Could you be mentoring the next David Brooks? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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