Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
Warren T. Brookes, an economist who quit business to become one of the most influential syndicated columnists in the nation, left behind a legacy of iconoclastic, hard-hitting economics journalism when he died of pneumonia Sunday in his home in Lovettsville, Va. at the age of 62.
"He was an unsung hero in his profession," said Thomas Bray, his editor at the Detroit News, the showcase for his column. "But he had enormous influence on the Washington and national scenes."
Brookes is considered to have been one of the most important outside contributors to Reagan White House policy. Yet unlike so many others who were influential see below during the Reagan years, he continued to gain stature in the years that followed.
Just a month before his death, the Gannett Co. newspapers honored him for a 1991 series of columns on the environment, and earlier in the year he was featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes as probably the one person most responsible for the rethinking of the seriousness of the acid rain problem.
On the political right, the loss of Brookes has been seen as nothing short of devastating.
William McGurn, the Washington bureau chief of the National Review, for which Brookes occasionally wrote, said Brookes "was the best economics columnist in the country bar none."
Economist Paul Craig Roberts said: "He was the greatest journalist in the world. I don’t think anybody came close to Warren Brookes."
Fred Smith, president of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, added, "The loss of Warren Brookes is an infinite loss to the forces of rational policy."
Colleagues were also unanimous in attesting to Brookes’ personal warmth and integrity. Said McGurn, "To report all the outrages he did and still keep an even temper required something on the order of the patience of Job."
"He was no sentimentalist," said R. Emmett Tyrell, editor of the American Spectator, another conservative magazine that published Brookes, "but I don’t think there was a mean bone in his body. He was a wonderful man."
Brookes was a 1952 graduate of Harvard College, where he earned honors in economics.
Economist and popular author George Gilder, who wrote the forward for Brookes’ 1982 book, The Economy in Mind, said Brookes was "the nation’s best columnist on economics and society because he was the best educated." Gilder added that he was referring not to Brookes’ time at Harvard, but to his pre-journalism business career.
Brookes’ first job upon graduation was with Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s marketing division.
Later he worked for Cryovac, a subsidiary of W.R. Grace & Co., for the Kenyon and Echardt advertising agency as an account supervisor, and for the Christian Science Monitor as promotions director.
In 1975, after 20 years in business, Brookes became a journalist, first with the Boston Herald, and later as a syndicated columnist with the Detroit News. He wrote three columns a week out of his Washington-area home.
Brookes, who unlike many syndicated columnists rarely appeared on television or at public speaking engagements, once said his style of reporting was "to stay in my office and absorb the statistical data, then call up the experts about it" before injecting his opinions based on the facts.
Gilder said, "Warren’s columns were better...and they came out three times a week. He died young, but his output dwarfs all the rest of us."
"On issues of income distribution," Gilder recalled, "it would take the rest of us months to respond to a CBO (Congressional Budget Office) fraud, and Warren was on the case in minutes. Then, in hours, he’d have a crushing attack."
"He really was a formidable creature," he said.
Early in his writing career, Brookes wrote almost exclusively about money issues. Gilder called him "the most effective voice for supply-side economics."
Brookes’ book included such chapters as The Individual As Capital, What Is Progressive About Taxation? and Social Spending, Subsidies, and the Pursuit of Poverty.
An entire chapter of the book concerned his then-home state of Massachusetts. It foreshadowed Brookes’ role in the 1988 presidential campaign in which his columns haunted Massachusetts Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis — whose self-proclaimed "Massachusetts Miracle" Brookes revealed to be a fiscal disaster.
"He really exposed him more effectively than did anyone else," said Gilder.
Brookes’ role during the Reagan administration, said Gilder, "was crucial both in the development of ideas and the defense of them."
"He almost single-handedly defended the Reagan revolution against the armies of the left," said Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, managing editor of the American Spectator.
"He kept the (Reagan) White House on course," agreed Gilder. "And the fact that those guys in the White House now didn’t read him is the main problem of the Bush administration."
One of Brookes’ last major articles was a devastating attack on Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, Richard Darman, whose performance, he wrote, "is the most disastrous failure in the history of the job."
He noted, for instance, that the five-year budget deficit forecast issued by Darman last year was 2,443% greater than his initial estimates made 18 months earlier, after counting in the effect of higher taxes and the non-existent "deficit reduction."
Based on that performance, Brookes wrote that, "Any corporate officer with one-tenth as big an error would be looking for a new line of work. Instead, Darman is still one of the most feared and powerful figures in the Bush White House."
In recent years, Brookes turned more and more to environmental issues, where he challenged the media and environmentalist line on such issues as the Clean Air Act, global warming, acid rain, ozone layer depletion, asbestos, lead, and alar sprayed on apples.
"He went into issues that were complex and found where the bodies were buried," said CEI’s Smith, a former EPA official who has since soured on the agency’s efforts to clean up the environment. "His willingness to challenge the EPA and (EPA Chairman) William Reilly were unparalleled."
Said Tyrell, who recently attended a weekend science conference with Brookes, "I was absolutely bowled over by what he knew about technology and science. Here he was sitting with scientists holding forth with them on an equal plane."
Brookes felt that environmentalists had adopted a "shoot first, ask questions later" attitude on issues, favoring long-term goals of de-industrialization and "small is beautiful."
He thought the costs inflicted on business and the economy through the implementation of plans to reduce global warming, acid rain and ozone depletion were more important to some environmentalists than actually establishing that such problems existed in the first place.
Brookes’ response was not to simply assert his opinion that they were wrong, but to show through a plethora of data, which he explained in laymen’s terms, and through easy-to-comprehend charts and tables, that there was little or no scientific basis for the latest alarms.
Radon seeping up from fissures in the ground, for example, is said by the EPA to cause up to 20,000 lung cancer deaths a year.
But Brookes, using data compiled by top researchers in the field, showed that persons living in areas with the greatest exposures to radon actually had lower lung cancer rates than those living in areas with little radon seepage.
Brookes told his readers that, while there were some real health dangers in the world that should concern us all, there was no need to smash the lead crystal, throw out the applesauce, take the children out of a school built with asbestos insulation, or throw tens of thousands of factory workers or coal miners out of work because of little more than raw speculation and unsubstantiated opinion.
"He responded more effectively to the environmental movement than anyone else in the last years of his life," said Gilder.
As much as anything else, Brookes was known for his willingness to challenge what the rest of the media simply accepted without thinking. "So few people challenge anything," said CEI’s Fred Smith. "Three times a week (Brookes) was providing ideas."
This, said Patricia Calhoun, editor of the Denver alternative newspaper Westword, is why he was invited to address the most recent national convention of alternative newspapers.
"The problem with a lot of alternative newspapers is you walk into absolute knee-jerk liberalism," Calhoun said. "(Brookes) had a message that, whether or not everyone agreed with it, we thought it one that alternative papers should hear."
Said Gilder, "It’s really a worrisome gap he’s created. It’s a bigger hole than was left by Walter Lippman. Brookes was unique and absolutely irreplaceable."