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WASHINGTON - When New York Times columnist David Brooks appears at the podium Thursday as the first in this season's University at Buffalo Distinguished Speakers, series you might expect to hear a thoughtful conservative's searing analysis of the presidential campaign.

Then again, you might hear a critique that would make any conventional conservative squirm.

Or you might get a life lesson.

Or all three.

Brooks, 51, has been taking his readers on an unexpected journey in recent years.

Sure, he has offered a conservative take on world events - much of the time - since becoming a Times columnist in 2003.

But he's one of the few major public voices on the right to offer both a full-throated defense of the Iraq War and, for a while, a sympathetic take on the Iraq War critic who became president, Barack Obama.

And on top of all that, Brooks has devoted considerable time and ink to a topic far afield from the partisan battlefield: life and how to live it.

All three of those strands could come together when Brooks appears at 8 p.m. Thursday at the UB Center for the Arts.

And all three most certainly come together in Brooks' own story, which carried him, not by design, from the conventionally conservative redoubts of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard to a home in what many on the right consider to be enemy territory.

Brooks didn't necessarily want to become a columnist. He loved writing long magazine articles, he told graduates of Rice University last year. But all that changed when the Times came calling.

"My first instinct was to turn the job down," he said in his Rice commencement speech. "But unexpectedly, life asked this of me. The New York Times is an incredible platform and a great newspaper. And not to be egotistical, but I thought I could represent a center-right point of view that doesn't have many pundits on its side. I thought I could add a calm voice to an often overheated national debate. So I took the job."

Life asked this of him.

There's a lot to unpack in those five words, which hint both at why Brooks has evolved into one of the nation's most unpredictable political commentators as well as an incisive social critic.

Unlike so many political commentators on both the right and left, Brooks writes as someone reacting thoughtfully to an changing world, not as someone staring at the world through a partisan prism.

You can see that eclectic approach from the very beginning of Brooks' journalism career. A liberal in college, he wrote a devastating parody of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the National Review, perhaps the leading intellectual voice of the midcentury conservative revival.

"In the afternoons he is in the habit of going into crowded rooms and making everybody else feel inferior," Brooks wrote at the time in a college publication. "The evenings are reserved for extended bouts of name-dropping."

Before long, though, Brooks' political views started shifting. He moved rightward after a debate with Milton Friedman, the renowned conservative economist, in the mid-1980s.

"The show was essentially me making a point, and he making a two-sentence rebuttal which totally devastated my point, and then me sitting there with my mouth hanging open, trying to think what to say," Brooks told the New York Observer. "That didn't immediately turn me into a conservative, but . ."

After a stint covering cops for a Chicago-based news service, Brooks' rightward turn landed him in an unexpected place: working for Buckley at the National Review.

The young Brooks later joined the Wall Street Journal, and then served up conservative commentary at The Weekly Standard for several years before the Times came calling - which is when Brooks' eclectic evolution really commenced.

In 2003, he was still taking conventionally conservative stances on many issues, most notably the Iraq War.

"It is indisputably true that Saddam has not disarmed," he wrote in early 2003 in the Weekly Standard. "If people are going to vote against a resolution saying Saddam has not disarmed then they are liars."

By 2010, though, he had changed his mind, telling New York Magazine that his support for the war "was an unfortunate deviation from my core philosophy."

Which seems to have become: call 'em as you see 'em.

In 2003, for example, he became one of the first conservative voices in support of gay marriage.

And a couple years later, Brooks the supposed conservative found himself impressed with a young Democratic senator from Illinois with big national ambitions.

Now, though, Brooks is disillusioned with the president.

"If Obama can't tell us the big policy thing he wants to do, he doesn't deserve a second term," he wrote earlier this month.

So what sense can we make of these sharp turns that Brooks keeps making?

Brooks said it's all part of his job of reacting to events as they happen.

When asked by New York magazine in 2010 whether he perceived of himself as the conservative voice at the Times, he said: "I used to, but now I've given that up," he says. "You can't play a role. It happens too fast. You just have to say what you think."

And lately, Brooks has been thinking a lot about life beyond politics.

His latest book is called "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement." Told through the eyes of a fictional couple named Harold and Erica, the book is essentially a guide to success for our times, based on research on everything from happiness to the inner workings of the human brain.

The 2011 book met with mixed reviews. For example, in the Times, philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote: "Life, morality and politics are not science, but their improvement requires thought - not only thought about the most effective means of shaping people, which is Brooks's concern, but thought about what our ends should be. Such questions don't appeal to him, since they cannot be settled by empirical evidence of the kind he feels comfortable with."

Still, Brooks presses on. In recent speeches, the ever-evolving columnist speaks of success in life as a process of evolution.

Earlier this year, he told graduates of Hunter College that there are two types of virtues.

The "blooming virtues" include intelligence, energy, curiosity, character and humor, he said.

But the "ripening virtues," such as self-control and learning from failure, "only develop slowly," he said. "And yet they are the ones that really matter."

That being the case, life as Brooks sees it is "a slow, steady grind."

And the key to succeeding at it, he told the Rice University graduates last year, is to lead "a summoned life" - one in which we diligently respond to everything that hits us and find in it meaning and purpose and something far larger than ourselves.

"Most of us are egotistical and most of us are self-concerned most of the time, but it's nonetheless true that life comes to a point only when the self dissolves into some larger task and summons," he told the Rice graduates. "The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It's to lose yourself."

Preview
New York Times columnist and political analyst David Brooks opens the 26th annual UB Distinguished Speakers Series at 8 p.m. Thursday in the UB Center for the Arts, North Campus. Tickets are $28 to $42, through www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000. For more information, go to buffalo.edu/dss.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com.