David Brooks spun nuanced and thought-provoking arguments about the larger shifts in American culture since World War II in a talk before hundreds on the University at Buffalo's North Campus on Thursday night.
But, after about half an hour, Brooks got down to what his audience was waiting for - the red meat of his chief subject, presidential politics.
The GOP presidential hopeful is a "hidden man," Brooks said, who has "insincerity" at the heart of his campaign. "I find it morally offensive," Brooks said of Romney's comments that some 47 percent of Americans do not pay taxes and are dependent on the government.
And Barack Obama?
Although the president is as bright and well-read a man as you're likely to meet, Brooks said, Obama has changed since his first campaign - he's tired of politics, and he's been worn down by the job of president.
"He also became much more insular," Brooks said of Obama.
Brooks, 51, a columnist for the New York Times, a commentator on NPR and PBS NewsHour and the author of several books, delivered his thoughts on the current presidential contest to a full audience in the auditorium at the Center for the Arts, in an address that came as the first of this year's Distinguished Speakers Series.
Brooks, one of the country's noted conservative voices, began his remarks with a quip about Buffalo and its importance in national media circles, noting that - besides Tim Russert - many other personalities in the country's major media outlets have ties to upstate New York and to Buffalo.
"Apparently you guys are not too high on actual work," Brooks mused, prompting laughter from the audience.
Brooks offered up slices of his interactions with the politically significant, including Bill Clinton, who he said once tried to charm him in Aspen when they ran into each other while watching a jazz band.
As for Romney, Brooks offered this zinger about people's reaction to news items about one of Romney's luxurious homes: "People say he's too rich and out of touch. . I've tried to point out, he has many ?other homes WITHOUT elevators."
Brooks used his opening anecdotes to begin his parsing of a more serious subject, the changes in American culture - and, by extension, the character of Americans - since the World War II era.
Listening not too long ago to an old Bing Crosby broadcast of a radio show that aired on V-J Day, Brooks said he was struck by the humility that permeated the attitudes of Crosby and the other performers.
They sent a message of gratitude and modesty, and talked about how America's citizens must work to deserve the peace they had just won.
"This symbolized for me a shift in the culture . from a culture of self-effacement, to a culture of self-advancement," he said.
Citing examples ranging from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Frances Perkins to George C. Marshall, Brooks argued that Americans have moved from a culture in which everyone worked together for a common cause, to one in which everyone is out for themselves, ?anxious for fame, distrustful of others.
"This shift has had significant cultural effects," Brooks said.
University President Satish K. Tripathi, in brief remarks at the beginning of the program, noted that Brooks made an ideal speaker to kick off the 26th annual series.
"With our fall semester under way, many of the conversations around campus revolve around the upcoming presidential election," said Tripathi, drawing a laugh as he noted that these conversations "sometimes spark fierce debate."