Brooks Mania and the Problem with Our Media

by Amity Shlaes
A journalist who could treat businessmen fairly is seeing a big boost to his popularity.

So the God of Books exists after all.

That was the thought of many of us when we saw Business Adventures leap to the top of the bestseller lists. For decades now, this volume by the late John Brooks has enjoyed an intense following among business writers. So has the rest of Brooks’s work, especially Once in Golconda, a collection of articles — fables, almost — about the 1920s. Someone, way back when, even called Brooks the “La Fontaine of finance writers.”

Nonetheless, for whatever reason, the rest of the reading public — whether in the 1990s, the Aughts, or the current decade — did not appear to share the journalists’ enthusiasm. In the case of Once in Golconda, some conjectured that it was the title choice that was fatal. Where, or what, in heck is “Golconda”? A mythical kingdom in India, it turned out. Brooks’s 1920s volume, some of us speculated, might have endured had he titled the book “The Roaring Twenties.”

As it turns out, it was not a better title that Brooks needed but a billionaire. For when earlier this summer news got out that Bill Gates rated Business Adventures his top read, and that Warren Buffett had given Gates the book, it became a bestseller all over again, four decades after it first appeared.

Some of the reasons that billionaires like Brooks have already been noted in the past weeks’ rush of Gates-approved Brooksmania. The first is that Brooks approaches start-up entrepreneurs in relatively friendly fashion. As Slate noticed, Brooks, like Michael Lewis after him, admires young businessmen with icon-busting ideas. Lewis profiles the innovations of Billy Beane and his statistical sidekick, Paul DePodesta, in scouting baseball players. Brooks likes young risk-takers too: His account of a young energy engineer and his firms’ efforts to escape the ambiguities of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s insider-trading rules will make any young entrepreneur breathless. Brooks captures failure of youthful projects as well. The most beautiful article ever written about a product fiasco is Brooks’s account of the folly of the Edsel automobile at the Ford Motor Company. The final line is one not of despair but of triumph: Brooks’s conclusion in “The Fate of the Edsel” is that “failure can have a certain grandeur success never knows.”

A second reason Brooks enraptures is that he captures challenges ubiquitous in business but a bit obscure for popular television or even Morning Joe: intellectual property and noncompete agreements, for example. One of his best is “One Free Bite,” the story of a young scientist named Donald Wohlgemuth who walked over from B. F. Goodrich to a competitor, International Latex, and then discovered, to his shock, that Goodrich objected. Brooks traces the story of how Goodrich dragged the young man into court to stop him sharing secrets of the space suit they were designing for Mercury astronauts.

Finally, Brooks does well in the currently popular “isn’t it curious?” department—that is, he provides the early version of what we think of as Malcolm Gladwell–style or Freakonomics-style lessons. Obsolescence, planned or unplanned, for example, is the topic of his wonderful essay on the great life and inevitable mortality of the photocopy, “Xerox, Xerox, Xerox.”

But Brooks features another trait that modern business writers, whether James Stewart, Malcolm Gladwell, or Michael Lewis, do not. Brooks is truly willing to give up his own views to get inside the mind of all his subjects — and not just the angry young men. Sometimes Brooks’s best characters are not rebels like Billy Beane but rather the old scouts whom a Lewis might end up mocking. And sometimes, if only for the sake of narrative, Brooks gives those older characters or older ideas a truly serious amount of airtime. When they are in Brooks’s court, the codgers get to make their case.

The outstanding example of this is Brooks’s essay, in Once in Golconda, “Gold Standard on the Booze.”

Here Brooks follows the reaction of the monetary establishment to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s experiment with monetary policy in 1933. When Roosevelt took the U.S. off the gold standard suddenly, he upset, or one should probably say upended, the entire banking culture. Roosevelt also caused great turmoil in international markets, especially when he vacillated over his goals at a London monetary conference vis-à-vis the future value of the dollar. Roosevelt’s unpredictability so upset the U.K. prime minister, whom FDR called “Old Pink Whiskers,” that the British king came to McDonald’s defense, saying, “I will not have these people worrying my prime minister this way.”

As Roosevelt played around, the market recovery stalled, and monetary advisers quit. Brooks clearly feels affection for Roosevelt, and even throws out a line at the end of this chapter suggesting that FDR may have saved the United States from fascism by acting where others did not. But the author also spends sufficient time covering Roosevelt’s reactive musings to make clear that Roosevelt simply did not know what he was doing.

After cutting the dollar’s link to gold, Roosevelt, for example, persisted in believing that moving the gold price would inflate all prices, though what he was doing was actually the equivalent of trying to raise the level of the ocean using a thimble. Brooks captures with delicious precision the presidential perplexity that terrified the financial world. “It’s funny how [prices] seem to go against all the rules,” Roosevelt tells one central banker, only to get, from that banker and indeed at some point from the U.K.’s John Maynard Keynes, a reminder: Once the gold standard had been suspended, as it had by the president, there is no reason to assume the price of other items would move with that of gold. In other words, in this account, Brooks favors the old Victorian gold-standard men. In the end “Gold Standard on the Booze” captures the great uncertainty and damage that the arbitrariness of that young reformers’ policy caused.

Another codger who gets a not unsympathetic portrait is Richard Whitney, the establishment president of the New York Stock Exchange who betrayed his own constituents in the 1930s. Whitney ended up in federal prison at Sing Sing, playing baseball with the other inmates. But in the telling of the fall of Whitney, Brooks takes the time to convey Whitney’s side of the story: If you are desperate to keep credit flowing, sometimes you will do things others would not approve of. You may make moves that are illegal under current law (the Securities and Exchange legislation of the 1930s) but were not illegal when you were growing up. In other words, Brooks gives the inside story of hard decisions grownups make.

By the same token, Brooks gratifyingly exposes the hypocrisy of various young Turks who do assail codgers. Business Adventures contains a slightly ambiguous but basically devastating portrait of David Lilienthal, the superstar federal energy attorney who personified the self-righteousness of the New Deal. Lilienthal spent his youth fighting the titans of his industry only to find, in his final decades, himself becoming one of the very sort of titans he used to assail.

It is precisely such understanding of the demerits of youthful arrogance and the charms of the ancien régime that are missing in modern journalism. Every modern investigative journalist writing on business seems to want to prove that not only his heroes but also he himself is an enfant terrible, even if he or she is already well into middle age. This need to be young, to rebel against the old, and to attack big companies probably results from the influence of Woodward and Bernstein and their coverage of Watergate. Editors and writers today like to “get big business” and to FOIA, but they spend less energy explaining big business and precious little capturing its defense.

Many readers will buy Business Adventures because Bill Gates likes it. But others will want to crack open or upload Brooks’s work just to experience journalism that portrays senior non-poor business people as something other than caricatures.

— Amity Shlaes is the author of three national bestsellers, Coolidge, The Forgotten Man, and The Greedy Hand.

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