Yesterday afternoon, at AEI — my other home, as it were — Arthur Brooks delivered his annual State of the Institute address. After running through all of the (very good) numbers and laying out his visions for various programs and the institution itself, he brought up the fact that he’s argued for years that leaders of think tanks and similar “social enterprises” should leave while things are going good. I let out a slightly too audible groan, because I knew where he was heading. He told all of us that he asked the board to start a search for the next president of AEI. Also, he added, an op-ed by him will be up at the Wall Street Journal in a few minutes making the decision public.
Within minutes my phone lit up with text messages and emails asking, “What’s the real story?” It’s an understandable reaction these days given how so many cover stories quickly evaporate when the slightest light is shed on them. Moreover, the presidency of AEI is one of the greatest jobs in the world (for the right person), so giving it up voluntarily seemed too implausible in this cynical age. But as I spent a chunk of the afternoon telling people yesterday, the cover story is the actual story. As far as I can tell, Arthur is overwhelmingly popular at AEI from the interns to the Board of Trustees. Do some people have disagreements with him? Sure. But Arthur has been explicit from the beginning that he wants AEI to be full of disagreements. He is not merely tolerant of dissent, he encourages it.
Arthur Brooks is a strange creature by Washington standards. Heck he’s a strange creature by bipedal standards. A former French horn player who decided to be an egghead late in life, he is a unique mix of Catholic piety, data obsession, sartorial connoisseurism, physical fitness, old-soul wisdom and basic decency. He reminds me of William F. Buckley in several ways. But at the top of the list: He shares Bill’s commitment to good manners, and, for a guy who seemingly knows everything, he is remarkably interested in the opinions of others. (The Arthur you hear in this podcast I did with him is the Arthur I know).
I don’t want to sound like I’m writing a eulogy. Arthur’s not dying. But a little bit of what has made AEI so special for the last decade surely is. I’m sure the next president of AEI will be great. But he will be no Arthur Brooks because there is simply no one quite like Arthur Brooks and, if I may offer my two cents early in the search process, it would be folly to try to find “another Arthur.” An Arthur Brooks impersonator would be a pale imitation because no one could fake Arthur’s gifts. They can only come naturally, and they only come along once in a generation, if that frequently.