The Curious Case of a Philly Gay Divorce — 30 Years Ago


On October 11, 1983, Pennsylvania Superior Court president judge Edmund B. Spaeth Jr. looked out over his courtroom and considered whether to grant two men who once loved each other a divorce. Today, in the wake of a Montgomery County clerk issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, the debate over gay marriage feels as though it’s approaching an inevitable political and legal endgame.

But when DeSanto v. Barnsley reached a Philadelphia courtroom 30 years ago, the issues involved sounded unfathomable. “This case presents the novel issue of whether two persons of the same sex can contract a common-law marriage,” Spaeth would write in 1984.

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The Great Days of John Street

As his first public act of 2005, Mayor John F. Street decided to go to prison. Since he was inaugurated in 2000, Street has spent every New Year’s Day ministering to prisoners at the city’s penitentiary complex in Northeast Philadelphia. A few minutes past 9 a.m., he stood on the sidewalk outside a North Philadelphia shopping center one block west of his home. His glasses hung around his neck like a librarian’s, and a mess of hair that resembles a sagebrush shot in monochrome framed his angular face. A pencil-thin mustache hugged his upper lip, a soul patch sat below his lower one, sharp hairs protruded from his earlobes, and deep creases ran through his cheeks. “We are going to the prisons today to tell them there is a loving, kind and generous God that will help them through their problems if they only trust and obey,” Street told members of the clergy who were to join him. “I’m having a great day,” he added. “Every day is a great day.”

While philosophers and meteorologists may quibble about the universal accuracy of that statement, no one can dispute that every day, John Street says it’s a great day. Since his reelection a year and a half ago, the Mayor has trudged through a devastating political calendar. City Council, which Street dominated as its president, has become a gruesome arena for his agenda. The attention of the city’s political community seems fully fixed on who Street’s successor will be, with his friends, allies and employees already picking sides. Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney is actively investigating corruption in the Mayor’s office, and two months ago kicked off a high-profile trial over which Street’s character — and the attendant question of whether his administration’s way of doing business is illegal or merely distasteful — hovered daily.

But the Mayor’s trademark greeting never disappeared, and he seems to take particular pleasure in delivering it on bad days. When he held a press conference immediately after Ron White, his friend and fund-raiser, was indicted along with city treasurer Corey Kemp and 10 others on corruption-related charges, Street said, “I’m having a great day.” He often begins with another lighthearted mantra — “I’ll be brief, no matter how long it takes” — but the “great day” line isn’t just a crowd-softener. Because Street is so personally guarded, “I’m having a great day” serves as a tease, a provocation — like the Afro and the thrown punches he brought to his early days on City Council. These days, for Street, simple optimism is an act of defiance.

Half an hour later, Street entered the Philadelphia House of Corrections in a bouncy, broad-shouldered stride. About 75 prisoners were gathered in a gym, seated in rows of foldout chairs, and the Mayor stood at the front of the room, with a microphone.

“Are you having a good day?” he asked, his voice echoing sepulchrally through the gym. The question was met with silence.

“All you have to do is turn on the television, look at what happened in Southeast Asia,” Street said, referring to the previous week’s tsunami. “You’re having a good day. Now say, ‘I’m having a good day.’ I saw a mother talking to a TV camera, had to make a decision which of her children she was gonna let go. You are having a good day. Don’t you tell me you’re not having a good day.”

Street’s voice lowered slightly. “Some of you are having a better day than you deserve. All of us are having a better day than we deserve,” he said. “Because we don’t deserve any of it.”

These are, oddly enough, great days for John Street. A second
term in which he is under assault from all sides — seemingly marginalized in nearly every way — has been not a death sentence, but liberation. As Street coasted through his first term politically, he seemed permanently uncomfortable. He enacted much of an ambitious agenda — to remap the city through his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, to change the culture of policing with Safe Streets — with barely any opposition. He has been a politically negligible figure (he will leave behind no base, no faction, no Street machine, no Street ideology) and a cultural irrelevancy (it is nearly impossible to craft a narrative about life in Philadelphia today that gives him a starring role). Should the next mayor want to define himself in response to his predecessor, as Street has, it is unclear what he or she would do.
He is, to nearly everyone — including those in his Cabinet who say they don’t feel they know the man well — a seemingly unending pile of contradictions. He is a political agnostic who has become a defender of extremes; a patient, religious man with a reputation for vindictiveness; a champion of largely black neighborhoods who is attacked for being too cozy with the city’s white legal community; a stubborn man who has alienated his closest friends and won over his old enemies; an intensely private person with a penchant for vainglorious confession; a legendary belligerent with a new catchphrase that sounds plucked from self-help culture.

But since his first election to City Council, Street, 61, has perennially been a creature of government. When Street was a teenager, his father told him to get a government job, and for 25 years the son has latched onto his as a calling. He is a shut-in, with little interest outside municipal business: Friends and colleagues don’t remember ever having seen him read anything other than position papers, and classify his conversational topics as either family, sports, or city affairs. (Federal wiretaps have shown that in 2003, Street didn’t know Frank Sinatra was dead.) When he visited Israel in 1998 on a trip sponsored, in part, by parking mogul Joseph Zuritsky, Street, who rarely travels, expressed little curiosity about geopolitics, according to one observer. He instead appeared particularly engaged on two occasions: when visiting Christian religious sites, and when meeting with Israeli mayors, with whom he could identify as fellow municipal leaders. “The Mayor,” his aide George Burrell says, “is a local-government guy.”

To the extent he has political instincts, they are oppositional; Street has always defined himself by those he’s against. Even when he is driving events, Street invents straw men — “naysayers,” he calls them — to debate. Circumstances have now given him a bevy of opponents: overzealous federal prosecutors, self-interested City Council critics, snarky newspaper columnists, shortsighted tax-cut advocates. Unlike Ed Rendell, Street actually enjoys saying no, and relishes being a voice of restraint. Now that he is done selling his agenda and himself — an entrepreneurial challenge he assumed awkwardly — Street doesn’t have to do anything but play defense. John Street was born to be a lame duck.

The “mellowing of John Street” has been a journalistic trope for as long as he has been a citywide political force. But now, even when it comes to the trials that have made his ethics page-one news, Street plays the sanguine one — for no legal purpose. “There will be a time when I will be at liberty, for all sorts of reasons, to tell people how I feel about this,” he says. “One day, I will be free to talk about all my feelings and all that. This time isn’t now.”

Everyone around Street describes a man totally at peace. “There’s not many folks happy with their lot in life,” says Christopher Booth, a lawyer close to the administration. “He loves being Mayor. He wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. This is the pinnacle of his life. Every day he wakes up as Mayor, he’s having a great day.”

Street stands astride an administration built to suit his personal preferences: It is an affable, leisurely orgy of deliberation. The first obvious break the new mayor made from his predecessor was in organizing his office: Where Rendell deputized chief of staff David L. Cohen to act with his full authority, Street, who has never made clear whom he really trusts, spreads responsibility thin. Tuesday-morning Cabinet sessions drag on for hours, thanks to a legislation-by-storytelling method in which every new bill invites the Mayor to revisit similar, decades-old experiences. “He gives you a meeting for a half-hour and you end up with a meeting for an hour and a half,” says Nelson Diaz, city solicitor during Street’s first term. “He’ll make you listen to testimony, and more and more testimony. He has the capacity of a legislator — a hell of a lot of patience.”

Street’s affection for process comes out of his background, says his former managing director Phil Goldsmith. “Legislators don’t get involved in the implementation. They can muck around, but they are more on the policy end. I think he very much enjoys policy. It’s a whole different thing to implement it and get it done,” Goldsmith said, after announcing he would leave his post in April. “I’ve been in meetings where people haven’t come in prepared. He sort of sits there and we go through the motions. It’s not infrequent for him to say something in a Cabinet meeting. But it’s to no one in particular, so you don’t know then who has responsibility.” Goldsmith cites the recent example of Street suggesting that the city host a youth-violence summit. “I remember sitting in that room and thinking there were four people who have some of the portfolio to do that, and we probably all sat around saying, ‘Great idea.’ But who’s going to do it? There’s a lack of clarity along those lines, and as a result you start to diffuse accountability and responsibility.”

With more focus on talking than doing, Goldsmith says, Street’s administration has been nearly crippled by its leader’s preternatural sense of patience. “He’s more passive than active,” Goldsmith says of his former boss. “The thing that has surprised me the most is he never demands what he should be demanding. He doesn’t demand a quality, timeliness or thoroughness I would have thought he would, and I don’t think he delegated that to anyone around him.” As a result, Goldsmith says, “Things cannot get done, or there can be confusion about who should be doing certain things, and you can feel like you’re a little bit adrift at sea.”

Street’s radicalism isn’t ideological, but grounded in his unyielding faith in government — namely, the one he controls — to do things that people had stopped trusting government to do. For a generation, slum-clearance schemes had fallen out of vogue: Entire urban-studies curricula have been given over to showing how brutally insensitive and inefficient past efforts have been. Street’s $270 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative is basically old-school urban renewal — Frank Rizzo ran for mayor in 1971 with a plan to demolish the city’s abandoned houses — with a smile and a mayor’s unbounded self-confidence. Last summer, Street unveiled a “Wireless Philadelphia” plan — to create a citywide wi-fi network with an as-yet-undetermined combination of free and highly discounted broadband access — that is similarly revolutionary. After a generation of mayors, including Rendell, who were lauded for privatizing city services, Street is trying to compete on private-sector terrain. He is likely to marshal an expansion of City Hall’s scope unparalleled since municipalities started laying pipes and running gas lines into houses.

The visible failings of Street’s mayoralty have come in execution, where his ability to chaperone government hasn’t lived up to his intrepidity. NTI has had fewer demolitions at greater cost than the administration originally projected. Safe Streets, the -broken–windows-inspired technique of installing police officers on drug corners, ate $38 million out of the surplus in its first eight months — in police overtime that it seems the administration never fully priced out. “There never was a pronouncement that it will cost so much money. You can ask — was the proper homework done internally?” says Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, a Street loyalist.

Street announced his plan to offer free wi-fi service in late August, with great pride that it would make Philadelphia the first city to be so wired. But for months, the actual proposal seems to have sat in the Mayor’s office awaiting action. For an initiative whose purpose, Street has suggested, is largely about convincing the world that Philadelphia is a modern, progressive place, months-long lags in moving the plan along — when technology supplants itself every year and a half — lay waste to the goal. The gap between vision and action, says Goldsmith, is “the difference between what is and what could be. I think the administration has accomplished an awful lot, but I think there’s more that could be done.”

Last fall, to focus on teamwork, the Cabinet went on a multi-day retreat. Now, based on a facilitator’s recommendation, meetings start with participants taking turns recounting a joyful experience unrelated to work, like spending time with family or preparing a home-cooked meal. Cabinet members call this “good news.”

The old scrapper won’t allow combat to mar his great days; disregard is his new weapon of choice. “The worst thing you can do to someone is ignore them. Even fighting with people is a way of paying people attention,” Goldsmith explains. “I think there’s a bit of Zen about it.”

After his reelection, Street began to reach out to the estranged. He hosted breakfasts to meet local business executives with whom he had never established working relationships, and he has warmed to the press. As a district councilman, Street wasn’t forced to interact much with reporters. He filled the walls of his Council office with critical newspaper clips — a yellowing collage of negative reinforcement. By the time he came to the second floor, Street had ditched the paper; his election showed him he could succeed without favorable press. “The Mayor’s attitude, or perceptions, about the media in general has changed. Before it was: I don’t think I’m going to get a fair account about what I do, no matter what, so let’s go on and do our work,” his aide Shawn Fordham says. Reporters complained throughout the first term that the Mayor was inaccessible, and during his reelection campaign, staffers had to force Street to meet with reporters. After some trying moments — he lashed out at a newspaper photographer for trying to snap “crazy shots” — Street took up the challenge, and liked the results. “It’s very interesting, because the editorials were not that favorable,” says Fordham. “The columnists and reporters were giving a more balanced view.”

Street began 2004 by trotting out on a weekly basis to meet with the City Hall press corps. Somewhere on the road to a second term, Street traded a physical discomfort in front of cameras for a ham’s ease. His press availabilities (or “avails”) are long, unfocused and self-indulgent, with forays into prop comedy (Street once took out his wallet to show off a union membership card), shaggy-dog stories (a pointless anecdote about receiving an MRI), shopping advice (post–holiday bargains were few, the inveterate shopper reported early in the new year), amateur gastroenterology (he can’t digest black beans or apples anymore), and a surfeit of nostalgia masked as legislative cautionary tales. The day after he returned in the family R.V. from the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Street called a press conference to talk about his trip. He discussed how he underestimated the length of the drive to Florida, the accommodations at the “EconoLounge,” his first taste of fried green tomato. When a reporter asked about the city’s library budget, Street waved him off, saying this wasn’t the time.

Street has become so comfortable with the routine of meeting the press that he schedules his own avails, overriding advisers who think they’re unnecessary. But the regular curtain-raising of this new City Hall one-man show doesn’t reflect a savvier media strategy. “It’s a Lone Ranger type of approach to press avails,” Goldsmith says. “Most people, when they have press avails, they start off with a message they want to get out. If you implement a policy and you don’t amplify it with publicity, you haven’t really done the job. I don’t think he sees that as part of the art of government. It’s what leadership is all about. He’s missed that.”

Wireless Philadelphia is the type of sexy, innovative, tangible proposal that makes mayors into stars. But hometown papers have appeared nonplussed by the news, in large part because the administration never signaled its importance. Consequently, the wireless proposal that was covered by Indian newspapers and put the Mayor live on CNBC has never appeared on page one of the Inquirer.

Fordham concedes that Street has failed to communicate his successes. “I bet if you took one person who says they’re not a fan of John Street and sat down with them, got them to tell you why, the majority of what they said would be incorrect,” Fordham says, days after his boss was booed by Eagles fans at a Super Bowl pep rally in Jacksonville. Fordham starts ticking off Street’s successes: abandoned cars removed from streets, lower car-insurance rates, negotiating deals for new sports stadia. “How do you boo that?” he asks, shaking his head. “They don’t know, they have no idea. I can’t blame them for not knowing.” When Street was asked about the boos, he said he didn’t care.

At the Women’s Detention Facility, Street walked into another gymnasium, and this time — cheered by an ecstatic response from the women — bounded into the rows of chairs, shaking hands with a gusto he rarely showed as a candidate. After some introductory remarks, he began a long story based on his childhood experience placing traps along the Schuylkill to catch rodents. “The muskrats do not die because of the trap. The muskrats die because when the cold steel hits them, they jump around, they fall over into the water, and they drown. That’s why they die.” Street waited, to emphasize the moral. “There are some people out there who deny the fact that there is a devil out there trying to trap you.”

Then he started talking about catching monkeys by putting peanuts in a cage. “All the monkey has to do to escape is to let go,” he said. “All he has to do is let go. Because the monkey is trapped, and doesn’t know that he is trapped. The muskrat knows he’s trapped. There are some of us in such a state of denial — you know what denial means? — that you say to yourself, I do not have to let go. And there are other people who say, ‘I can’t let go, I can’t change my life.’” Street shifted his weight, and went on. “We’re not saying letting go is easy; letting go is hard. But the reason we are here today is because these men and women of the clergy will tell you a story about a living God that will help you let go.”

Today, Street is a master of letting go, a power he has derived from a loftier text than the City Charter. At age 12, he took a year to read the Bible straight through. When he was a child, the Streets would trek in from their farm to Ebenezer Seventh-Day Adventist Church in South Philadelphia. The Adventist Church was founded out of a failed millennial movement based on the prophecy of William Miller. When the date he had set for judgment — October 22nd, 1844 — passed, his followers splintered. Those who became -Seventh-Day Adventists were among the most devout, the patient ones who confronted the “Disappointment” (as the non–Coming was known) but whose disenchantment with society left them to stick, indelibly, to the notion that Christ would nonetheless arrive soon.

“Faith has given him a pretty good sense of security and comfort with himself,” Burrell says. “His style,” explains Street fund-raiser David Hyman, “isn’t doing the superficially polite thing, but when he considers it more deep and profound, he goes further than the average person would.” Hyman recounts that Street showed up unannounced at synagogue on a morning when Hyman read from the Torah. “It was meaningful for him to participate in something that was important for my religious life. That’s where he thinks the most important and authentic place between us is — where we build our relationships with God.”

Street’s religion is founded on deep discipline. As a young man, he weighed 260 pounds and found himself unable to fit into a size 54 suit. “I thought I was eating my way into an early grave,” he says. Now, for religious and lifestyle reasons, he doesn’t drink alcohol or eat meat or shellfish. He consumes prodigious amounts of water, snacks on fresh fruit, and on special occasions indulges in steamed salmon. He has approached tax cuts and museum subsidies, similarly, as indulgences. Street comes from a religious tradition that finds integrity in denial, and for him, abstemiousness has become an aesthetic, as well as a path to heaven. From the virtues of his everyday life, Street has discovered not only calm, but the closest thing he has to an ideology.

As circumstances become more chaotic, Street gets more stable. “He’s the coolest cucumber I’ve ever seen,” Goldsmith says. “I can only think of the pressures he’s under. To pick up the paper every day and see what people are saying — I can’t imagine how you endure that. It’s mind-boggling. If you didn’t know that there were all these trials going on, all this investigation going on, you wouldn’t be able to tell from [his] mannerisms.” But recent events, Goldsmith says, have made scandal harder to ignore. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The probe had been somewhat of a non-issue. Since the trials and stuff like that, you know something else is going on. I think now it obviously takes up more time.”

Street gets that, particularly given the circumstances, “I’m having a great day” has become a bit of a joke, so much so that he started writing corollary remarks. He would say, “I have a surprise announcement to make,” and then pause dramatically: “I’m having a great day.” That was funny for a while, and then he started saying, “I have my usual surprise announcement to make. … ” He, it turned out, was having a great day.

“I’ve known him for 30 years, and it wasn’t until he became Mayor that he started saying that. After a while, you’re saying, ‘So you’re having a great day?’” Diaz says, giving his shoulders a shrug. “I asked him, and he says, ‘Nelson, where would you and I be? We are very lucky and very blessed’ — he used the word ‘blessed’ — ‘for me to be the Mayor and you to be City Solicitor. Where we came from — you came from Harlem and I came from a farm — and nobody would think we could be in these positions.’ He’s appreciative of where he came from and where he is: No matter how bad things get, they could be worse. I understand him. But for the circumstances, we would be on the other side of a prison fence.”

My Philadelphia Story: Lynne Abraham

Are you allergic to cats? They live here in the office. This is their home.

We went from dogs to cats fairly rapidly. Always had dogs. My grandparents had a dog. And we’ve had poodles and dachshunds and everything. But you can’t have dogs and work the way my husband [radio personality Frank Ford] and I do. We’re never home.

I got no emotional stimulation from fish.

My husband says if I have a cold, half the city’s going to be infected—from people throwing their arms around me and kissing me. Bus drivers, they honk at me, cabdrivers, construction workers, and they all yell, “Yo, Abraham!”

I love strong, really resolute people. I love Theodore ­Roosevelt. I love Margaret Thatcher. Stephen Hawking. Galileo. Napoleon.

I couldn’t get a job out of law school. Remember, this was the mid-’60s — women were not welcome in any law firm. I was always told stupid things like, “How do you know you won’t get pregnant?” or “How do you know some partner in the firm might not have an affair with you?”

Over the course of my life, I have run into many of those men who insulted me and denigrated my talents—and they all feel like stupid jerks.

Which of course is what they were.

Rendell? I was in the D.A.’s office with him. Or he
was in the D.A.’s office with me. We were in the D.A.’s office together.

He was crazy, hot-tempered. He was the way he is now. He kicked in the separation in the courtroom one day. The bar of the court was not just a railing; it was a plywood separation that kept the public from where the court clerk, the stenographer and the judge sat. He got so mad at the judge, he just put his foot through that thing.

Rizzo got so mad at me, he engineered to have me fired. He later admitted he was wrong. He really liked me a lot. He didn’t know how to handle me, because he wasn’t used to dealing with any women.

I’ll give two commercials: La Colombe and Starbucks. I’ve got a plastic credit card at Starbucks, and I buy coffee at La Colombe and make that at home.

How many cups a day? Three.

When I did gang cases when I was assistant, I did all my own personal investigations. That means I went out to the scenes, I interviewed gang members, I knocked on doors in the neighborhoods. I’ve got to tell you, the gang guys all thought I was way cool.

But I was in these dangerous neighborhoods, and I would be there by myself. I always carried a gun with me in case someone tried to hurt me.

I don’t believe as a D.A. I should try to upstage my
assistants by going into court with great fanfare and panoply. I never liked it when Arlen did that. I always thought it was grandstanding.

Obviously the death penalty has been with us since the dawn of man. Sometimes it’s called war.

The art all over the office is mine. I love the Impressionists, I love Gerhard Richter. I like modern things.

I should have married my husband a lot earlier. We went together for a long time. But we’ve been married 28 years now.

I voted for the first George Bush, because I couldn’t stand Michael Dukakis. I thought he was a total fool. And when he said to Bernie Shaw that if his wife were raped and murdered, he still wouldn’t agree with the death penalty, that was it for me. I wanted to smack him right across his arrogant face.

I don’t walk around the city in fear. Never did.

David Brooks: Boo-Boos in Paradise

A few years ago, journalist David Brooks wrote a celebrated article for the Atlantic Monthly, “One Nation, Slightly Divisible,” in which he examined the country’s cultural split in the aftermath of the 2000 election, contrasting the red states that went for Bush and the blue ones for Gore. To see the vast nation whose condition he diagnosed, Brooks compared two counties: Maryland’s Montgomery (Blue), where he himself lives, and Pennsylvania’s Franklin (a Red county in a Blue state). “I went to Franklin County because I wanted to get a sense of how deep the divide really is,” Brooks wrote of his leisurely northward drive to see the other America across “the Meatloaf Line; from here on there will be a lot fewer sun-dried-tomato concoctions on restaurant menus and a lot more meatloaf platters.” Franklin County was a place where “no blue New York Times delivery bags dot driveways on Sunday mornings … [where] people don’t complain that Woody Allen isn’t as funny as he used to be, because they never thought he was funny,” he wrote. “In Red America churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere. In Red America they have QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting. In Blue America we have NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing.”

Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called “status detail,” those telling symbols — the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles — that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. Through his articles, a best-selling book, and now a twice-a-week column in what is arguably journalism’s most prized locale, the New York Times op-ed page, Brooks has become a must-read, charming us into seeing events in the news through his worldview.

There’s just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. According to sales data, one of Goodwin’s strongest markets has been deep-Red McAllen, Texas. That’s probably not, however, QVC country. “I would guess our audience would skew toward Blue areas of the country,” says Doug Rose, the network’s vice president of merchandising and brand development. “Generally our audience is female suburban baby boomers, and our business skews towards affluent areas.” Rose’s standard PowerPoint presentation of the QVC brand includes a map of one zip code — Beverly Hills, 90210 — covered in little red dots that each represent one QVC customer address, to debunk “the myth that they’re all little old ladies in trailer parks eating bonbons all day.”

“Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors,” Brooks wrote. “When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens.” Actually, six of the top 10 states in terms of illegal-alien population are Red.

“We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books,” Brooks asserted. A 2003 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater study of America’s most literate cities doesn’t necessarily agree. Among the study’s criteria was the presence of bookstores and libraries; 20 of the 30 most literate cities were in Red states.

“Very few of us,” Brooks wrote of his fellow Blue Americans, “could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country.” He might want to take his name-recognition test to the streets of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series’s highest-rated television markets — three of the top five were in Blue states. (Philadelphia was fifth nationally.)

Brooks could be dismissed as little more than a snarky punch-line artist, except that he postures as a public intellectual — and has been received as one.

IT’S HARD, IN FACT, to think of many American thinkers more influential at this moment than Brooks. His 2000 book Bobos in Paradise heralded the rise of a new upper class that mixed ’60s-style liberalism with ’80s-style conspicuous consumption; celebrated by reviewers, it quickly became a best-seller. Brooks wrote that his hometown, Wayne, was emblematic of the “Upscale Suburban Hippiedom” that was the natural habitat of these “bourgeois bohemians.” Like “yuppie” and “metrosexual,” Brooks’s “bobo” entered the language as a successful coinage of pop sociology. It shows up in magazine articles and casual conversations, and the book itself is footnoted in dozens of books on American society and consumer culture, and cited in a college history textbook.

On the publication of Bobos, New York Times critic Walter Goodman lumped Brooks with William H. Whyte Jr., author of The Organization Man, and David Riesman, who wrote The Lonely Crowd, as a practitioner of “sociological journalism.” (In the introduction to Bobos, Brooks invoked Whyte — plus Jane Jacobs and John Kenneth Galbraith — as predecessors.) In 2001, the New School for Social Research, in Manhattan, held a panel discussion in which real-life scholars pondered the bobo. When, in 2001, Richard Posner ranked the 100 highest-profile public intellectuals, Brooks came in 85th, just behind Marshall McLuhan at 82nd, and ahead of Garry Wills, Isaiah Berlin and Margaret Mead.

Following the success of Bobos, Brooks — who was then writing for the Atlantic Monthly and Newsweek and appearing on PBS and NPR — was offered the Times column, formalizing his position as the in-house conservative pundit of liberal America. In his column, Brooks writes mostly about affairs of state, but with the same approach — a cultural analysis grounded in social observation — that made Bobos such a success. This summer, Bobos will get a sibling when Brooks publishes On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.

Brooks is operating in a long tradition of public intellectualism. Like William Whyte, another child of Philadelphia’s western suburbs fascinated with the interplay of money and manners among his contemporaries, Brooks is a journalist who works on sociological turf. But Whyte, who was an editor for Fortune in the 1950s, observed how people lived, inferred trends, considered what they meant, and then came up with grand conclusions about the direction of the country. When, in 1954, he wanted to find out which consumers were trend-setters, he went into Overbrook Park and surveyed 4,948 homes — all inhabited by real people. Brooks, by way of contrast, draws caricatures. Whether out of sloppiness or laziness, the examples he conjures to illustrate well-founded premises are often unfounded, undermining the very points he’s trying to make.

IN JANUARY, I MADE my own trip to Franklin County, 175 miles southwest of Philadelphia, with a simple goal: I wanted to see where David Brooks comes up with this stuff. One of the first places I passed was Greencastle Coffee Roasters, which has more than 200 kinds of coffee, and a well-stocked South Asian grocery in the back with a product range hard to find in some large coastal cities: 20-pound bags of jasmine rice, cans of Thai fermented mustard greens, a freezer with lemongrass stalks and kaffir-lime leaves. The owner, Charles Rake, told me that there was, until a few years back, a Thai restaurant in Chambersburg, run by a woman who now does catering. “She’s the best Thai cook I know on Planet Earth,” Rake said. “And I’ve been to Thailand.”

I stopped at Blockbuster, where the DVD of Annie Hall was checked out. I went to the counter to see how Scott, the clerk, thought it compared to Allen’s other work. “It’s funny,” said Scott. “What’s the funny one? Yeah, Annie Hall, that’s the one where he dates everyone — it’s funny.”

“In Montgomery County we have Saks Fifth Avenue, Cartier, Anthropologie, Brooks Brothers. In Franklin County they have Dollar General and Value City, along with a plethora of secondhand stores,” Brooks wrote. In fact, while Franklin has 14 stores with the word “dollar” in their name — plus one Value City — Montgomery County, Maryland, has 34, including one that’s within walking distance of an Anthropologie in Rockville.

As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. “On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu — steak au jus, ’slippery beef pot pie,’ or whatever — I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee’s,” he wrote. “I’d scan the menu and realize that I’d been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and ’seafood delight’ trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.”

Taking Brooks’s cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The “Steak and Lobster” combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. “Most of our checks are over $20,” said Becka, my waitress. “There are a lot of ways to spend over $20.”

The easiest way to spend over $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts “turn-of-the-century elegance.” I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce. Afterward, I asked the inn’s proprietors, Walt and Sandy Filkowski, if they had seen Brooks’s article. They laughed. After it was published in the Atlantic, the nearby Mercersburg Academy boarding school invited Brooks as part of its speaker series. He spent the night at the inn. “For breakfast I made a goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomato tart,” Sandy said. “He said he just wanted scrambled eggs.”

I LOOKED AT ANOTHER of Brooks’s more celebrated articles, an August 2002 piece in the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard in which he discerned a new American archetype he dubbed “Patio Man.” Patio Man, in Brooks’s description, “walks into a Home Depot or Lowe’s or one of the other mega hardware complexes and his eyes are glistening with a faraway missionary zeal, like one of those old prophets gazing into the promised land. His lips are parted and twitching slightly.” Patio Man, Brooks wrote, lives in one of the new Sprinkler Cities, “the fast-growing suburbs mostly in the South and West that are the homes of the new-style American dream.”

Brooks illuminated Patio Man’s world with vivid portraiture, telling details, and clever observations about American culture. (“All major choices of consumer durables these days ultimately come down to which model has the most impressive cup holders.”) Brooks’s suggestion that Patio Man’s brethren would become the basis of a coming Republican majority found many friends. Slate identified him as a “new sociological icon.” The New York Times Magazine 2002 “Year in Ideas” issue cited Patio Man in its encapsulation of “Post-Soccer-Mom Nomenclature.”

Unfortunately, as with the Red/Blue article, many of the knowing references Brooks deftly invoked to bring Patio Man to life were entirely manufactured. He describes the ladies of Sprinkler City as “trim Jennifer Aniston women [who] wear capris and sleeveless tops and look great owing to their many hours of sweat and exercise at Spa Lady.” That chain of women’s gyms has three locations — all in New Jersey, far from any Sprinkler City. “The roads,” Brooks writes, “have been given names like Innovation Boulevard and Entrepreneur Avenue.” There are no Entrepreneur Avenues anywhere in the country, according to the business-directory database Referenceusa, and only two Innovation Boulevards — in non-Sprinkler cities Fort Wayne, Indiana, and State College, Pennsylvania. There is also an Innovation Boulevard in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

The basic premises of Brooks’s articles aren’t necessarily wrong. His Red/Blue article was anchored in the research of political analyst Michael Barone, who in a June 2001 article in National Journal delineated a country split evenly in two: “One is observant, tradition-minded, moralistic. The other is unobservant, liberation-minded, relativistic.” Brooks’s Patio Man article was a pop translation of a February 2002 paper by University of Michigan demographer William H. Frey, who wrote that 2000 Census figures showed growth of “the New Sunbelt.”

Brooks, however, does more than popularize inaccessible academic work; he distorts it. Barone relies on election returns and public-opinion data as the basis for his research; Frey looks to the census. But Brooks takes their findings and, regardless of origin, applies to them what one might call the Brooks Consumer Taste Fallacy, which suggests that people are best understood by where they shop and what they buy. So Brooks takes Barone’s vote-counting in a two-sided election and says the country is split between Anthropologie and Dollar General. Then he takes Frey’s demographic studies and says Sprinkler Cities are marked by their Home Depots. At this point, Frey was already working on a paper called “Three Americas” which argued for a tripartite model for understanding the nation: the Melting Pot (populous, immigrant-heavy states like New Jersey, Texas, Illinois); the Heartland (rural, without much population growth); and the New Sunbelt. If one really believes that the New Sunbelt and its Sprinkler Cities mark a culturally distinct region (as Brooks does), Frey suggests, one can’t also believe that the country is rather evenly split into two culturally distinct factions (as Brooks does).

There are salient cultural divides in the United States — and, in fact, different values and practices among residents of Montgomery and Franklin counties — but consumer life is the place where they are most rapidly converging. In this regard, Brooks would have been better off relying on the newest generation of elitist truism — tongue-in-cheek laments about the proliferation of ubiquitous chain espresso bars and bookstores. Last fall, Pottery Barn opened stores in Huntsville, Alabama, and Franklin, Tennessee, and the New York Times has introduced home delivery in Colorado Springs. It likely won’t be long before Franklin County gets both; yoga classes have already arrived.

Most of Brooks’s own ideas are clichés borrowed from popular culture. His Franklin County dispatch included a riff on the differences between “indoor guys” and “outdoor guys,” a divide handled with more nuance by the characters on Home Improvement. Outdoor guys have “wraparound NASCAR sunglasses, maybe a napa auto parts cap, and a haircut in a short wedge up front but flowing down over their shoulders in the back — a cut that is known as the mullet,” Brooks writes, before getting to their “thing against sleeves,” their well-ventilated armpit hair, and the way ripped sleeves hang over bad to the bone tattoos. This is a clever homage to the fieldwork of comic/sociologist Jeff Foxworthy, whose 1989 study You Might Be a Redneck If … included: “You own more than three shirts with the sleeves cut off.”

I CALLED BROOKS TO SEE if I was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. “I didn’t see it when I was there, but it’s true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn,” he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. “That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end … ” he replied, his voice trailing away. “That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20.”

I went through some of the other instances where he made declarations that appeared insupportable. He accused me of being “too pedantic,” of “taking all of this too literally,” of “taking a joke and distorting it.” “That’s totally unethical,” he said.

Satire has its purpose, but assuming it’s on the mark, Brooks should be able to adduce real-world examples that are true. I asked him how I was supposed to tell what was comedy and what was sociology. “Generally, I rely on intelligent readers to know — and I think that at the Atlantic Monthly, every intelligent reader can tell what the difference is,” he replied. “I tried to describe the mainstream of Montgomery County and the mainstream of Franklin County. They’re both diverse places, and any generalization is going to have exceptions. But I was trying to capture the difference between the two places,” he said. “You’ve obviously come at this from a perspective. I don’t think if you went to the two places you wouldn’t detect a cultural difference.”

I asked him about Blue America as a bastion of illegal immigrants. “This is dishonest research. You’re not approaching the piece in the spirit of an honest reporter,” he said. “Is this how you’re going to start your career? I mean, really, doing this sort of piece? I used to do ’em, I know ’em, how one starts, but it’s just something you’ll mature beyond.”

I shared with him some more of my research, and asked how he made his observations. On NASCAR name recognition: “My experience going around to people that I know in urban metro areas is a lot of them can’t name five NASCAR … but that’s a joke.” On Spa Lady locations: “I think that’s the type of place where people would get the joke and get the reference.” On whether Blue Americans read more books: “That would be interesting, but one goes by one’s life experiences.”

“What I try to do is describe the character of places, and hopefully things will ring true to people,” Brooks explained. “In most cases, I think the way I describe it does ring true, and in some places it doesn’t ring true. If you were describing a person, you would try to grasp the essential character and in some way capture them in a few words. And if you do it as a joke, there’s a pang of recognition.”

BY HOLDING HIMSELF to a rings-true standard, Brooks acknowledges that all he does is present his readers with the familiar and ask them to recognize it. Why, then, has his particular brand of stereotype-peddling met with such success? In recent years, American journalism has reacted to the excesses of New Journalism — narcissism, impressionism, preening subjectivity — by adopting the trappings of scholarship. Trend pieces, once a bastion of three-examples-and-out superficiality, now strive for the authority of dissertations. Former Times editor Howell Raines famously defended page-one placement for a piece examining Britney Spears’s flailing career by describing it as a “sophisticated exegesis of sociological phenomenon.” The headline writer’s favorite word is “deconstructing.” (Last year, the Toronto Star deconstructed a sausage.) Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon demographer whose 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class earned Bobos-like mainstream cachet, nostalgizes an era when readers looked to academia for such insights:

“You had Holly Whyte, who got Jane Jacobs started, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Galbraith. This is what we’re missing; this is a gap,” Florida says. “Now you have David Brooks as your sociologist, and Al Franken and Michael Moore as your political scientists. Where is the serious public intellectualism of a previous era? It’s the failure of social science to be relevant enough to do it.”

This culture shift has rewarded Brooks, who translates echt nerd appearance (glasses, toothy grin, blue blazer) and intellectual bearing into journalistic credibility, which allows him to take amusing dinner-party chatter — Was that map an electoral-college breakdown or a marketing plan for Mighty Aphrodite? — and sell it to editors as well-argued wisdom on American society. Brooks satisfies the features desk’s appetite for scholarly authority in much the same way that Jayson Blair fed the newsroom’s compulsion for scoops.

There’s even a Brooksian explanation for why he has become so popular with the East Coast media elite. Blue Americans have heard so much about Red America, and they’ve always wanted to see it. But Blue Americans don’t take vacations to places like Galveston and Dubuque. They like to watch TV shows like The Simpsons and Roseanne, where Red America is mocked by either cartoon characters or Red Americans themselves, so Blue Americans don’t need to feel guilty of condescension. Blue Americans are above redneck jokes, but they will listen if a sociologist attests to the high density of lawnbound-appliances-per-capita in flyover country. They need someone to show them how the other half lives, because there is nothing like sympathy for backwardness to feed elitism. A wrong turn in Red America can be dangerous: They might accidentally find Jesus or be hit by an 18-wheeler. It seems reasonable to seek out a smart-looking fellow who seems to know the way and has a witty line at every point. Blue Americans always travel with a guide.

Originally published in the April 2004 issue of Philadelphia magazine.