Professor Philip Eliasoph rang a school handbell to open the 14th annual Open VISIONS Forum on Wednesday night at Fairfield University. The packed audience, there to hear political analyst and columnist David Brooks, got their money's worth.

Eliasoph described the New York Times columnist as "the most reasonable man in America," a comment that wasn't lost on Brooks. When he stepped to the podium, Brooks said he's tired of being reasonable, and to underscore how unreasonable he can be, jokingly announced he plans to run for the Senate.

A politician's life, he added, "is dehumanizing." One unnamed politician, he said, was rebuked by her own mother for a political ad that featured a soiled diaper. Brooks said he asked the politician in question about that and she responded, "If you don't win you can't serve."

President Barack Obama, a fellow Chicagoan who Brooks has known a long time, is one politician for whom Brooks continues to have personal admiration despite political differences. Obama, unlike many politicians, is tremendously invested in his job, he said, eliciting applause from the audience.

Once, when Brooks interviewed Obama at the end of a busy day, the columnist found him to be tired and cranky. Since he was getting nowhere in the interview, Brooks out of the blue asked the president if he had ever read works by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama said that he had and proceeded "for the next 20 minutes to give a perfect paragraph by paragraph summary of Reinhold Niebuhr's theology."

Other traits that Brooks admires in Obama are that he is a nice person and a "remarkably calm guy."

During a presidential debate in 2008 against Republican John McCain, Brooks said that while McCain busily wrote notes throughout the debate, Obama wrote nothing except when he was asked a question. When the debate ended, the moderator rushed to the podium and took Obama's notepaper as a souvenir. All that she saw was a series of straight lines on the pad. "Every time he'd been asked a question," Brooks said, "he drew a straight line. If you can do that during a presidential debate, you are a calm guy."

On the downside, however, Brooks said that early in the Obama administration officials viewed the nation they could steer from the White House. They also planned far too much, were understaffed, and spent too much money, he said.

The nation's debt is $9.8 trillion and the annual interest on that by 2019 will be $800 billion, which he says is 90 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

The president, he added, is impatient and wrongly fails to take long-term consequences into consideration.

The Obama team thought they could dominate the country without knowing what the country wanted, Brooks said. "They didn't understand the ocean (the country) they were sailing on. The country was terrified about jobs and change and Obama came in, advocating more change."

As a result, Brooks said, there is little trust in government and a great deal of cynicism, which is the attitude he said prevails among the Tea Party and the Independents.

There is now a level of distrust in government that permeates the country, he said, as opposed to the quiet 1950s. Brooks feels the Tea Party is trying to restore America to that era as portrayed by Norman Rockwell. They have a sense, he said, of playing by the rules. In other words, in the 1950s you did not buy a house until you had worked a long time to earn enough money to buy it; you didn't take the easy courses in school and took those that would land a good job. Brooks has a lot of sympathy for those values.

The worst of the Tea Party mentality, he said, is the meanness and black-and-white thinking on the issues. He fears that their style could become more pervasive.

Despite the pessimism that pervades Washington, Brooks said he remains optimistic about the nation's future. When he looks at young people today, Brooks said he sees a positive force. "Teenage violence is down, teenage pregnancy is down, divorce rates are down and the vigor of the American culture still fires America, and that is good," he said.