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Blowing Sunshine

On a warm night in early March, Arthur Brooks was having a Cinderella moment. A constellation of Washington's conservative superstars and their fellow travelers had packed the Hilton Washington's International Ballroom for the annual black-tie gala of the American Enterprise Institute, or "neocon prom, " as it's commonly called. The presence of so many of Washington's conservative cognoscenti would have been enough to make any right-leaning fanboy swoon: Newt Gingrich leaning in for a photo with Michael Barone, David Frum glad-handing a mustachioed G. Gordon Liddy, and Dick and Lynne Cheney arriving with a Secret Service detail in tow. But this year's prom was an occasion of even greater excitement for Brooks, who became president of the organization in January. That night, the lanky 44-year-old former public policy professor gave the first of two introductions for his idol, Charles Murray, the recipient of AEI's Irving Kristol award (a lifetime achievement award for neocons). As they prepared to take the stage, Brooks turned to Murray, like the overexcited prom king he was, and gushed, "Charles! I can't believe I get to introduce you!"

Brooks's man-crush on Murray originates not only in shared ideological tendencies, but from a shared penchant for pure, sunny, against-all-odds cheeriness. Murray's lecture that night, "The Happiness of the People," argued that the American distaste for social programs is more conducive to happiness than Europe's social democratic model. Of course, AEI doesn't seem like a natural home for a lecture on happiness--much less for a president who made his name studying the social science of happiness, as Brooks did. As the intellectual cradle of the movement--the birthplace of the Iraq war plan and a stalwart defender of the free market--AEI will inevitably be the battleground for the fight over its future. The movement's factions, which have largely sublimated their differences during the past eight years, are now ready to brawl, and a reckoning must be made with the excesses and shortcomings of the Bush era. It's serious intellectual business. In Brooks, however, AEI has chosen a leader who often sounds more like the editor of Tiger Beat, free-enterprise edition, than the referee of an all-out GOP cage match. Brooks is no warrior, not even a happy warrior: He's just happy.

Brooks's beatitude shines out even on a first meeting. Despite his all-American obsession with free enterprise, his appearance places him into the Buckley-esque dandified wing of the conservative movement, with houndstooth wool pants, jewel-tone cuff links, wireless glasses, and closely cropped hair. One former colleague from Syracuse University remembers learning with shock that Brooks was a conservative: "I thought he was a Marxist, with the glasses and the European look." Brooks didn't picture this future for himself, either. As he admitted to me, when we had coffee in his downtown D.C. office, about his circuitous career, "It's not exactly a typical path, but this is a really great country." Then he turned his free-market zeal on me: "You, for example, you're going to have a great life. That's the gift that a free economy gives us!"

Certainly, Brooks has received many gifts from the free economy. In 1992, having just returned to the United States from a stint in the Barcelona City Orchestra, he was teaching the French horn to music students in Florida while pursuing his bachelor's degree via correspondence courses from a college in New Jersey. As he was finishing his degree and trying to figure out what he'd do with it, he discovered The Bell Curve, Murray's controversial screed on race and IQ, and had an epiphany: "I want to be a social scientist!"

After college, Brooks, who had had no previous ideological bent, pursued his masters in economics while "morphing into this AEI fan." He whipped through a Ph.D. at the Rand Corporation by 34 and joined the faculty of Syracuse University a few years later. His second book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, argues that conservatives are more likely to give to charity than liberals. The book earned plaudits from the likes of Harvey Mansfield and Bill O'Reilly, and it had richer rewards as well--Brooks and his wife were inspired by his research to adopt a baby from China.

In 2007, not long after the book's release, AEI approached Brooks about joining as a visiting scholar. When he arrived and found his name on a door plaque, he took a picture of it on his cell phone and sent it to his wife ("I'm such a geek!"). While there, he finished Gross National Happiness, a breakdown of social survey data proving that, on average, conservatives tend to be happier because their values--the practice of religion, marriage, and a belief in hard work--correlate with higher self-reports of happiness. Conservatives have always been happier, Brooks argued, "even during Clinton's sex scandals, when grim conservative spokespeople looked like they had just stepped out of Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic." The New York Times invited Brooks to unpack his findings on their Freakonomics blog, and The Economist called the book "a subtle and engaging distillation of oceans of data."

In late 2007, when AEI President Christopher DeMuth announced that he was ready to return to the scholarly life, Brooks seemed like an obvious choice to succeed him. "He clearly really loved AEI," DeMuth says. Which could be an understatement: "It's actually hard leading this organization," Brooks told me, "because I idolize these people and I have to be a leader, and I say, 'Oh my god, can I have lunch with you?' And they say, 'Yeah, of course, you're the president!'"

But it's not just the "respect and deference" to AEI's scholars, as one of his staffers put it, that has everyone so excited. Conservatives are looking for a new mode of leadership, and some of the movement's most important people are hoping they've found one in Brooks's eternal optimism. "It's not just AEI, it's the whole conservative movement," Newt Gingrich told me. "When you go back and watch Reagan, you realize how optimistic, how happy and positive he was. He wasn't an angry conservative: He believed in the potential of America. In many ways, Arthur brings that same calm, deep belief in America, in a way that is very desirable."

Of course, these days, most conservative leaders still do look like the glum, pitchfork-wielding subjects of American Gothic--if anything, they look even more incensed. Just days after I talked to Gingrich, he appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" to lament that "the American people are increasingly unhappy." Compare that with Brooks's assessment: "I think in a way that it's much better for the free-enterprise movement that Obama did win. ... This is why AEI was made, for a time like this. ... What a great thing! It's great."

That's the kind of spirit that might serve him well as he guides AEI through not just a recession of conservative ideas, but an actual recession. AEI has already downsized its cast of fellows (though not, they say, for financial reasons), and the staff and scholars recently took pay cuts. But laying off wonks is nothing compared to leading them. "He could be out in six months, if folks on the right don't like what he's doing," says a close friend. That might be a bit overheated--think tanks tend to move with the speed of actual tanks when it comes to personnel matters. Still, if there's one thing that could give Arthur Brooks a bad day, it's being forced to confront the grouchy, drawn-out twilight of his longtime idols. If he's still smiling in six months, it'll truly be a feat of happiness studies.

Marin Cogan is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.