Blinded by the Right by David Brock
Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative
by David Brock
Crown. 336 pp. $25.95
David Brock, once a conservative journalist and now a liberal journalist, has written a memoir with two possible selling points.
First, there is the book’s thesis: that the country’s free institutions are threatened by a far-reaching conservative conspiracy. Hillary Clinton was widely ridiculed after she appeared on the Today Show in 1998 and broached the idea of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” seemingly in a desperate effort to persuade herself that the emerging rumors about Monica Lewinsky were part of the plot. But Brock believes he has the facts proving that Mrs. Clinton was basically right (even though, in a risible qualification, he says that “I might have quibbled with the word ‘vast’ ”). Indeed, Brock claims to have been part of the conspiracy. He sees himself as bearing witness to the ineffable wickedness of the right-wing media and the malevolent power brokers and billionaires who use it.
The book’s second selling point is that it serves up the spectacle of a medium-name writer confessing a mile a minute to dishonest reporting, lies and hypocrisies, self-loathing, thoughts of suicide, and a desperate effort “to fill my unmet private emotional needs through my professional life.” On top of everything else—and plainly supporting the count of self-loathing—is the fact that during much of his career as a conservative, Brock was a closet homosexual writing for publications (especially the American Spectator) that were invincibly hostile to the homosexual movement. He is a gifted story-teller, and I would guess that a lot of readers will find this “my life is a mess” stuff enormously interesting, in a creepy kind of way.
True, they may also discern a certain tension between the book’s title and the author’s insistence that he always knew exactly what he was doing. In addition, readers attracted to the personal-depravity line will have to put up with heavy doses of psychobabble. Having now concluded, for example, that Anita Hill was telling the truth when she claimed to have been sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Brock must explain what was going on in his head when he wrote his 1993 best-selling book slamming Hill as a fraud (“a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” in his often-quoted summary). Here is his lame explanation: “After all, my career path rewarded party-line polemics, not independent thinking. . . . I had already shown an ability to sequester my conscience and sublimate my own values so that I could belong to the movement.”
The author is, of course, hardly the only character taking hits in this book. It is cattily gossipy. Brock mentions that at one point he was in a panic because Frank Rich of the Times had said that his writing was “misogynist,” and some people thought Rich was “outing” him. Apparently he wasn’t, but later Brock does a little outing himself. His victim is Matt Drudge, the Internet newshound—though, to be sure, there is a lawyer-driven footnote in which the reader is formally told that Drudge has denied being gay.
Most of Brock’s cattiness takes the form of searching out the detail that makes his victims seem strange or ridiculous. But he often leaves you baffled and suspicious about his information. Interviewing a source he dislikes, we are told that the guy has been joined for the interview “by his lugubrious wife, who wore black hosiery with the toes cut out.” We are also told that Christopher Hitchens, with whom Brock once had dinner, was “seemingly unshowered.” We are told that Arnaud de Borchgrave, then the editor of the Washington Times, did push-ups in his underwear in his office. And we are told that Robert Bork drinks Glenfiddich Scotch and gets sore at hosts who have not stocked it when he drops by uninvited after dinner.
How does he know any of this? While confessing to being a serial liar, Brock insists that deep down inside, he knows the difference between truth and lies and, when in truth mode, cleaves to the highest standards. At one point, he pledges allegiance to what he calls “the cardinal rule of the journalism profession, that every allegation must have at least two sources before it may be printed.” I have been in the so-called profession of journalism since before Brock was born (which was in 1963), and I had never previously heard of this rule. But I cannot help noting that there seems to be only one source for the Glenfiddich story.
David Brock’s life was something of a mess long before he got into journalism. His childhood years were spent in a New Jersey suburban environment. His father was a marketing executive and Reagan Republican whose views also incorporated detestation of homosexuals. So David’s first problem, discovered at age eleven, was his romantic interest in boys. Another problem, for both him and his sister, was that they had been adopted but were not allowed to mention this to anybody.
Not too surprisingly, David decided early on that he was a liberal Democrat. When college time came, he chose the University of California at Berkeley because of its leftist/activist traditions and its considerable distance from his home.
During his Berkeley years, Brock started living openly as a homosexual, but also revolted against the Left. The latter happened when, as a reporter for the Daily Californian, he attended a lecture by Jeane Kirkpatrick and observed her being howled down by radical students yelling about death squads in El Salvador and splashing simulated blood over the lectern. Shaken by the event and the arguments it triggered, Brock gradually found that he had turned into a conservative and was spending days in Berkeley’s library reading back issues of COMMENTARY.
While at Berkeley, too, he told his first truly consequential lie, involving an intramural argument at the Daily Cal. Once the lie was exposed, Brock—who was expecting to be voted editor-in-chief—was disgraced and lost the election. Still, he was plainly a writing talent, with a certain degree of political sophistication, and in the years after he graduated he had no trouble getting assignments. At age twenty-three, he landed a real job working for Insight, the weekly magazine of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times.
At this point he was again in the closet but increasingly well connected in the capital’s expansive gay community, within which, Brock tells us, there were many high-level Reagan-administration officials (whom he refers to as the “laissez fairies”). His next move was to the Heritage Foundation (where he had the fancy title of John M. Olin fellow in congressional studies). Presumably, the conservative Brock had no political differences with the Heritage Foundation itself, but the new liberal Brock writes about Heritage like a reporter for the Daily Worker:
While the corporations [that supported it financially] were primarily interested in funding anti-regulatory, anti-tax, and anti-labor-union research and advocacy, many of them also saw the need to protect and expand overseas investment opportunities by underwriting the anti-Communist cause.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Brock’s next career move was to knock on the door of the American Spectator, for which he soon became a star writer. His depiction of life at the Spectator is uniformly savage, and it is difficult—especially for someone who read and got a lot out of that magazine over many years—to judge how much of the portrait is accurate. The main charge is that the Spectator, never profitable, was beholden to a number of moneyed backers, of whom the most important by far was Richard Mellon Scaife. According to Brock, it was Scaife’s preoccupation with Clinton that led to “Troopergate” (an effort to get Arkansas state troopers to implicate the President in sexual shenanigans while governor) and the “Arkansas Project” (an elaborate attempt to find criminality in Whitewater and other goings-on in the state).
Brock appears to be under the impression that both of these efforts have been totally discredited. But in the wake of the Lewinsky saga, it seems reasonable to believe that the troopers were on to something (even if their recollections were imprecise and their motives sleazy). And, in the wake of Independent Counsel Robert Ray’s recent final report on Whitewater, it is all too clear that crimes took place, that close Clinton associates were found guilty in court, and that the administration had worked hard to impede investigation into the case.
What is ultimately most fatuous about Brock’s book is its overwrought insistence that the events he observed and participated in might be viewed as a serious “conspiracy” against American democracy. It takes a fair amount of hysteria to conclude that impeachment talk in 1997 signified “a frame of mind in the right wing that was willing to employ extra-constitutional means to achieve, essentially, a coup d’état in the country.” And it takes a lot of self-inflation to write that “events in which I played a central role . . . illuminate for others the dangers I see in an empowered conservative movement.” The events in question mainly involved writing books and articles, and most of the media that sustain this line of work are liberal, not conservative. That is not “right-wing paranoia,” as Brock would have it.