Blinded by the Right
by David Brock (Crown Publishers, 2002)
(This column was first published in the May 23, 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
David Brock's Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an ex-Conservative deserves our attention not just as an expose of the distortions of the Republican far right, which it certainly is, but also, more importantly I believe, as a call for simple civility.
The book serves the author as his personal mea culpa. Here is his summary: His story "is about lies told and reputations ruined. It is about what the conservative movement did, and what I did, as we plotted in the shadows, disregarded the law, and abused power to win even greater power.
"My story is about those familiar corrupting influences of ambition, greed, and ego. It is about how human weakness, lack of confidence, and emotional discomposure can lead to a susceptibility to manipulation for bad ends. It is also about the dangers of zeal and extremism in a political cause, and about how one can be blinded to the ethics of one's own actions.
"I came to Washington in 1986 as a conservative rebel from Berkeley, California, and from that moment through the latter part of the 1990s, as the leading right‑wing scandal reporter, I was a witness to, and a participant in, all of the scandals that gripped the capital city -- Iran‑Contra, the failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, the Thomas‑Hill hearings, Troopergate, Paula Jones, Whitewater, and the secret scheming that led to the impeachment of President Clinton. The conservative culture I thrived in was characterized by corrosive partisanship, visceral hatreds, and unfathomable hypocrisy. I worked for leading institutions of the conservative movement -- the Washington Times, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Spectator -- where I fought on the wrong side of an ideological and cultural war that divided our country and poisoned our politics."
Sadly, I am certain that this expose will not get through to the thick-skinned people, like our right wing radio and TV talk show hosts, who should take his commentary to heart. Their guilt by innuendo, lies made into truths by constant repetition, the hell with individual reputations, argument by misdirection, negated golden rule approach to politics will, I am afraid, continue despite this serious reprimand. They will take Brock's argument simply as more politics.
But it isn't. I came away from this book believing at least 95% of what the author has to say, despite his admission of guilt and his past participation in the very activities he decries. And 95% agreement in today's political world is to me about a 30% improvement.
I had no trouble following Brock's route from liberal to conservative for I personally experienced the irrational behavior of the far left during the 1960s at the University at Buffalo. But Brock followed the entire Republican establishment in going well beyond acceptable activities. For example, "For my conservative friends and me, the lessons of Iran‑contra were twofold. Scandal politics -- turning opponents into criminals -- was strikingly effective. And conservative respect for the rule of law and constitutional principles and civility in politics could be sacrificed to the right ends."
He also tells us: "As I conformed myself to the movement, I was being inculcated into a radical cult that bore none of the positive attributes of classical conservatism -- a sense of limits, fair play, Tory civility, and respect for individual freedom." As I read that, I could see honorable Republicans like Barry Goldwater turning over in their graves as an entire party followed lemming-like this Gingrichian migration.
But at least Brock came to understand that he was off-base. This author of the vitriolic THE REAL ANITA HILL began to see how wrong he was. Early on it was a discovery about Clarence Thomas. He asked a Thomas assistant about the pornographic tapes Thomas was said to have watched: "Mark came back with a straightforward answer: Thomas not only had the video equipment in his apartment, but he also habitually rented pornographic movies from Graffiti during the years that Anita Hill worked for him, just as Mayer and Abramson reported. Here was the proof that Senate investigators and reporters had been searching for during the hearings. Mark, of course, was still a true believer in Thomas's innocence. He couldn't see the porn rentals as at all significant. To Mark, Hill was still a liar despite suggestions to the contrary. But I had some distance from Thomas and I was troubled by the damaging report. It made Hill's entire story much more plausible.... When I hung up the phone, I was shaken...." Other discoveries about his own statements and those of others followed.
At first he followed the path of the right about the Clintons: "On an emotional level...I saw the Clintons as proxies for my liberal critics. In the controversy over Anita Hill, I had been scarred by attacks from the left, I was in a vindictive mood, and there could hardly have been a sweeter way to avenge these enemies and vent my hatred of them than by exposing their president in a tawdry sex scandal that made the Thomas hearings look tame by comparison. My partisanship was no longer theoretical. I was a full‑scale combatant, I had war wounds to show for it, and I needed the thrill of another round of battle. Indeed, Troopergate can perhaps best be understood as having nothing to do with the Clintons, but rather as an extension of a form of warfare I had learned to perfect in writing THE REAL ANITA HILL -- a cruel smear disguised as a thorough 'investigation.' As I had heedlessly appropriated the Republican attacks on women witnesses in the Thomas hearing, so did I appropriate the troopers' misogynistic rendering of Hillary Clinton. Having invented a 'kinky' sex life for Anita Hill, I had little trouble making what may have been a few extramarital dalliances by Clinton appear deviant and strange. 'Bill Clinton is a bizarre guy,' I said with a smirk, appearing on CNN's Crossfire to debate the trooper piece. But it was me, a sexually repressed closeted gay man, detailing Clinton's alleged infidelities to forward the right‑wing political agenda, who was the bizarre guy."
Then, however, he began research on a book about Hillary Clinton that the right expected to be another character assassination. Unfortunately for the extremists, Brock's investigation led him to a fairer story: "After almost two years of research and writing, retracing every step of Hillary's life, doing more than one hundred interviews, and collecting virtually every piece of paper that had Hillary's name on it going back twenty years, I had something balanced to say about Hillary. Neither saintly nor evil, Hillary was a rare combination of passionate idealist and gutsy streetfighter. I was able to put myself in my subject's shoes, to judge her by the standards of the real world, not impossible ideals, to sympathize with the trials and tribulations she faced, and even to see a kind of beauty as a good soul tried to assert itself in difficult choices. I pulled no punches in describing when and why I thought Hillary had gone awry, but I also tried to capture and appreciate what her supporters saw in her -- a steadfast commitment to public service, and a deep desire to affirm the good and the virtuous in politics all too rarely seen in her generation of politicians."
You can imagine the reaction from the right (just as I imagine the reaction of some readers of this column) and that is exactly what Brock received. Former supporters and friends shunned him; party invitations were withdrawn; his reporting job on THE SPECTATOR was terminated.
So the question arises: Is this book just a pay-back, a hatchet job in the other direction? I believe not. I take Brock's mea culpa as honorable and I accept his summary admission at face value: "I had begun my career by suppressing my liberal social values to get ahead in the conservative movement; I then abandoned the conservative traditions of restraint and civility for Gingrichian ends‑justify‑the‑means radicalism. As a closeted gay man, I did the work of the right‑wing lawyers of the Federalist Society, the Christian Coalition, and the worst bigots from Arkansas‑racist, homophobic Clinton‑haters. Through it all -- the destructive partisanship, the careerism, the personal aggrandizement -- in my mind I managed to rationalize each of my actions and hold on to the idea that I wasn't like the Ruddys, the Scaifes, the Falwells, the Tyrrells, the Funds -- I was better than they were. Whatever else I may have been, I wasn't a liar. But I was no better than the Arkansas Project brigade after all. The strange lies were mine. All the attacks, the hateful rhetoric, the dark alliances and strange conspiracies, an eye for an eye, nuts and sluts, defending Pinochet, throwing grenades, carpet‑bombing the White House, Bob Bork, Bob Tyrrell, Bob Dornan, Bob Bartley, Bob Barr -- it all led right here: I lost my soul."
Sadly, Brock lists dozens of those he considers disreputable who have been appointed to high positions in the Bush administration.
Accepting Brock's book is, of course, easy for me. It underscores everything I have thought over the past decade and more. It will be a much harder meal for a conservative. I only hope that there are many Goldwater-conservatives left out there who will agree that this renegade party needs institutional reform.-- Gerry Rising