A Poseurs Politicsby Paul Grimstad
Blinded By The Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative
Early in his self-purgative exposé/psychodrama Blinded By The Right, David Brock confesses that for all the neo-conservative movement’s “ferocious intensity, our hatred of big government and big media, our ideology was in a way empty, more an attitude, a kind of playground politics, than a philosophy of government.” This serves as the central leitmotif in Brock’s epic plea for exculpation, which often reads like a high-brow issue of the National Inquirer. The work is cloaked in the dramatic tones of a Bildungsroman—on the other hand, a tale of a young journalist’s growth into virulent partisanship, from precocious high school activist, to Reaganite Berkeley outsider, to American Spectator scandal wiz, to celebrated right-wing “hit man”; on the other, a nervy psychological profile of a deeply insecure man coming to grips with his own homosexuality and adoption. But ultimately, the book would be more accurately described as a chronicle of the aggressive tabloidization of American politics in the 1980s and ’90s.
Conveniently for Brock, a mea culpa that includes graphic, firsthand disclosures of the ethical shortcomings and general ruthlessness of neo-conservative think tankers, itself makes for highly sensationalist copy, and so we ought to wonder whether each mawkishly self-lacerating confession of “opportunistic careerism” (Blinded By The Right is crammed with such admissions) is not itself another strategic move in the very career game Brock spends 336 pages so vigorously disowning. That said, the freshly metamorphosed Brock persuasively argues that the chain of lethal missives leveled against the Clintons—from Troopergate, to Filegate, to Travelgate, to Whitewater, to Monica—was an ongoing act of mass projection from the right to the left. Cold War ideologues stripped of a cold war needed a place to put all that paranoia and anger, and the Clintons served nicely as surrogate villains, eventually becoming, in Brock’s words, a “construction composed entirely of the negative points of [the conservative establishment’s] own lives.” Where then does that leave the most ambitious of the (former) hateful projectionists? Doubled up in the distorting lens of his own radical “attack journalism” (a more brutal, less accurate, and ideologically inverted version of an older left-wing “advocacy” style, in which a smattering of facts are sprinkled into a propaganda machine) the masterminds behind the neo-conservative “movement” look even more lurid in their hunger for enemies, even more pathologically hypercritical in their substitution of sexual morality for political thought. And so it is with this nightmarish imagery that David Brock attempts to single-handedly usher in the return of the repressed.
The field is divided in its appraisal of Blinded By The Right. Jane Mayer, whose book Strange Justice (co-written with journalist Jill Abramson) served as a kind of counter-narrative to Brock’s hit smear The Real Anita Hill, writes in the New York Review of Books that although Brock’s new book “brims with salacious gossip, now about conservatives rather than liberals [and] there is probably no one more distrustful of him now than myself, as the one-time target of [his] tactics [Brock, in a 22,000-word rebuttal to Strange Justice in the American Spectator, referred to Mayer and Abramson’s book as ‘one of the most outrageous hoaxes in recent memory’] I must say that concerning those parts of Brock’s memoir that I have firsthand knowledge of, Brock […] is telling the truth.” The Nation’s Christopher Hitchens, conversely, assures us that the book—which he had been “provoked by curiosity” into reading—“is just as much of a lie as [Brock’s] earlier ones,” adding that it is “flimsy and self-worshipping,” “an exercise in self-love disguised as an exercise in self-abnegation,” and even “demented.” In the neo-conservative journal Commentary, issues of which Brock claims to have “devoured” as an undergraduate at Berkeley, Dan Seligman calls the book “cattily gossipy,” barely concealing his irritation as he quibbles with what he describes as the “tension between the book’s titles and the author’s insistence that he always knew exactly what he was doing.” Seligman ultimately pronounces the book “fatuous.” The Village Voice’s Richard Goldstein manages to out-pop-psychoanalyze even Brock himself, asserting that “the radical flexibility that allowed Brock to skid from left to right fits the profile of an unvalidated son” whose sexuality was communicated to his father only “as messages passed [through] his mother,” and that “this was the primal subterfuge” that served as the template for Brock’s later fact-scrambling salvos from the right. Perhaps out of sympathy for the embattled Oedipal cryptographer, Goldstein claims he is “persuaded not by Brock’s earnestness but by the substance of his saga.” To again “skid back from the left to the right,” Mark Goldblatt, in the National Review, calls Brock a “partisan hack […] whose neuroses and peccadilloes […] insinuate themselves with alarming intensity into his reportage.” Goldblatt concludes that “there’s nothing more gullible, or more desperate, than a politicized heart.”
Such a range of responses is not merely the extension of various partisan biases, for Blinded By The Right is not simply a flamboyant administering of a large dose of the right’s own rhetorical medicine (though the book is surely that); nor is it a clean, 180-degree ideological spin. In the spirit of pop psychoanalysis, I will point out that the book is also a kind of Rorschach test, able to accommodate and satisfy a wide range of interpretive expectations and prejudices. The over-determined duplicity of Brock’s flaky personal and ideological allegiances facilitates both empathy and/or resentment: Either Brock has had a genuine change of perspective and is attempting to regain his ethical standards as a journalist, or, equally plausibly, he is a flat-out liar and media whore serving up the latest batch of dirt in order to move books in the name of negative attention. Blinded By The Right rewards both perspectives. That this is a deliberate piece of self-marketing is further illustrated by Brock’s decision to communicate his elaborate confession as a kind of baroque, beltway spy thriller, a further act of stylistic alchemy—guaranteed to entertain everybody—through which the day-to-day business of a somewhat maladjusted (and frighteningly normal) Washington journalist is transformed into a picaresque adventure plot worthy of James Bond.
Still it must be noted that Brock does possess some genuine literary talent. Most of the “political analysis” in the book is first routed through the idiosyncrasies of the socio-personal, and Brock has indeed developed a knack for the vivid, crisply-drawn character sketch, and he has a remarkable memory for details that bring to life potentially drab scenarios. Hundreds of scenes are recounted with acute specificity, and Brock has the ability to extract atmosphere from the make of a car, the cut of a suit (he has a fashion designer’s eye for apparel), or a telling, and unusually flattering, mannerism or speech pattern. He is also a superb, and on suspects at times over-imaginative, storyteller.
We are told, for instance, of how he nurtured the Whitewater smear with the fine print of documents mistakenly left upon a photocopy machine at the Spectator offices. We are also given an account of an exclusive, creepily-secret Washington dinner party where Henry Kissinger reveals to Brock that he is familiar with and approves of his work. Brock is proud to report this fact, not only because of Kissinger’s fame and prestige within conservative circles, but because it deeply impressed right-wing über-pundit Bob Novak of Crossfire, whom we assume has spent the evening eavesdropping on them.
The investigation of the anti-Clinton underbelly in Arkansas—what Brock calls a “hotbed of conspiracy and lunacy”—proves to be particularly sordid. Brock finds the “conspirators” convening in a bait and tackle shop, flipping through copies of Soldier Of Fortune while planning the jihad against “Slick Willie.” Brock goes on to tell of clandestine meetings upon private boats; galley proofs fact-checked in Arkansas motel rooms by heat-packing state troopers; something he has coined “blast fazes” ricocheting from Chicago to Little Rock; as well as endless “classified” F.B.I. documents. More often than not, the detective work takes the form of tracing a money-line backward, through a Byzantine circuitry of Republican lawyers, Capitol Hill aides, and conservative writers, to billionaire conservative Richard Mellon Scaife and his apparently bottomless checkbook. Indeed, according to Brock, Scaife’s “millions washed through just about every conservative organization and publication in Washington.”
When Brock is not communicating via top-secret fax with Clinton-haters in Arkansas, he is hosting Gatsby-like bashes at his townhouse in Georgetown (dubbed the “house that Anita Hille built”); showing up at Tom Wolfe’s Upper East Side deco apartment for cocktails and shop talk (Wolfe, you have probably guessed, digs Brock’s work); snorting Ketamine (a cat tranquilizer) in hip New York nightclubs with the faster factions of the neo-conservative “movement”; and popping in at the block-spanning maisonette-style home of William F. Buckley (whose half-slouch Brock admits to having tried to imitate in his first TV appearances), where Bill’s “mummified” wife, Pat, is diagnosed as appearing to be “three sheets to the wind.” And, as if this weren’t enough, we are also told that the conservative hack Grover Norquist is a close reader of Gramsci!
One might be tempted to treat Brock’s precise recollection of so many specific incidents and situations as evidence for the truthfulness of his claims, were it not for the fact that most of this stuff has the look and feel of a vanity wall in reverse. Meticulous in his status monitoring, Brock displays his connections with the powerful-in-Washington and influential-in-media, but he tends to do so for the sake of desecrating rather than paying tribute to these figures. At the very least, he simply wants to drop their names.
Brock’s big name-laden tableaux just as often provide the settings for his own petty personal disappointments. He has a weakness for self-deprecatory, adolescent romanticism, and any of his attempts at real political analysis are almost always obscured by a predictable, gleefully articulated self-loathing that is somehow supposed to be endearing. We are at one point given a maudlin description of his fall from right-wing acceptance after the publication of his less-than-demagogic The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, where Brock is forced to eat lamb chops (without champagne), stare at his shoes, and feel—perish the thought—“[un]happy to be” at a gathering of “hangers-on from [Arianna Huffington’s] Rolodex” during the week of the book’s publication. At another moment Brock, with an apparently straight face, conveys his emotional devastation following the conservative backlash to the Hillary book: “I lost many party invitations,” he gravely confesses. He later admits, sounding slightly hysterical, “I had no one to entertain!” It is not until he is having margaritas with the “stunning […] prominent young feminist” Naomi Wolf at the hotel (after an appearance on MSNBC) that he “spills out the truth […] with tears welling up in [his] eyes” about his change in political perspective. Is this the pang of “conscience” Brock has been telling us so much about?
If the gossipy revelations of born-again liberal David Brock are what pass, in current writing about American politics, for “ethics,” we are in big trouble. Brock’s book is more likely a very sophisticated piece of PR, feverishly composed by an incorrigible narcissist. When he describes, in the somber tones of a repenting criminal, the brand of stylized hypocrisy that characterized the Gingrich circle of neo-cons (who were in truth media savvy socialites, ruthlessly calculating and single-minded) as more a “marketing technique” than a “philosophy,” one wonders whether Brock’s own flashy attempt at coming clean is not itself another similarly deceptive strategy.
Paul Grimstad's songs and original scores are featured most recently in the films, Happy Christmas (2014), The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014), and Stinking Heaven