Blind In Washington

Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, by David Brock (Crown, 2002)

The Columnist, by Jeffrey Frank (Simon & Schuster, 2001)

Augustus Carp, Esq., by himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man, by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford (1924; Penguin, 1987)

I have just put down two books about Washington's political life that, while not taxonomically similar, resonate in weird ways, like evil twins, perhaps. The Columnist, by Jeffrey Frank, caught the eye of my cousin, Tim Waligore, a young man of parts political and journalistic, at the Barnes & Noble across the street. Tim settled in with a latte and read about three fourths of the book before the store closed. The next day, he recommended the book to me as a very funny read (having served an internship at The New Republic, he found the name of one character, Lionel Heftihead, inexpressibly amusing). But since he hadn't put the store's one copy of The Columnist back where it belonged, a couple of weeks went by before I could put my hands on it, and by then, a second Washington book, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, was much in the news. Call it good timing - not that I'd expect David Brock to agree.

David Brock seems like a likeable guy -now - and he tells a story that, like rum-and-Coke, goes down so smooth, at least if you're a reader of the center or leftward. A stripped-down bildungsroman, Blinded follows a young man's drift from Kennedy-style activism to Reagan-style activism. (An astute political anatomist may one day demonstrate that the gulf between these activisms was never very wide.) At Berkeley, Brock spent most of his undergraduate career establishing himself as a journalist on the Daily Cal, and eventually made it to the paper's editorial board. Repelled by the political correctness of the academy - and, I also suspect, reading between the lines, by a distaste for the personal dishevelment that a friend of mine summarizes as 'bad hair and no makeup' - Brock was drawn to a handful of professors on the right whose ideas seemed, in context, startlingly fresh. His attachment to the right was cemented by the vehemence with which he was attacked after he wrote a piece in support of the American invasion of Grenada. Enlisted by the editor of Insight, the weekly newsmagazine of the Washington Times, Brock moved to Washington and eventually repositioned himself as a reporter for the Weekly Standard, a periodical then financed by the sinister Richard Mellon Scaife. Here, Brock burnished his credentials by trashing Anita Hill's reputation. He was expected to do the same to Hillary Clinton's, but during the course of writing this second book, such journalistic scruples as he possessed were rubbed the wrong way by the intellectual thuggery of Scaife's Arkansas Project, the actual embodiment of Ms. Clinton's 'vast right-wing conspiracy.' Brock's standing among conservatives seemed to survive the outing of his homosexuality in 1994, and was only dented by the even-handedness (as he has it) of The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, but when he challenged the accuracy of Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access, the 'movement' - the radicalized conservatives of Washington - repudiated him. Liberated at last from 'the Leninists of the Right,' Brock discovered the pleasures of the open mind, but only gradually did he accept how closed his own had been, and come to terms with the shoddiness of The Real Anita Hill and his Troopergate coverage (which had brought Paula Jones to the fore). In 2000, he cast his vote, for the first time in a Presidential election since 1984, for Al Gore.

But there is a lot more to Brock's book than this story, which takes up no more, I'd guess, than a third of the text. In writing Blinded by the Right, Brock tells us at the end,

I tried to navigate these human concerns [the deaths and illnesses of former associates] as best I could in telling this story. But as I sought to hold accountable for their hypocrisies those who sought the destruction of others for partisan ends, I can't say unreservedly that I succeeded. For I have been around politicos convinced of the virtue of their own cause long enough now to know that the most likely result of whatever I wrote would be another round of rage and retribution by those who will undoubtedly think they have not been treated with equanimity. All I can say is that, having rid myself of any rage or desire for retribution, I am personally at peace that the inherent moral tensions in this work were resolved, mutatis mutandis, to achieve an admittedly imperfect proximity of justice.

If Brock weren't capable of better - much better - writing than this, Blinded by the Right would be primarily interesting as evidence of tone-deafness on the part of those who paid him so handsomely when he wrote what they wanted to hear. This passage is in fact full of unresolved moral tension. The claim of inner peace smells smug rather than enlightened, and the penultimate paragraph of a confession is not the place for taking a last poke at adversaries, especially adversaries who used to count upon the confessor's loyalty. This would be the place to wrap up a very complex but analytically disorganized book. Blinded by the Right is a book with many subjects, all of which converge narrowly in the literary equivalent of Washington's Dupont Circle, and it's easy, thanks to Brock's haphazard approach, to wander from one axis of truth to another while passing through it. One of these axes is the chatty account of a broad, fundamentally reactionary, movement that since the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater has pursued an agenda rooted in ideas of personal responsibility and even a revival of the theocracy that underlay many of this country's colonial antecedents. The accuracy of Brock's account must be measured separately from that of his personal engagement with the movement, which in turn is a matter distinct from the far from straightforward course of his sexual life. So everything that Brock has to say, for example, about the way his associates responded to what they knew of his homosexuality, when they knew of it, demands appraisal against at least three different parameters.

Despite the book's subtitle, I found it hard to get at Brock's conscience. I don't question the sincerity of his confession, but I do wish that he had written a more internally articulate one. The occasional mea culpa - with a de profundis or two thrown in - seems to satisfy his sense of regret. He does not trouble to untangle the knot of idealism, opportunism, vanity and its opposite that, together with ambivalence about his adoptive parents and a taste for verbal warfare, seem to have held his career in one piece; its enough for him to hoist the unappealing mess into view. So while the news of his change of allegiance is momentarily welcome to liberals like me, it's difficult to remain enthusiastic.

The years of shallow reaction, ersatz beliefs, empty careerism, misdirected desires for validation, and drift were receding behind me.

The glibness of this remark, which is not uncharacteristic of the book, suggests something very like the opposite of what Brock intends. Shallow, ersatz, empty, misdirected, and drift are all terms that aptly describe the thought of a writer whose analysis stops at this level of generalization. Earlier, Brock writes, in what is supposed to be coffee-smelling moment,

... I was no victim, either. As more time passed and I gained more perspective, I could see that the way in which the conservatives behaved toward me was warranted. The conservatives correctly labeled me as the author of a sympathetic Hillary biography. And so, as they did in the Aldrich case, the conservatives behaved as movements or cults do - they killed my subversive book, denounced me personally, and treated me as the heretic that I was. Tellingly, my heresy was not yet a rejection of conservatism, but of Clinton-hating, the conservatives' only remaining creed.

I didn't need this book to tell me that I was right all along about the evils of the Arkansas Project, or about the corroding effect of reactionary righteousness. I knew all that. The odd thing is that Blinded doesn't even confirm what I thought I knew. It couldn't, because even though Brock has changed sides, he hasn't learned how to write carefully - that is, to criticize his own work as he writes it. Brock says at one point that he felt 'a bit queasy' about Clinton. So did I - when I wasn't crying over the waste of Clinton's talent and opportunity. I feel equally queasy, and almost as regretful, about Brock. It's not, in either case, a matter of mistrust or prim disdain. It's rather a concern for authenticity: how did Brock manage without it during his halcyon days? I won't buy snappy lines about ambition or 'self-hatred.' Was money and fame really enough to compensate him for the alleged misery of his private life? Did 'Andrew,' his hunky college boyfriend and the only figure whom the author cloaks with an alias, really break up with him because Brock hadn't come clean about being adopted? An adopted child myself, I found this claim hard to swallow, and so did everyone else I asked. Brock alludes to other problems in this important relationship, and if he doesn't want to tell me the details, that's fine. But the lying-about-adoption explanation sounds like an awfully shaky alibi.

Maybe I'm too conceited to seize the main chance. Maybe loyalty isn't the vital issue for me that it seems to be for so many conservatives. In any case, I don't see Brock as a gun for hire whose services are now available to publications that I find congenial. Far from it: I still wonder, even - especially! - after reading this book, just what kind of writing Brock ought to take up. I am not sure that I would ever trust his reporting, no matter how scrupulously it was documented; I would always suspect a writer with his past of tendentious inclinations. For that matter, what sort of book is Blinded by the Right really? I keep calling it a confession, but it reads more like the backstory of a policy statement.

Readers will also have to assess the book along a moral axis that runs from betrayal to deceit. To the extent that Brock isn't making things up, he is publishing private conversations and remarks not meant for the world's eyes, and while fabrication is clearly wrong, unilateral disclosure is hardly laudable. Evaluated according to the judicial rules of evidence, I expect that most of Brock's anecdotes would pass muster for relevance, but it would be terrible to have to conduct friendly relations with a view to possible litigation. Brock's claim that the people with whom he worked and conferred and caroused were not 'really' his friends is unsettling. I don't question its truth, but I am reluctant to allow it to justify the display of a lot of other people's personal laundry. Even if you grant that the malice with which Brock's associates talked about one another (not to mention the Clintons) belongs in the book because it either shows the flawed character of those who took up national affairs on the right or, more commonly, reveals a troublesome hypocrisy, I can think of several passages of explicitness that seem unnecessary if not downright vengeful; without repeating them, I'll simply allude to Judge Laurence Silberman's estimation of a colleague as a 'dim bulb' as an instance of the former, and to Matt Drudge's dance-floor maneuvers as one of the latter. Blinded by the Right is a book that I hope its author will rewrite with more penetration and greater moral sensitivity when he is older, and more firmly established in the next step of his career. And the second edition had certainly better have an index. I don't know quite what to read into the absence of one in the first.

Jeffrey Frank's The Columnist, which appeared last year in cloth, is about to come out in paper, and I urge everyone to pick up a copy. This extremely edifying bit of fun is an exemplar of what Anthony Burgess calls 'the tradition of native deadpan comedy.' Native, that is, to England; Burgess identified this tradition in his Postscript to the 1987 Penguin reprint of a classic of the genre, Augustus Carp, Esq., by himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man. Carp, in truth written by an eminent physician, Sir Henry Howarth Bashford, and first published in 1924, is impossible to describe, but almost any passage chosen at random will convey the flavor of 'deadpan comedy.'

After every such exhibition of pristine vigour, however, my father experienced an acute reaction, and for many weeks would become a martyr not only to neurasthenic indigestion, but to digestive neurasthenia accompanied by flatulence of the severest order. For months on end, indeed, my mother would be obliged to sit by his bedside in case he should wake up and require abdominal kneading, and few were the nights upon which she had not in addition to go downstairs and make him some cocoa. But he would never allow himself to be daunted. His breakfast the next morning would be as hearty as usual. And he was never deterred by even the most obstinate inflation from the performance of a moral or religious duty. Despite his courage, however, he was leaning on me with ever-increasing emphasis, and I am proud to recall that, in what was so soon to prove the heaviest ordeal of his life, I was able to render him very material and indeed essential assistance.

The heaviest ordeal of Carp Senior's life will presently turn out to be an upstaging by a fellow congregant at the church of St. James-the-Least-of-All, whereby the latter, upon presenting the parish with a brass lectern, wangles appointment as churchwarden. It is a blow from which the old man never really recovers - and I do mean blow. The mixture of fine writing, bloated self-importance, and unconsciously ridiculous posture constitutes one half of the essence of this sort of thing; the other half is a muted but trenchant caste arrogance. There is no question but that the actual author is making fun of the purported author's station in life. This is reflected in the pettiness of Carp's preoccupations, his want of the true gentleman's gallantry and generosity, and, most of all, a hearty contempt for petty-bourgeois religiosity.

The success of The Columnist in this line (which I can't imagine was altogether unintended) requires us to loosen Burgess's definition a bit, rather like Carp Senior's waistcoat buttons, by substituting 'Anglophone' for 'native.' For The Columnist is Washington all the way. In the place of Bashford's churchwarden (for Carp Junior does indeed attain the office his father coveted, if only at another parish), we have an editorializing pundit, held up for examination by the exquisitely accurate calipers of a New Yorker editor. The only child of an insurance salesman from Buffalo, Brandon Sladder, the ostensible author of this memoir (another bildungsroman) sets his sights on journalism in college more or less faute de mieux, after it becomes clear that, owing to resentments that will not be mysterious to the reader, every other extracurricular activity will be closed to him. His rise to eminence is generally facilitated by a talent for opening doors at moments most inopportune for those behind them, but he gets a berth at Washington's New Terrain (read: New Republic) because the editor's daughter, Esther Goldenstein, takes a liking to him. Fat lot of good it does her. In no time at all, he's pursuing Gretchen Furlong, a blonde WASP from the Virginia hunt country.

The first crisis came several weeks after I'd gotten to know Gretchen, and had joined her for a weekend or so at Lorton Hills. I had by then purchased my own jodhpurs and boots, as well as a tennis racket and an overnight bag made of buttery leather. I seemed to have an affinity for horsemanship. Sitting atop the rippling back of a steed, guiding it into a canter with a gentle kick of my heels as flies buzz about, is enormously satisfying. As a people, we Americans have come far from our sturdy frontier past; I doubt that one in ten could build a cabin, skin a deer, or, for that matter, change a set of spark plugs. I believe that I surprised the Furlong family with my enthusiasm for this sport that puts one so in touch with our fabled past.
I knew that I disappointed Esther whenever I had to leave the city for a weekend (I hinted at visits to my ailing parents in Buffalo), but matters always returned to normal on Monday; if Esther knew where I'd been, she gave no sign, and it was not her nature to ask. In any event, the time came - inevitably - when I had to break a firm date in order to spend a weekend at Lorton Hills. I have always made it a rule to honor social engagements, but sometimes another opportunity is so alluring that one simply has to breach etiquette. That was precisely what happened when Gretchen told me that the Kennedys were coming to dinner, and that Jacqueline Kennedy might wish to ride. It was, Gretchen knew, a last-minute invitation; se realized that I might have another engagement and would understand if I could not accept.
This was a torment because I had already agreed to accompany Esther to a dinner party that was to be given, apparently, in my honor - in other words, my semiofficial welcome to Washington and to the magazine. In addition to Esther and myself, the guests were to include Tobias, and Johnny Stapling, to whom Esther had been talking, urging him to be more generous and to share his accumulated wisdom with me, and a few thoughtful men in official positions, all with their wives.
"It will be such fun!" Esther had said a few days earlier, with a bold kiss. "Everything in Washington gets done at parties. I want people to know you the way I do. I want them to like you." She paused and smiled mischievously. "You do seem just a wee bit pompous and arrogant to some people, you know."
On some level, I know that I committed a faux pas by my last-minute cancellation; yet the other option, in retrospect, would have been much worse. The alternative to insulting my colleagues at New Terrain, and the putative host of the dinner party, and, I suppose, Esther (whose gasp of sadness, when I hurriedly told her that "something extraordinary" had come up, gave me real pause), was this: I would have missed my chance to meet J.F.K., a few months before a meeting would no longer have been possible. I cannot say that Jack Kennedy and I became intimates in the course of our evening at the Furlong farm; after all I must have seemed quite unimportant. I believe, though, that from the moment of our handshake in the Furlong's living room, we understood one another.

All that this passage lacks from Frank's arsenal is an otiose quote from Emerson or Satchel Paige. The same delicate layering of ironies will produce a hearty laugh only pages later, when Frank helps the reader to infer the First Lady's opinion of the young arriviste. (That reference to 'our fabled past' compels one to genuflect in the direction of the comic muse.)

In contradistinction to David Brock, Brandon Sladder is an easy-listener who specializes in soft edges and fatuous bloviation. He looks down on reporters stuck with writing about 'fires and crime.' In fact, he has nothing whatever to say except the obvious, delivered with an earnestness that ought to make a lot of real-life pundits squirm - and take a fine-toothed comb to their work. More than once, Sladder reminded me of two of Edward Gorey's monstrosities, the Beastly Baby and the Doubtful Guest. The icing on the cake would have been for Frank to supply us with Sladder's draft, such as I have no doubt have been deposited in actual top drawers, of his own obituary. Instead of which, he gives us an index. Speaking of Brock, he took the opposite tack, and eagerly abandoned the groves of op-Ed for the 'fires and crime' surrounding the Clarence Thomas nomination. But it's delicious in this connection to recall the incident that nearly got Brock kicked off the Daily Cal:

With my new post came a seat on the paper's editorial board and the opportunity to write signed op-ed columns. For some weeks, the editorial page editor had been after me to contribute a column for the paper's international opinion page. The October 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, where American forces overthrew a Marxist-leaning regime, seemed like an obvious chance to hone my polemical skills. Inspired by a McDougall seminar on "just war" theory, and a bracing op-ed in the New York Times by right-wing columnist William Safire, I sat in Café Roma and scribbled out in longhand a ringing endorsement of the "liberation" of Grenada from the Soviet sphere that steamrolled over legitimate arguments against the invasion. To me, the column was an academic exercise; I hadn't realized that it would be received in Berkeley as a political thunderclap. While I wasn't knowingly playing the part of provocateur, when the column was published on a Monday morning, all hell broke loose.

I count at least three phrases that Jeffrey Frank might have been sorely tempted to put in the mouth of Brandon Sladder, had Blinded by the Right been published first. (June 2002)


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