David Brock, Liar

A lifelong habit proves hard to break.

Chatterbox is slightly taken aback at the respectful attention some liberals have given David Brock’s Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. In the New York Times Magazine, Frank Rich called it “a key document for historians seeking to understand the ethos of the incoherent 90’s.” In The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg called it “an astounding account of fin-de-siecle Washington politics,” “an entertaining backstage sketchbook of scores of eccentric and mostly obnoxious characters,” and “a valuable book.” In The Nation, Michael Tomasky called it“mind-boggling. … You cannot fully understand this fevered era without reading this book.”

Chatterbox is more inclined to agree with David Brock’s assessment in his prologue: “This is a terrible book.” By “terrible,” Brock means that it’s about terrible things that he and his fellow conservatives did. But Chatterbox would argue that the book is also terrible in the more conventional sense: whiny, histrionic, and so factually unreliable that Chatterbox practically gave himself a migraine trying to figure out which parts of Brock’s lurid story were true, and which parts were false. Chatterbox hasn’t had so oppressive a reading experience since he reviewed Edmund Morris’ Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.

Chatterbox has noted before (see “Gödel, Escher, Brock” and “Gödel, Escher, Brock, Part 2“) the unique difficulty posed by any narrative that begins, “I’m a liar, here’s my tale.” (This is a replay of Epimenides’ Paradox, subsequently refashioned as Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.) Rich addresses the Brock Riddle by noting that much of what Brock writes about is already on the public record, and, “for what it’s worth, his accounts of events in which I figured are accurate.” Rich’s second assertion is, in fact, not worth much (Rich only figures in a few pages of the book). His first assertion is correct but doesn’t really get Brock off the hook. We know, well before picking up Brock’s book, that an appallingly well-financed hard right was obsessed with smearing Clinton, and that a large proportion of Clinton’s hard-right accusers failed to conform to hard-right notions about morality, being either adulterers, homosexuals, or begetters of aborted fetuses. We know further that Clinton was placed deliberately into a perjury trap, whereupon he committed perjury. What we don’t know, and what Brock purports to tell us, are the nuances—and it’s the nuances that provide this book’s real interest. Did Theodore Olson, now solicitor general, tell Brock that the American Spectator should publish speculation about Vince Foster’s death, even though he himself believed that speculation was false, because doing so would turn up the heat on the administration until another scandal came along? Did Ann Coulter tell Brock that she wanted to leave her New York law firm “to get away from all these Jews”? Did Ricky Silberman, former vice chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, conclude, after reading an excerpt from Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer’s Strange Justice, that Clarence Thomas really had harassed Anita Hill, yet helped Brock to discredit that book anyway?

“[C]an we believe it?” Tomasky writes of Brock’s book. “The short answer is yes, mostly.” Tomasky argues that we should believe Brock because his narrative is full of specifics: “names, places, dates, the food and wine consumed, the color of the draperies.” But the same could be said of many journalistic hoaxes, including Michael Finkel’s recent New York Times Magazine cover profile of a West African teen-ager who turned out to be a “composite,” and, closer to home, Slate’s recent “Diary” by a man who claimed to be BMW’s chief of North American operations but wasn’t. Tomasky also argues that Brock’s book has “the tenor of veracity and candor,” an entirely subjective judgment. (To Chatterbox, the author’s tendency to self-dramatize arouses mistrust.) Finally, Tomasky argues that “I’ve scarcely heard a peep” from the right about Brock’s claims. But, he must then concede, “it’s early yet.” (R. Emmett Tyrrell has, in fact, challenged Brock’s veracity, but not in a particularly persuasive or coherent fashion.)

The hopeful liberal narrative about David Brock, peddled by Hertzberg, Rich, Tomasky, and Brock himself, is that the conservative movement made Brock a distorter and a liar, and that the distortions and lies were all in the service of that movement. But Blinded by the Right offers plenty of evidence that for Brock, lying has been a lifelong habit. During his freshman year at Berkeley, when Brock was still a Naderite liberal, he lied to a man named Andrew, who would become his lover, about the fact that he was adopted. Andrew didn’t learn the truth until after he and Brock had lived together many years. While campaigning to be editor in chief of the Daily Cal at Berkeley, Brock was “caught in an embarrassing lie” about an editor he didn’t like. He told the Daily Cal’s outgoing editor in chief that the university’s vice chancellor had phoned to complain about a story that the enemy editor had presumably mangled. It wasn’t true, and Brock got caught. By this time Brock had drifted right, but he offers no evidence that this particular conflict had any ideological content. Years later, Brock leaked his American Spectator piece about Troopergate to CNN, contrary to orders from his editors, who were enforcing an embargo on it. “When confronted, I came up with a clearly implausible lie,” Brock confesses. Surely lying to one’s comrades wasn’t part of the conservative movement’s playbook. The further one gets into Brock’s book, the more one starts to suspect that Brock wasn’t a liar for any larger cause, but simply … a liar.

Is he still? Without any particular effort, Chatterbox was able to find three very dubious assertions in Brock’s book:

Dubious Assertion No. 1: “Michael Ledeen … pinned the death of Barbara Olson, a conservative pundit who perished, tragically, during the attack on the Pentagon, on the feminist establishment.” (Page xiv.)

Ledeen told Chatterbox he never said this, and a Nexis search came up empty. Probably Brock is referring to “Who Killed Barbara Olson?“—an understandably overwrought obituary for his friend that Ledeen posted Sept. 13 on National Review Online. Although the piece does say high up that Olson and two similarly minded conservative women “became the feminists’ targets,” Ledeen doesn’t connect that in any way to Olson’s death. Later on in the piece, Ledeen does blame “a fraudulent and arrogant establishment” and “a corrupt elite that celebrates murder, provided that the killers hold the right views and slaughter those who are political lepers.” But neither of these statements refers to feminists. The first refers to the intelligence and defense establishments, which Ledeen considers too weak-minded. The second refers to liberals who romanticize terror-bent liberation movements in the Third World, of whom there have never been as many as Ledeen imagines. Ledeen’s gist is that national-security softies and Council on Foreign Relations-style intellectuals created conditions in the United States that the 9/11 terrorists were able to exploit. That’s debatable, but logically defensible in a way that putting the blame on feminists would not be.

Dubious Assertion No. 2: When Brock wrote The Real Anita Hill, his smear job on Clarence Thomas’ accuser, “I had never met … a Democrat working in politics.” (Page 108.)

Brock wrote The Real Anita Hill in 1992, by which time Brock had lived and worked as a reporter in Washington more than five years. Even granting that Brock labored for publications like Insight (a newsmagazine put out by the Washington Times) and the American Spectator that don’t put a premium on getting sourced up with Democrats, it’s inconceivable that Brock had never even “met” a Democrat working in politics. Brock probably means that he had never gotten to know a Democrat working in politics particularly well, which is possible. But that’s not what he wrote.

Dubious Assertion No. 3: “I hadn’t known of Laura [Ingraham]’s antigay past at Dartmouth, where, along with her then-boyfriend Dinesh D’Souza, she had participated in the infamous outing of gay students, who were branded “sodomites,” until I cringed as I read about her Dartmouth Review exploits in a 1995 profile in Vanity Fair.” (Page 235.)

Wrong. The Vanity Fair profile (which appeared in the January 1997 issue) was written by Mrs. Chatterbox, who informs this column that she quizzed Brock (who was then openly gay) about his friend Ingraham’s anti-gay Dartmouth activities in an on-the-record interview for the piece. (Incidentally, what Ingraham did was less a matter of “outing” than of secretly taping and then publishing the transcript of a meeting of the Gay Students Association.) According to Mrs. Chatterbox’s notes, Brock said: “I think there’s a sense that some of what they did was exaggerated or over the top—it was in your face, and it was consciously that way, the excesses of youth or whatever. I think that’s partly what it was. I have gotten the sense that—it was a little irresponsible, and that was because they were young and conservative and bomb-throwing.” Elsewhere in Brock’s book, Brock says that throughout his time in the conservative movement he had a tendency to rationalize behavior by conservatives that was blatantly homophobic. That would seem to apply here. Presumably, Brock has simply forgotten about his conversation with Mrs. Chatterbox, and any other conversations he may have had about Ingraham’s Dartmouth Review high jinks, which were widely written about before Vanity Fair reported them.

In scanning the letters column of the Washington Post’s March 24 “Book World” section, Chatterbox encountered an unambiguously deliberate Brock lie, this one having to do with an unfavorable review of Brock’s book that “Book World” published the week before. Here is Brock’s letter of complaint:

Bruce Bawer, The Post’s reviewer of my book Blinded by the Right, a memoir of my years at the American Spectator (Book World, March 17), a magazine I criticize as an example of conservative excess, is himself a former Spectator writer. My book also contains a passage that puts the credibility of Bawer’s published account of his controversial departure from the magazine in question. Neither of these facts are disclosed in Bawer’s review.

Brock makes it sound as though Bawer were some sort of Spectator partisan who took offense at Brock’s criticisms of the magazine. But as Brock’s book makes clear, Bawer (whose time at the Spectator did not overlap with Brock’s) left the magazine to protest an editor’s deletion of a passing reference to homosexuality in his review of the play Prelude to a Kiss. (Bawer is gay, Prelude’s author, Craig Lucas, is gay, and the play has a much-discussed gay subtext.) Contrary to Brock’s claim, Brock’s book does not question the credibility of Bawer’s published account of that departure. Rather, Brock writes that when he read Bawer’s account (in Bawer’s 1993 memoir, A Place at the Table), he asked the editor in question whether it was true, and the editor “awkwardly denied” it. Brock elaborates: “I shrugged it off and probed no further, since I didn’t really want to know the truth. … I wasn’t going to let possible prejudice against another writer, whom I did not know, upset my world. Some gays can be awfully hypersensitive, I told myself.” The clear thrust of this passage is that Bawer’s published version was right, and that Brock, in refusing to believe Bawer’s version at the time, had been wrong. As this online chat shows, Brock managed to con Post Editor Leonard Downie and former Post Managing Editor Robert Kaiser, neither of whom must have actually read Brock’s book, into thinking he’d somehow been wronged by “Book World.” As a result, “Book World” editor Marie Arana ended up publishing a completely unnecessary apology.

How can we trust a writer who won’t even summarize his own book truthfully?