When a writer confesses that he’s lied in the service of a political movement or ideology, skepticism is the most natural response. Those who once believed the writer’s every word feel betrayed; those who were always suspicious feel vindicated (and possibly a bit vindictive). Nobody wants to be fooled again. That’s why the same conundrum comes up every time David Brock is interviewed about Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative : “If you didn’t tell the truth before, why should we believe you now?”
The answer doesn’t make a convenient sound bite. But as someone who has listened to Mr. Brock’s story over the past four years–first as a source and later as a friend–I know why I believe him. And while I admittedly approach the subject with vested interests, so do many if not all of his critics. The essayist chosen by The Washington Post ‘s editors to review Blinded by the Right , for example, is not only mentioned in Mr. Brock’s book but is also, like its author, a former employee of the American Spectator magazine–two significant facts that the reviewer neglected to disclose to Post readers.
Here is my full disclosure: I first met David Brock in the fall of 1997, when I was trying to learn about the Spectator ‘s Arkansas Project, a strange scheme first mentioned by media reporter Howard Kurtz in a story about the abrupt firing of the magazine’s publisher. Several weeks earlier, Mr. Brock had publicly broken with the Spectator ‘s style of Clinton-bashing in an essay for Esquire called “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man.” (In that same essay, Mr. Brock had taken a shot at me for an admittedly nasty column I had written about him and former F.B.I. agent Gary Aldrich.)
When he agreed to discuss the activities of his former comrades, I had to wonder whether he was remorseful or merely spiteful. Was he seeking revenge against those who had spurned him? Were his memories distorted by guilt? Would he exaggerate for effect, as I thought he had done in his own journalism?
During the months that followed, I was able to confirm everything Mr. Brock told me (and much more) about the Spectator , the Arkansas Project, the “elves” behind the Paula Jones case, Richard Mellon Scaife and the other secret financiers of the campaign against the Clintons. I found independent sources who provided documentation of the Arkansas Project’s personnel and expenditures. Eventually, The Observer and other news organizations–including The New York Times , the Chicago Sun-Times , The Washington Post and Salon –proved his veracity about key figures and events. Whatever his motives, the repentant “hit man” was telling the truth. While a few of his assertions have been disputed, none has been disproved.
By journalistic standards, then, Mr. Brock is a credible person; more credible, certainly, than those who tried to deny the existence of the Arkansas Project and, more broadly, the “right-wing conspiracy” to undermine the Clinton Presidency. But there are elements of his story that are perhaps more compelling than the dry corroboration of names, dates and bank accounts.
Mr. Brock didn’t abandon his old life overnight. That long process began six years ago, while he was working on a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton. His friends and sponsors urged him to vilify the First Lady, regardless of what his research showed; but for the first time in his career, he examined his subject dispassionately, without a preconceived spin. The resulting book was scarcely a puff of her or her husband, but it didn’t satisfy the right’s desire for an election-year bombshell.
Reporting what he had discovered about the hollowness of Whitewater and kindred “scandals” promoted by his fellow conservatives (and his own magazine) entailed great personal and professional costs for Mr. Brock. His Hillary book was a commercial failure, and he lost a position that paid nearly $200,000 a year. One or two assignments from glossy magazines about his apostasy didn’t come close to covering those losses.
Meanwhile, friends and associates shunned him, denounced him, and spread anonymous rumors about his mental and physical health. If his new book is “catty,” as some conservatives have complained, it’s rather mild compared with the vicious attacks on him from those same quarters back then. And if he now has unpleasant things to say about former friends and allies, he is certainly most unsparing in the description of his own behavior and motives, his own self-aggrandizement and self-deception. No royalty, no literary plaudit and no best-seller status will compensate Mr. Brock for what he exposes about himself in print.
It is, as he warns in his prologue, a “terrible” story, not only about a talented writer who went wrong, but about a political movement in moral and philosophical decay. The pertinent question is not whether we should believe Mr. Brock, but why the powerful people and institutions whose hypocrisy and hatred he reveals seem to have so little to say in their own defense.
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