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His Terrible, Swift Sword | The Nation

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His Terrible, Swift Sword

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Two themes have served as the Times's torchlight through these days of darkness: Clinton's moral turpitude, and the sanctity of the rule of law. "After all, in times devoid of heroes, the law is what this Republic is meant to cling to" (February 1). (Huh? So in times rife with heroes...oh, never mind).

About the Author

Michael Tomasky
Michael Tomasky is the author, most recently, of Hillary's Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign (...

Also by the Author

Quick, pinch me--am I still living in the same country? Reading and
watching the same media? This "Bob Woodward" fellow who co-wrote a tough
piece in the May 18 Washington Post demonstrating that the
now-famous August 6 presidential daily briefing, contrary to
Administration officials' claims about its contents, actually carried
the heading "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."--is this the same
Bob Woodward who co-wrote the Post's infamous "Ten Days in
September" series earlier this year, the ur-document of George W. Bush's
Churchillization? And this "Michael Isikoff," sharing a byline on the
eye-opening May 27 Newsweek cover story that shreds the
Administration's "we did everything we could" line of defense--is this
the Isikoff who four years ago defined national security in terms of
dress stains and cigar probes? One begins to suspect that unbeknownst to
all of us, the terrorists have indeed struck--the Washington, DC, water
supply.

An overstatement, to be sure. But it does seem to be the case that
wherever this potentially incendiary story leads, from fog of
unprovables to hot smoking gun, one change has already taken place
because of it that is well worth marking. For the first time since
September 11--or, arguably, since ever--the press corps appears ready to
expend more effort poking holes in the vaunted Bush Administration spin
operation than admiringly limning it. More to the point, Is a new
skepticism stirring around such heretofore Teflonized officials as
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice? Before her May 16
damage-control press conference, Rice was probably the Administration's
leading untouchable. After it ("I don't think anybody could have
predicted these people would...use an airplane as a missile," a
statement left bleeding on the floor after a pile of evidence came
forward showing plenty of people were predicting precisely that), her
status has taken a major hit. So, as Professor Harold Hill might put it,
certain wooorrrrdds are creeping into the media vocabulary--words
like "serious credibility gap," in the Newsweek piece.

It's been a long time coming. If anything "un-American" happened after
September 11, it was the triumph of the notion--propounded by the
Bushies, reinforced by the major media and far too readily accepted by
cowardly Democrats--that "patriotism" somehow equals "support the Bush
Administration." CBS's Dan Rather said it recently in an interview with
the BBC: "Patriotism became so strong in the United States after 11
September that it prevented US journalists from asking the toughest of
the tough questions about the war against terrorism," adding, "I do not
except myself from this criticism." The genuflection sometimes reached
levels that we might call comic, except that there's nothing comic about
a "free" press choosing to ape state-owned media, throwing rose petals
at the feet of officials from the most unilateral and secretive
Administration in modern American history ("sixty-nine years old, and
you're America's stud," Meet the Press's Tim Russert once said to
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).

One is not quite ready to say, on the evidence of several days' worth of
stories, that this sorry era is over just yet. The New York Times
and the Washington Post both ran editorials on May 17 that were
something short of being full-throated calls for investigation; from the
right-wing papers, the predictable yelping about how it's really
Clinton's fault.

All this will probably continue, but at least now it appears that it
will be offset by some post-post-9/11 aggression. It will be interesting
to watch what leads the media now follow and how far they follow them.
For example, some reports--originating with the BBC but picked up in a
few minor US outlets--indicate that US intelligence agents were told to
back off the bin Laden family and the Saudi royals soon after Bush
became President. Reporters might also look into the way the
Administration declined to continue a process of tightening overseas and
offshore banking regulations begun by the Clinton Administration in an
effort to track down narcotics traffickers and terrorists. The Bush
people acted partly at the behest of Texas Senator Phil Gramm, which
means partly at the behest of Enron--and which may have ended up helping
terrorists.

"Connecting the dots" has become the operative cliché about
whether intelligence officials should have been able to put together the
various pre-9/11 clues they received. Now, maybe the media will start
connecting some dots of their own.

My sister-in-law, a historian and researcher in alternative medicine, once told me of a doctoral dissertation she'd happened across in which the writer interviewed a number of committed liberals and conservatives for the purpose of drawing conclusions about their governing emotional equipment. Liberals, the student found, feel most at home with guilt. Conservatives, as you might expect, don't have much truck with that; instead, they do anger.

It may be hard to call these findings shocking ones, and I do not know whether the candidate's advisers concluded that he or she had sufficiently advanced the literature so as to earn a doctorate. But I can say from personal experience that the liberalism-guilt correlation rings true, and, after reading David Brock's Blinded by the Right, I can certify on the strength of Brock's eyewitness--and often eye-popping--account that conservatives really do anger. Anger as trope; anger as strategy; anger as immutable biological condition; and anger just because it's fun. Yes, we knew this. But we didn't know it the way Brock knows it. Let me put it this way. Throughout the Clinton era, I read every major newspaper and all the magazines and a lot of the websites and most of the pertinent books; I didn't think there was much more for me to learn. But once Blinded by the Right kicks into gear, there is a fact, anecdote or reminiscence about the right's feral hatred of the Clintons every ten pages or so that is absolutely mind-boggling. And, as often as not, these stories are also about the rancid hypocrisy (usually sexual) that underlay, or probably even helped cause, the hatred. In sum: You cannot fully understand this fevered era without reading this book.

The question you may fairly ask is the one some people are already asking: Given the source--Brock was the capital's most famous conservative journalistic hit man before quite famously commencing a mea culpa routine in 1997--can we believe it? The short answer is yes, mostly. The long answer requires that we start, as Oscar Hammerstein III put it, at the very beginning.

The book dances back and forth between exposé and memoir. David Brock was raised in New Jersey, the adopted son of a mother who paid too much mind to what the neighbors thought and a father so rigidly conservative that he did something, as Brock notes, that even Pat Buchanan never felt moved to do: He left the Catholic Church to protest the liberal reforms of Vatican II and worshiped in a sect overseen by the profoundly right-wing French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. It was partly for the sake of agitating his taciturn father that Brock's first political stirrings were liberal (Bobby Kennedy) to moderate (Jimmy Carter, for whom he secretly persuaded his mother to vote). The family moved to Dallas, an inhospitable milieu in general for a Kennedy acolyte, not least one who was coming to terms with the fact that the sight of his fellow boys disrobing after gym class did more to quicken his pulse than, say, a stolen glance in the direction of the décolletage of the Cowboys cheerleaders. Hating Dallas and still seeking to traduce the old man, for college he chose, of all lamentable destinations, Berkeley.

There, Brock expected to drop anchor in a tranquil moorage of like-minded, tolerant, liberal bien pensants. Instead, he ran head-on into the multicultural, academic left, a bird of altogether different plumage. When Jeane Kirkpatrick came to campus to speak, and protesters would not let her utter a sentence as one of them unloaded a bucket of simulated blood on the podium, that was enough for Brock. Soon he was writing columns in the Daily Californian applauding the "liberation" of Grenada and submitting an essay to the Policy Review, a publication of the Heritage Foundation, on campus Marxism. The Wall Street Journal adapted that piece as an Op-Ed, which caught the eye of John Podhoretz, son of Norman, and Midge Decter, and then an editor at Insight, a magazine put out by the Washington Times. Podhoretz offered him a job, and Brock was off to Washington.

The story of Brock's ideological conversion is important, because it reflects a pattern with regard to several of his comrades we meet later in that it was at once both shockingly superficial and utterly fervent. Forget Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek or even Russell Kirk; Brock admits he hadn't read a single thing beyond some issues of Commentary he tracked down in the library. "I knew nothing of the movement's history," he writes. Joe McCarthy, Goldwater, Nixon--all were mysteries to him, for the most part. His politics were nothing more than a reaction to his personal experience. While the same cannot fairly be said of the movement's intellectuals, from Brock's telling it was indeed true of many of the activists, operatives and media babblers. Their conservatism was purely an emotional or psychological response to their immediate environment. In the most extreme case, Brock writes that his former close friend Laura Ingraham, one of the bombastic blondes of cable television, didn't "own a book or regularly read a newspaper." But as we have seen, in our age, ignorance is no barrier to expertise, particularly on cable television.

Shallow though it may have been, Brock's conversion was virtually consummate. I say virtually because there were some matters on which he claims he never drank the Kool-Aid. He had little taste, he says, for the racist shock antics of
the Dartmouth Review crowd; he quietly backed abortion rights; and, of course, on the gay question, he marched to a very different drummer than that of the movement to which he belonged. Of parties at the home of archconservative fomenter Grover Norquist, who hung a portrait of Lenin on his living room wall and often quoted Vladimir Ilyich's dictum to "probe with bayonets, looking for weakness," Brock writes that he was "ill at ease" at these gatherings; "unsure of how to handle the issue of my sexuality, I drifted in late and out early, usually accompanied by a woman colleague," traversing the room "like a zombie." Nevertheless, he wanted nothing more than their approval, and he put his remaining misgivings, and the odd homophobic joke, to the side.

This brings us to the book's second vital point about the winger psyche. The need to belong--and, specifically, to belong to a self-styled minority that felt itself embattled, thumbing its nose at the larger, contaminated culture--is a constant motif of Blinded by the Right, and it becomes clear over the course of the book that it was this convulsed emotional state, even more than ideology, that was, and I suppose still is, the real binding glue among the right. For Brock, it began with his trying to shock his father with Jimmy Carter and Berkeley; it went on to Brock's seeking to vilify the campus lefties. It was present, too, among many of the movement types he befriended: "There was electricity on the right, the same sense of bravely flouting convention--of subverting the dominant culture--that I had first felt in Texas and then at Berkeley."

It was by the time of the 1992 election, when this mindset joined hands with a group of men--and their many millions of dollars--who couldn't accept that the GOP was losing the White House to such a man as Bill Clinton, that it went from being a kind of batty nuisance to a well-oiled agitprop apparatus to, ultimately, a threat to the Constitution. Brock was by then ensconced at The American Spectator, which became in time the most virulent right-wing magazine in America, willing to publish any thinly sourced rumor as long as it made a Clinton look bad, and the home of the Arkansas Project, the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded operation that sought to dig up any Clinton dirt it could find. Brock sharpened his knife first on Anita Hill. With Laurence and Ricky Silberman holding his hand--he was a circuit judge in Washington and a member of the hard-right Federalist Society; she had worked for Clarence Thomas with Hill--Brock could scarcely believe how quickly and easily previously unreleased affidavits and so on fell into his hands from GOP Congressional staffers.

Brock knew intuitively what he was supposed to do with this material, and it wasn't journalism. It was character assassination, and not only of Hill. Of one Democratic Senate staffer, he wrote that the man was "known for cutting ethical corners...to achieve desired results." Brock admits he knew nothing about the man. He made no effort to contact sources who might have had different interpretations (and obviously not Hill herself); he double-checked nothing; he twisted the hearing record to make Hill look like a vengeful harridan who was, in his infamous phrase, "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." But it was good enough for the Spectator, which billed it, natch, as investigative journalism. Rush Limbaugh began reading sections of the piece on the air. Brock was put on to Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu, the literary agents of choice for the hard right. He signed a book contract with the Free Press, then run by archconservative Erwin Glikes and Adam Bellow, son of Saul. The Real Anita Hill hit the bestseller lists. The right-wing newspeak machine, now such a fact of political life, was born.

Next up, the famous "Troopergate" story (again in the Spectator), about Arkansas state policemen supposedly setting up sexual liaisons for Governor Clinton. Brock followed the old MO--no independent sourcing, printing rumors, etc.--to the same triumphant effect. And this time he found to his surprise a willing abettor. Though a few mainstream news organizations did shoot down some specific charges that didn't check out, the chief response of a largely panting Washington press corps ("I was astonished to see how easy it was to suck in CNN") was for more, more, more. Brock became a bigger star still.

Hillary Clinton was the next quarry, and Adam Bellow had obligingly put a $1 million price on her head in the form of Brock's advance. But Hillary proved to be Brock's Waterloo--as she has been, incidentally, for several other men who were supposed to steamroller her (Starr, Whitewater committee chair D'Amato, candidate Giuliani, candidate Lazio...). By then, Brock was starting to develop a conscience. In 1994, Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer's book on the Thomas-Hill matter, Strange Justice, had hit the stands. It proved to everyone in the world but hard-shell rightists that Thomas was indeed a ravenous porn enthusiast and that Hill, in all likelihood, was the truthful one. When even Ricky Silberman, who had been Brock's source and cheerleader while Brock was writing the Anita Hill book, seemed to acknowledge privately that Thomas had lied, Brock was shaken.

By the time he got around to Hillary, Brock was determined to write an actual book. ("I began to relish the complexity of my subject. I realized I had never known what journalism was.") I cannot here convey the full flavor of the contempt his old comrades regarded him with as a result: the sideways glances, the calls not returned, the party invites not received--and, now that he wasn't "on the team," in the argot, the jokes about and denunciations of his sexuality, suddenly delivered within earshot. He was not supposed to commit journalism or write what he thought. He was supposed to kill Clintons. Period. Once he stopped that, his life on the right was finished.

David Brock gave up anger and turned to guilt. In the process, he flings open a most illuminating window on this hideous circus. Here is Newt Gingrich, vowing "to say the word 'Monica' in every speech" even while "conducting his own illicit affair." We see Georgia Congressman Bob Barr plotting to bring the troopers to testify on Capitol Hill to expose Clinton's adultery--the same Barr who, interestingly enough, married his third wife within one month of divorcing his second. We hear Jack Romanos, the head of Simon & Schuster, telling Brock, as he signed the million-dollar Hillary book deal--without even writing a proposal!--that the only thing he wanted to know before OK'ing the money was whether Hillary was a lesbian. We eavesdrop on the publisher of the Spectator asking Brock, "Can't you find any more women to attack?" We read of George Conway, one of the lawyers who played a crucial role in pushing Paula Jones's story, admitting that privately he didn't believe Jones's allegation at all but that her case must be pressed nonetheless because the point was to force a situation in which Clinton would have to lie under oath about extramarital sex. We witness Ted Olson, a member of the bar and now this country's Solicitor General, telling Brock that while he believed Vince Foster had committed suicide, the Spectator should still run a trashy, unsourced piece about Foster's "murder" to keep the pressure on the Administration until the Spectator could shake loose another "scandal."

Anecdotes like these spill out of this book. And so we return to the question: Why believe this man? I was not persuaded by every assertion about his emotional state in 1992 or 1995; there could be some after-the-fact varnishing going on there. But as for what he saw, and whom he saw doing it, there are three very good reasons to believe every word. First is the simple standard of factual recall. Brock names names, places, dates, the food and wine consumed, the color of the draperies. Perry Mason would love to have called Brock as a witness and watched as poor Hamilton Burger buried his vanquished head in his hands.

Second, quite simply, the writing has about it the tenor of veracity and candor. Brock comes clean on things he has no contemporary motive to come clean on, like a lie he told back at Berkeley in an attempt to discredit a journalistic foe. That strikes me as an act of expiation, not public relations.

And third, most persuasive to me, is this: You would think the right's screamers would be engaging right now in flamboyant public harangues about Brock's duplicity and so forth. But to date, I've scarcely heard a peep. Admittedly, it's early yet, as the book is just out. If Blinded by the Right ascends the bestseller lists, I expect at that point that the screamers will decide they have to deal with it. Until then, my hunch is that they hope they can bury it with their silence. That tells me that David Brock, while no longer right, is, in fact, right as rain.

Let's start with the rule of law, of which short shrift can be made. I'm all for the rule of law; who isn't? But these arguments that the rule of law, no matter what, no matter where, must be vigorously and unvaryingly applied (on this point the Times sounds just like Henry Hyde) are specious. Know any criminal trial lawyers? Ask them how often judges and prosecutors decide to throw the book at someone who's committed perjury in a civil case. Yes, yes; it's happened, from time to time. The majority staff of the House Judiciary Committee even dredged up one woman who was prosecuted criminally for lying civilly about sex. Impressive legwork, but all it proves is that one citizen got a raw deal, not that another should. (By the by, if Lewinsky's lawyer William Ginsburg had had the brains to stand up and say, "Go ahead, indict her, make our day," we might have been spared all of this, because there's not a jury in America that would have convicted her.) Does Raines really want citizens who lie about affairs under oath to be subject to criminal prosecution? I would not argue that, post-Starr, such prosecutions will start happening left, right and center, but I have no doubt that enterprising DAs here and there will use the tool against county commissioners and town managers who run afoul of the local power elite. Actually, since district attorneys have to run for re-election, maybe they won't swing those kinds of threats around quite the way Starr does, but this, too, proves a point--the rule of law turns out to be a fungible concept indeed, and it's not at all a bad thing that local prosecutors have to weigh public reaction before they bring such charges.

But Clinton, you say, is the President of the United States; there's only one of those, and of him we must demand more. This, finally, is the principle that seems to animate Raines the most. The Times's editorials constitute one ceaseless jeremiad about the lack of leadership, heroism, moral behavior and respect for the office of the presidency and governmental institutions. The public opinion polls, to Raines, prove only that people have decided "to muddle through with a leader they do not believe rather than go through the trauma of resignation or removal," which "may be a wise choice, but...is an ineffably saddening one," since "Americans place such a high value on admiration of the President" (February 1). Clinton's fitness to be President "has nothing to do with whether [he] ought to be indicted and everything to do with whether he can be admired" (March 8). A "narrow legal strategy will not help him restore Americans' faith in his character" (May 1). Clinton's "leadership stature has declined steadily for definable reasons" (June 16). And so forth.

First, the disingenuous aspect of this argument. From these judgments, Times editorials would often go on to note that Clinton's characterological crisis had suffocated public confidence in him. On August 19, for example, two days after the President's grand jury testimony and his mea-no-culpa, the paper explained that the President's "cavalier response to public concern" explained the "tidal feeling of betrayal and embarrassment running across the country today." Demonstrably, this was not true. Even at that base moment, every poll showed people wishing the matter to be dropped. Later, when the un-cross-examined testimony was aired on national--international, really--television, there was no hint from the editorial page that this might set a worrisome legal precedent; indeed, it said "the event has served a healthy civic purpose." If any tidal wave was building in mid-August, it was the one that achieved its full force on Election Day, the one that told Starr and Newt Gingrich and Raines and Sam and Cokie and Sally Quinn to go stuff it.

Raines is entitled to his hope that the American people still revere their government as they did forty years ago, naïve though it may be. But no informed person with a critical intellect should be able to get away with pretending that the Gulf of Tonkin deceit and the Pentagon Papers case and Watergate and Iran/contra and posthumous JFK revelations haven't already rendered that kind of reverence obsolete. (People's sophistication about both politics and sex is at the center of why Raines and so many pundits can't understand why we aren't up in arms about Clinton's behavior: A politician had extramarital sex? Then lied about it? We're shocked, shocked.) One supposes it's the job of papers like the Times and the Washington Post, where Meg Greenfield's editorial page has been no less judgmental, to prop these institutions up and invest them with a downy, snow-white integrity. People know better.

Raines grew up in pre-sixties Alabama, where politics and morality were more clearly intertwined. Rosa Parks was a hero, Bull Connor was a villain; for a young man such as Raines, admirably striving to shake off the racial demons of his time and place, it was pretty clear-cut. People were judged, and properly so, according to the side of that lot on which they parked themselves. But that war's been fought, and everyone can't be Martin Luther King Jr., least of all Bill Clinton. (Although, now that I mention it, suppose Raines had been editing the Times's editorial page in 1967, and J. Edgar Hoover had invited him to read certain transcripts and view certain photographs, obtained perhaps unethically but providing undeniable evidence of moral weakness on the reverend doctor's part? A troubling hypothetical, is it not? Perhaps too much can be made of rectitude after all.) Raines's background is not unlike Clinton's, speaking demographically and chronologically; it may be that his anger has something to do with their similarities and Raines's belief in some other-than-scrutable Southern idea of honor that Clinton has offended.

That's speculation. Examining what's on the printed page is not. Lately, Raines has cooled a bit; In the days leading up to the House's scheduled vote, the page counseled against impeachment. But it has already spent months constructing every impeachment-justifying argument the Republicans now use, thereby creating conditions that make its late recommendation difficult if not impossible to follow. And even while urging restraint on the part of Congress, the paper could not refrain from a swipe or two: Clinton has become "a prince of disorder" and his actions "cry out for condemnation" (December 16).

Raines would do well, once this is over, to give thought to the legacy he's left--extinguishing many of the Times's nobler traditions while using the country's most important newspaper as his personal soapbox. Next year's review of the independent counsel law will be a useful starting place (for the record, I do not say abolish it; I say place time and money and evidentiary constraints on it), but like the hieroglyphs on Pharaoh's obelisks, the arguments can't be rewritten. History will come along to hand out verdicts on everyone in the chattering class, from Raines on down to the most slatternly Fox News Channel diatribist. Raines should hope history is less moralistic than he.

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