Ad Policy

Michael Tomasky

Michael Tomasky is the author, most recently, of Hillary’s Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign (Free Press). He is a political columnist for New York magazine.

  • Elections March 23, 2015

    Lesser-Evilism We Can Believe In

    Should we put government in the hands of a party determined to subvert it, or a party—however flawed—that believes it still has a role to play in securing the common good?

    Michael Tomasky

  • Covert Ops May 23, 2002

    As the Press Turns

    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.

    Michael Tomasky

  • Non-fiction March 21, 2002

    Thunderstruck on the Right

    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 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.

    Michael Tomasky

  • Cities October 4, 2001

    NYC’s Mayoral Muddle

    In our August 20 issue we endorsed Mark Green, a lifelong liberal who has been running as a liberal centrist, for mayor of New York City. Two weeks before a runoff election against Fernando Ferrer, a lifelong centrist who has been running on behalf of what he calls "the other New York," Green accepted Mayor Giuliani's proposition that he be allowed to stay in office an additional three months. If Green's ill-advised cave-in were all we knew about him, we'd drop him like a cold potato, the mayor's idea being unwieldy, unwise and possibly--even if the state legislature went along--illegal. But given Green's long and valuable service as a public interest activist, his anti-Giuliani credentials, his anti-police brutality, pro-public safety stances, we regard this as one bad decision in a career replete with the right ones, and our endorsement stands. --The Editors

    As political insiders in New York City got back to talking politics after September 11, people asked one another: How did the World Trade Center attack change the mayoral election? No one had any idea, but everyone agreed that, somehow or another, things just had to be different.

    It turned out that they were and they weren't. On the no-change front, it appears that the greatest calamity in the city's history proved no match for old-fashioned ethnic politics. Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer finished first in the Democratic primary, riding the wave of an unprecedented Latino turnout (Latinos represented 23 percent of the Democratic electorate and voted for him against four white opponents by a three-to-one margin). The vast majority of white observers, I among them, assumed that after the attack Ferrer's campaign mantra about "two New Yorks" would wind up buried under the lower Manhattan rubble. The problem was, as we were dismissing Ferrer, we forgot to ask his voters. That those voters sent the message they did, especially at a time when rhetoric about unity and coming together as one had become the only permissible lingua franca of municipal political life, should remind us--and, one hopes, the next mayor, whoever he may be--that as urgent as the need to rebuild may be, the legions of homeless families and children without adequate healthcare are still out there.

    One thing that did change, and disturbingly so, was the ground occupied by Mark Green, the city's Public Advocate. Green finished second, with 31 percent to Ferrer's 35, largely because Ferrer's leftish campaign--ironic for someone who, in a previous mayoral run four years ago, ran as a veritable Democratic Leadership Councillor--struck a chord with the solid third of the city that has consistently opposed incumbent Rudy Giuliani, while Green's more moderated race--ironic for someone who has been a lifelong liberal crusader and Giuliani's most consistent high-profile critic--tried so hard to please so many different constituencies that it ignited none.

    Now, as the two head for an October 11 runoff, the distinction between them is even more stark. When Giuliani proposed an extortionate "deal" to Green, Ferrer and Republican primary winner Mike Bloomberg under which the mayor would be permitted to stay on for three extra months (extortionate because his implicit threat was that if they didn't accept, he'd seek ways to run for a third term), Green capitulated, and Ferrer had the gumption to say no. In truth, both decisions were political calculations. Green needs the backing in the runoff of white voters who are looking very sympathetically at Giuliani these days, and he needs to keep Giuliani, who detests him and who could depress white turnout with a few well-chosen words, off his back; Ferrer needs to stoke his Latino and black (and anti-Giuliani) base. But the fundamental fact is that one candidate defended an uninterrupted democratic process and one did not. Green is still, by history and inclination, the more progressive of the two, but many of his voters are sure to note that when he had a chance to show some courage against the bullying incumbent, he took a pass.

    Green's runoff dilemma, and his middling performance in the primary, reflect a larger historical trend that has percolated in New York City politics for nearly a decade now--namely, that many white New York City liberals have become, in the past two mayoral elections, Giuliani voters. While Ferrer's natural base of politicized, anti-Giuliani blacks and Latinos has grown in the past eight years, Green's natural base of progressive whites has shrunk. White voters who would never think of voting for a Republican at the national or state level voted for Giuliani by the thousands in 1993 and 1997 (Giuliani beat Ruth Messinger on her own Upper West Side in 1997). Ferrer was able to ignore these Giuliani liberals, more as a matter of strategy than principle, although he was clever enough that, to the naïve, it often came out sounding like the latter. Green could not and cannot, and so he regularly tempered his rhetoric with assurances to this bloc that he "got it" on crime. Thus the major distinction between these two basically liberal candidates reduces to skin color, and the fact that one feels free to embody the grievances of the underclass while the other--whose record on police abuse issues is, if anything, more substantive than Ferrer's--must bear in mind the anxieties of the overclass.

    The challenge to both is to harvest the votes of their respective blocs without resorting to the sort of winks, nudges and euphemisms that can inflame the racial tensions here that always lie about an inch and a half below the surface. And the challenge to the winner will be to bring the blocs together to fight Bloomberg, who has unlimited millions and will, in all likelihood, have Giuliani's endorsement. Bloomberg is a bad candidate and still a long shot, but given what New York has been through these past few weeks, this election is now taking place inside a funhouse mirror room, or a Magritte painting (images are indeed treason)--Mark Green, the white-backlash candidate?! Ed Koch endorsing Ferrer, whom he pilloried as racially devisive two week before?!--and anything can happen.

    Michael Tomasky

  • Biography January 20, 2000

    The Woman Who Would Be Senator

    As you may have heard once or twice, we have a little Senate race going here in New York.

    Michael Tomasky


  • Media December 17, 1998

    His Terrible, Swift Sword

    You're familiar, of course, with the Wall Street Journal.

    Michael Tomasky