David Brock's Talk Essay Displays Nothing So Much as Meanness

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:38

    When David Brock claims in the August issue of Talk magazine that the American Spectator was discredited by the "Arkansas Project," Richard Mellon Scaife's $2.4 million plan to scour the backwoods for dirt on Bill Clinton, he won't get any argument from me. I was working for the (small-circulation) Spectator in 1992, when Brock made it famous with his look back at the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas affair. I still believe that the Spectator was at that point the best monthly magazine in the United States. By the time I resigned from the (large-circulation) Spectator in 1995?over a loony piece of Scaife-engineered fantasy purporting to link Bill Clinton to both CIA black-ops in Central America and the international narcotics trade?the magazine was in deep trouble. Although it would publish occasional excellent pieces for another half-decade, a tide of garbage was indeed beginning to gush through its pages. If Brock wants to call this a disgrace to American journalism, again, I'm with him.

    But the Arkansas Project was an extraordinary thing?a real outlier. Just because Brock participated in it doesn't mean that every single person he crossed paths with before, say, mid-1998, is a corrupt automaton; or that every conservative cause is morally bankrupt; or that everyone who tried to do him a good turn, whether out of political expedience or (more often) friendship, is evil. The first thing that will strike the reader of Brock's excerpt is its simple meanness. (One of the subjects he snickers at most cruelly, whom I won't name, is now struggling through a desperate regimen of chemotherapy, as he surely knows.) Brock's victims on the left used to complain that he pursued a rigid political agenda out of hate. Here there's no political agenda, unless a photographic negative of his old agenda counts as one, and Brock is just hating for the sheer joy of it. He sneers at those who dress well ("[Thomas' EEOC aide] Ricky Silberman in her designer knit suits and Hermès pumps, was out for revenge?"). And he sneers at those who don't: "[Wladyslaw] Pleszczynski, the managing editor, had the blunt us-against-them mentality of the Gingrich crowd, which encouraged taking pot shots at the enemy. He also bore the unmistakable whiff of the perennially excluded. With his heavy brown corduroy jackets and clodhoppers, Pleszczynski, who was the indolent [Spectator editor R. Emmett] Tyrrell's longtime right-hand man, announced that all women were 'emotional' and thus congenitally prone to fabricating."

    These are amazing passages. Whatever Ricky Silberman's politics (and they're not extreme), she's a woman of extraordinary sweetness?and her relationship with Brock was more that of a surrogate mother than of a comrade-in-arms. And Wlady Pleszczynski! If he ever possessed an "us-against-them mentality," which I would dispute, it had its source not in Newt Gingrich but in his parents, who met when they were being relocated from their respective concentration camps in 1945. The only things I ever saw Wlady get dogmatic about were fascism and communism; the rest was open to debate. Wlady's extremism lay in matters of friendship, not ideology, and he always placed Brock in his "us" category, even when a lot of people were trying to convince him he was gullible to do so. So horrified, apparently, was Brock by this brief glimpse of partisanship, that he has spent the past two years serving as research assistant to that pillar of dispassionate inquiry, Sidney Blumenthal.

    There was nothing Brock could do to shake Wlady's loyalty to him. Wlady defended Brock?at considerable cost?even to those Brock had begun to turn against. He defended Brock's writing against all attacks. And he publicly stood by Brock (at the Spectator, no "defense" would have been necessary) when he came out of the closet. (Similarly he told George Szamuely to jump in a lake when George suggested I be fired for voting for Clinton in 1992.) As for "announcing" that women were emotional, Wlady, as any friend or enemy will attest, is about as likely to "announce" things as Rudy Giuliani is to shyly mumble them. I can see Wlady making the "emotional" comment, but only with a smile. Granted, that's something you have to have a sense of humor to notice.

    A sentence that leapt out at a lot of people who read the Talk excerpt was this one, on Barbara Ledeen: "Like most neocons I knew," Brock writes, "she displayed the same zealousness that had animated her left-wing activities during the 1960s, only now from the other side." Many have remarked that Brock continues to evidence a kind of bunker mentality, and merely seeks to indulge it, symmetrically, from the other political pole. I think that's true?but it's not something Brock can pull off, at least not with a clean conscience. I once asked him what his liberal friends thought about his embrace of some or other conservative enthusiasm, and he replied, "I don't have any liberal friends." But he has (or had) conservative friends. If Brock's hatred of the left was partly a matter of ignorance, as he admits, then he can't sincerely feel the same kind of hatred for the American right wing, because he's not ignorant of them.

    And yet, Brock is so desperate to hate his former colleagues that he's now busily constructing an ignorance for himself. It reminds me of Oscar Levant's remark that he knew Doris Day "before she was a virgin." I knew David Brock before he knew nothing about conservatism. Take this doozy of a passage from the Talk excerpt: "The Spectator's editors were no more careful with the magazine's reputation than I was with my own. The magazine employed no fact checkers of the kind used by other reputable magazines." Whoa, Dobbin! The American Spectator, like the Nation or Harper's or the Progressive, was a nonprofit (and certainly non-profitmaking) foundation. It was perpetually begging Midwestern tv-station owners and cranky widows and retired policemen for $325 and $175 and $875 grants to keep it afloat. The windfall from "heiress" Elizabeth Brady Lurie that allowed the magazine to undertake its Anita Hill work?Brock describes it as "my introduction to right-wing checkbook journalism"?was $5000. The Spectator had 27,000 subscribers, was printed on stock that would have disgraced the Bulgarian toilet-paper industry and had a staff that consisted of one managing editor, his assistant, an intern and a part-time copy-editor, who would get laid off for weeks at a time if a grant didn't come through. It had no factcheckers because it couldn't afford them. That may be a stunning revelation to anyone who thinks of the Spectator as the 350,000-circulation vehicle it became during its brief Scaifean Götterdämmerung, but it's no mystery to those who knew the magazine through much of its earlier history, as Brock did.

    Brock also describes his Anita Hill article as having been accompanied by "a full-page cover caricature of Hill that exaggerated her African-American features." Now, since a caricature is a drawing that exaggerates features, and since Anita Hill is African-American, any caricature of her will exaggerate her African-American features. But Brock, obviously, is implying something more than this?that the caricature was an inside joke, intended to demean black people. The caricaturist, John Springs, has drawn literally thousands of faces (black and white) and the usual response of his subjects has been not to complain about ethnic stereotyping but to inquire about whether the original of the drawing is for sale. It's not that certain enemies of Clarence Thomas haven't made this lame accusation?it's just that Brock, unlike them, knows for a fact that it's untrue.

    Similarly, Brock attacks one of his old conservative cronies, the Committee for a Free Congress activist Paul Weyrich, as "a forbidding moralist who was later described as a 'demented anti-Semite' by a conservative writer after he stated that 'Christ was crucified by the Jews.'" Not having met Weyrich, I can't say whether or not he's demented, and I'm not sufficiently familiar with the crucifixion remark to say whether it justifies calling him an anti-Semite. But it does upset Brock's idea of the right as a monolithic conspiracy somewhat to know that this denunciation of Weyrich appeared in the American Spectator.

    Through it all, Brock comes up with only two things he himself did wrong. (And the idea that a list of sins running to only two items can constitute a repudiation of one's work is so bizarre that one has to ask who he is trying to impress.) First, he intimidated?or blackmailed?Kaye Savage, one of Clarence Thomas' foes, to get her to retract a statement she had made to Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson. This is a serious admission. It leads one to wonder why Brock isn't worried that he has provided the groundwork for an open-and-shut lawsuit that could wind up transferring his life savings to either Savage or Hill or Mayer and Abramson. Does he have a secret no-sue agreement with any of them? Is that what Anita Hill was implying when she told The Washington Post that her reaction to Brock's piece would be "private"?

    Second, having (he claims), heard secondhand that Thomas actually was a pornography enthusiast while at Yale Law School in his early 20s, Brock withheld that information, and, further, reported that there was not a scrap of evidence that he'd ever watched a porn film. (This was, Brock said, "the first and last time that I consciously reported a lie.") "For [Thomas' friend] Paoletta," Brock writes, "the porn revelation seemed to mean nothing." Should it mean something? Brock is a man who lived in the closet for almost all of his adult life?does he desire a society-wide level of sexual surveillance in which one dirty-video rental is enough to scuttle a person's career? Surely not. Brock now claims "confirmation that Thomas frequently rented porno tapes" is important because it "made Hill's entire story much more plausible."

    But what story? Brock now sneers at the "deeply ingrained conservative suspicion that the 'liberal media' had hidden the real story behind Hill's case." But they had! Not out of any conspiracy, but out of class habits that, by the early 1990s, were pretty well institutionalized. When Brock went to the minority staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was handed reams and reams of material that, quite simply, not a single journalist had ever bothered to look at. We'll have to take him at his word that his reporting on that material was slipshod and unbalanced. But it was not more unbalanced than that of any reporter?and this decidedly goes for Mayer and Abramson?who pretended that the Hill-Thomas hearings were something other than a dressed-up witch hunt.

    The thing that made the Hill-Thomas hearings so eerie was that, even if every scrap of what Hill was saying turned out to be true, it would be hard to say what Thomas was guilty of. It is here that Brock's unconditional embrace of everyone who has ever attacked him is most extraordinary. He's had to "un-know" a lot of facts about both the left and the right to get to the point he's reached today. A decade on, the hearings appear less like a he-said/she-said mystery than like a chapter out of McKay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds. To which Brock's writing of the last few years provides an appendix that ought to provoke pity in anyone who once knew him.

      Serb over Ice

    As American diplomats pat themselves on the back for having tightened the screws enough to bring Slobodan Milosevic before the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, it may be worth asking why it is that the European powers (except Britain) are more muted in their celebration, and why Greece and Russia have condemned the extradition as a virtual kidnapping.

    Last Thursday?the day before the World Bank, the European Union and the U.S. were scheduled to meet in Brussels to discuss a $1.25 billion aid package to Yugoslavia?Milosevic was spirited out of the country by forces loyal to Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who is pro-Western, eager to join the European Union, at ease speaking in front of American think-tank audiences. Crucially, Djindjic's party has gained control of the Yugoslavian delegations that travel the world rattling the cup for international aid.

    Djindjic, that is, is more our kind of guy. But Yugoslavian President Vojislav Kostunica, the man who toppled Milosevic in last fall's elections, is the guy who is vested with the authority to make foreign policy decisions under the Yugoslavian constitution. Kostunica is a Serbian nationalist. But he's also a punctilious scholar who translated the Federalist Papers into Serbo-Croat. His every attention to constitutional nicety has been treated as naivete by his more ruthless foes. Kostunica wasn't invited to the meeting at which it was decided Slobo would be loaded onto a plane and shipped to the Netherlands.

    This was not the first time Djindjic has rolled Kostunica. The Serbian Prime Minister moved in to arrest Milosevic when Kostunica was out of the country. When Djindjic failed to push Slobo's extradition through Parliament, Kostunica compromised, and agreed to issue an extradition decree, on the grounds that it be reviewed for constitutionality by the country's supreme court. Last week, the court placed a stay on the decree, and Djindjic decided to get Milosevic to the Hague by force majeure.

    Kostunica was not told about Milosevic's departure until Slobo was sitting in a jail cell in Scheveningen. He reacted by calling the maneuver unconstitutional. Djindjic cunningly defended it by citing a proviso that Milosevic himself had asserted in 1990, stating, basically, that if there's anything in the Yugoslav constitution that Serbia doesn't like, Serbia doesn't have to obey it. Now Serbia faces exactly the kind of political strife we claim to have pulled it out of, and, worse, has revivified its tradition of autocracy and rule by intimidation. We're supposed to applaud this as a triumph of the rule of law.

    What it is, of course, is a triumph of money. A lot of malarkey was talked about how Serbia needs the aid to redress a whole range of setbacks?as Carlotta Gall of The New York Times put it, "to recover from a decade of ruinous wars, corruption and sanctions that devastated the economy." But economically speaking, Serbia's only real problem is the United States. Serbia's GNP is down 40 percent since 1999, when NATO basically destroyed the country's economy with bombs. Our planes may not have hit many tanks?which is why, as long as they focused on military objectives, NATO was losing the war?but once they decided to target civilians, they did a bang-up job. NATO proved capable of hitting office towers (while journalists were working in them), public markets (while children were playing in them) and bridges (while busloads of peasants were crossing them), not to mention blocking all of Serbia's main navigable rivers, polluting its water supply and vaporizing its electrical grid.

    In the Yugoslavian context, at least, the United States has proven interested in ends, not means, even if the ends come at the price of lawlessness and extraconstitutional chicanery. It's worth remembering that Serbia/Yugoslavia was making progress?slow, granted, but ineluctable?toward putting Milosevic on trial. Certainly more progress than we've made toward prosecuting anyone for war crimes in Vietnam.

    This is a key point, because the chief prosecutor for Balkan war crimes, Carla Del Ponte, spent last week crowing that the delivery of Milosevic proves that "no one is above the law." With all due respect, that's drivel. The United States, for one thing, is above the law, having unbendingly repudiated any attempt to set up an international body before which American citizens or soldiers could conceivably appear as defendants. This doesn't make Milosevic a decent man (he's a brute and a barbarian) and it doesn't make an international criminal court a good idea (it's a wretched idea, an invitation to grandstanding and show trials). But it does mean that Milosevic is right to question the legitimacy of the World Court. If justice doesn't use an impartial system, it's not justice. What kind of "court" is it where citizens of certain countries can appear only as prosecutors, never as defendants? and citizens of others can appear only as defendants, never as plaintiffs?

    It's no court at all. It's a mutual-appreciation club for the sanctimonious elites of the rich nations.


    Melvin's Blue Note

    Last Thursday, the House debate on faith-based initiatives opened a window into how irreconcilably divided American culture can be, and how irreconcilably outside of it certain citizens can feel. Patrick Kennedy put forward a resolution honoring a letter George Washington wrote to a synagogue in 1790, in which he urged religious tolerance. The resolution passed the House Judiciary Committee 24-1. That one was North Carolina Democrat Melvin Watt, who attacked not the content of Washington's letter, but Washington himself. "I want to be very, very careful how I say this," Watt began. "For us to be applauding the statements discussing bigotry that were written by a person who owned slaves is a little bit more than I can, without a churning stomach, be able to tolerate."

    This is the sort of thing that, if you think about it enough, causes an ideological vertigo. If you just look at the committee vote, Watt looks like the outlier. You'd explain it by saying Watt was an example of civil rights thinking run amok, that he was just being meanspirited or contrarian. But if one takes this society's obsession with slavery, racism, memory, historical injustice, etc.?and then compares it to the negligible public curiosity about the founding of the Republic, it's clear that it's Watt who has thought through his priorities, and the other 24 senators who are just running on historical momentum, saying nice things about Washington because they feel they're supposed to.

    After all, Watt knows how they feel. "I'm sure he did magnificent things and wonderful things," Watt said of Washington. It's just that none of them spring to mind.