The Primal Lie
As a journalist, I cherish Oscar Wilde's opinion of sincerity: He called it "the highest form of acting." Few of my subjects have told the whole truth, though many were honest. That's why the best reporters multi-source their stories. But there's no way to check out David Brock's account of his illustrious career as a professional liar.
This "Bob Woodward of the right," as Brock was widely called, specialized in spreading fabrications about Anita Hill and Bill Clinton, using sources either patently loony or in the pay of paranoid fanatics. So why should anyone believe his recent recantation? Never mind that Brock's new tell-all, Blinded by the Right, is filled with irresistible revelations about his former benefactors: catty references to John Podhoretz (who "seemed obsessed with homosexuality"), a devastating portrait of TV pit bull Laura Ingraham, deep dish on Matt Drudge, and moremuch more. As delectable as these tidbits may be, reading Brock's book is a creepy experience. You want to believe him, but you can't help suspecting that he's motivated by the same things that drove him to dissemble in the first place: greed and grandiosity.
The best evidence of Brock's credibility is the fact that he hasn't been sued by the subjects of his book. But that may be the result of a decision to limit the damage by refusing to react. Among the few conservatives who have lashed back, the line seems to be that Blinded by the Right is an attempt to preserve what remains of Brock's rep. But the central question raised by his career has less to do with Brock's motivations than with the media's eagerness to eat up his phony revelations.
Conservatives have long understood the relationship between scandal and sadistic pleasure, and by the time Brock came along in the 1980s, they had established an elaborate delivery system for such funky fun. His falsifications traveled along a multicolored media chain, from the Day-Glo yellow American Spectator to the lemony New York Post to the high beige Wall Street Journal. The mainstream press bought the lies because they played so well. In a time without crisis, scandalizing was the main reason people watched cable news. In the end, it didn't matter that this infotainment was composed largely of factoids. The dirt was such a joy to contemplate that it became a matter of pleasuring the public to presume that it was true.
Once he dared to write a sympathetic book about Hillary Clinton in 1998, Brock was iced by the right. Did he pen his current mea culpa to cultivate a new audience? My gut told me yes and no. Certainly the man who walked into my office seemed nothing like the rough beast that had slouched toward CNN to be born. To paraphrase his infamous line about Anita Hill, Brock was a little bit agile and a little bit fragile.
Of course, I understood why he had included me in his press tour. There's a market in gay people eager to read about the travails of a closet case who has finally seen the light. This is the queer version of the cautionary tales fundamentalists devour from women who repent of their abortions. It's a great narrative, especially when it echoes the born-again refrain "Was blind but now can see." Brock's amazing grace came when he voted for Al Gore. Hmmm.
In the end I was persuaded not by Brock's earnestness but by the substance of his saga. I've known other ambitious young gay men with no particular politics and a deep but unacknowledged longing. Ruthless ambition is merely the surface manifestation of their need. The thrill Brock got from being "a hit man," as he describes his right-wing persona, was not just fame and fortune but the powerful sensation of "men patting me on the back." This aching for male acceptance begins with the father.
"I can't remember a moment of warmth from my dad in 30 years," Brock says. It must have been an even more devastating experience for an adopted child. The pain initially expressed itself in a revulsion for his father's right-wing politics. "I went to Berkeley to piss him off," Brock says, and in those easy environs he came out. After he told his parents, Brock writes, his relationship with his father "reached a feverish antagonistic pitch."
The radical flexibility that allowed Brock to skid from left to right (and ultimately back again) fits the profile of an unvalidated son who grew up whipsawing between rage and yearning. By the time he got to Berkeley, Brock was famished for attention and he got it by writing a column praising Reagan's Grenada invasion. He suddenly found himself surrounded by father figures. "A handful of conservative professors embraced me," Brock recalls. "It went beyond academic mentoring. Some of them were very psychologically astute and they certainly sensed my neediness for the approval they could provide."
They also detected the qualities that right-wing mentors looked for, and often found, in young people of Brock's generation. "They could see that I was a hard worker with some talent who would do what I was told." With these creds, he was headed for the big time. "I had the distinct feeling that I was being passed along a network," Brock says. And so he was, from The Washington Times to the Spectator and eventually The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page. On this grapevine, Brock's lies ripened, fertilized by rumors gleaned from sources who themselves were on the take. His pieces led to lucrative contracts from publishers bent on destroying Clinton. For Brock, the crowning moment came when Rush Limbaughhis father's heroread selections from his biggest "scoop": Troopergate.
"Dad was thrilled when the talk-show host began promoting my career," Brock writes. "Dick Armey sent him a letter praising my work. When I went back to Texas . . . we were joined now on the same side, chatting amiably about that liar Anita Hill, or those god-awful Clintons. I finally had my father's attention, acceptance, and respect, and I had made him proud."
But Brock's candor at Berkeley came back to bite, and as the threats to expose him proliferated, he felt compelled to come out for good. The initial response from his colleagues passed for acceptance, but as soon as he deviated from the party line the fangs showed through the finesse. According to Brock, Midge Decter (John Podhoretz's mother) implied that his sympathetic portrait of the Clintons couldn't be trusted because a homosexual can't understand marriage. Other conservatives speculated that he was suffering from AIDS dementia. Still, ridicule was a small price to pay for coming out, which Brock describes as "the only self-validating thing I've ever done." He credits it with giving him the strength to break from the right.
How did his father react? Brock's book concludes with a deathbed reconciliation, but that scenario seems too sincere, in the Wildean sense. For one thing, it omits the question of Brock's sexuality. "We never spoke about it," he told me. The messages were passed between him and his father by his mother. Perhaps this was the primal subterfuge: the lie that binds.
Certainly it accounts for Brock's tortuous journey and his need to make sense of it now. What it doesn't explain is why the truth tellers were so willing to be taken for a ride.
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