A worm turns

Mungo MacCallum

David Brock Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, Crown Publishers, 2002 (352 pp). ISBN 0-8129-3099-1 (hard cover) RRP $33.00.

David Brock starts his apologia with the warning: ‘This is a terrible book’.

The discerning reader will find this an accurate description, and not just for the reason the author adduces. The work is not just ‘about lies told and reputations ruined… about what the conservative movement did and what I did as we plotted in the shadows, disregarded the law and abused power to win even greater power’ (p. xi) It is also a cloying, even nauseating, wallow in self-pity and self-justification, a turgid and maudlin account of an unprincipled and unedifying career from which Brock now claims to have redeemed himself by betraying his former colleagues.

When, some four years ago, the respected New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, first read one of the essays on which the book is based, she asked: ‘What is that green goo coming out of David Brock’s mouth?’ (quoted on p. 327) The answer is, regrettably, a best seller. Brock claims that it took a strong stomach to engage in the political shenanigans which brought him to fame; let me assure you that it also takes a strong stomach to read his self-serving account.

I was reminded of another dreadful American convert, Charles (Chuck) Colson, a Nixon apparatchik and conspirator who served a brief prison sentence for his role in Watergate. While in the slammer he claimed to have been born again, and emerged as a fundamentalist God botherer, a transformation which, he once assured the National Press Club in Canberra, totally atoned for his part in the attempted destruction of the American constitution and his role as an accessory to some of Henry Kissinger’s nastier war crimes, including the illegal bombing of Cambodia. There is more than a whiff of the same pious humbug in Brock’s belated rejection of the political culture which made him a political superstar and a very rich man to boot.

His story is basically a simple one. A lonely adolescent, he began as an admirer of Robert Kennedy but then made the jump to the right more through perversity than conviction. A severe shortage of competent, or even literate, young conservatives during the 1990s meant he quickly rose through the ranks of what passed for journalism on the right by indulging in increasingly outrageous and unscrupulous propaganda against the perceived enemies of the elite Republican guard—a select group of cynics, fanatics, and downright crazies who saw themselves as the true and permanent rulers of the United States.

Generously funded by the good old boys of the grand old party, Brock became their number one hired gun, with entrée to some of the most exclusive—and weirdest—salons in the country. After he published his first book, The Real Anita Hill, a purported exposá of a woman who unsuccessfully accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in an attempt to prevent his appointment to the Supreme Court, he believed he was accepted as a full member of the team. Any moral doubts he claims in hindsight seem to have been completely irrelevant at the time.

No personal foible has been overlooked, no casual conversation unreconstructed.

But alas, there was a problem: Brock is gay. In itself this need not have mattered; the mad right in America, as in Australia, contains a substantial homosexual subculture, which through a kind of doublethink is tolerated even by the most bigoted as long as it keeps its head (and for that matter its tail) down. But Brock came out of the closet—not for any noble reasons, but because he feared (wrongly, as it turned out) that he was about to be outed by his political foes. Only then did it dawn on him that a lot of his fellow crusaders did not love him for himself alone; they were just using him, and were prepared to discard him if he no longer served their purpose.

Given that most of them publicly inveighed against homosexuality as the penultimate liberal sin, second only to abortion in its vileness—one of his bosses, Kirk Oberfeld of Insight, constantly referred to ‘ prissy sissies, faggots, cocksuckers and fudge-packers’ (p. 31)—Brock may be seen as a little naïve. But apparently the discovery that homophobia was one of the basic tenets of the mad right also alerted him to the idea that some of their other precepts may also be worth re-examination—like, for instance, the assertion that rumour, innuendo, even direct lies are perfectly acceptable political weapons, and that no invasion of privacy, no deception or breach of trust is off limits if it can be used to further the God-supported conservative cause.

For a while he continued to take the money, but when he published a second book, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, which only did half a bucket job on the first lady instead of the total demolition his employers (publishers the Free Press, The Spectator magazine, and the right-wing Republican cabal that effectively ran the anti-Clinton campaign) expected and demanded, the choice was made. In what has turned out to be rather a good career move, Brock turned on his former mentors and benefactors with the same fervour he had previously reserved for the Democrats. No personal foible has been overlooked, no casual conversation unreconstructed. Names are named: the high and mighty are stripped bare to be revealed as crooks or psychopaths or both.

In a way this makes for quite a good read: I particularly liked Pat Robertson’s fulminations on the equal rights amendment—‘a feminist agenda … which would encourage women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians’ (p. 122)—and Grover Norquist, ‘The Che Guevara of the Republican revolution’, who kept a pet boa constrictor and fed it live mice named after his Democrat opponents (p. 66). It is also interesting to learn of the depth and breadth of drug use and sexual promiscuity—and, consequently, hypocrisy—within the Christian Right. But by and large the suffocating air of born-again self-righteousness that hovers over the whole account makes it, indeed, a terrible book.

Canberra remains mercifully secular.

Towards the end Brock expresses surprise that a writer named Norma Vincent took an instant and personal dislike to him (p. 325); he apparently still has a few things to discover about himself. One is reminded of Gareth Evans’s celebrated crack: ‘Why do so many people take an instant dislike to Bronwyn Bishop? Because it saves time’.

Which leads, I suppose, to the question of whether there are any lessons for Australian politics from Brock’s sordid adventure. The quick answer is, not very many: even if we had the kind of ruthless and hate-filled propagandists in our local rightist movement that Brock describes, Australia’s far stricter libel laws would prevent the publication of the kind of scurrilous gossip that is the American mainstay.

There are those who try and emulate their counterparts from across the Pacific—Tim Blair, Andrew Bolt, and Piers Ackerman in print and Stan Zemanek and, to a lesser extent, Alan Jones on the airwaves come to mind—but on the whole they are restricted to sneering at the opposition rather than going in for the almost untrammelled denigration available to Brock and his compatriots. Similarly, while the fundamentalist Christian right has its adherents—Angela Shanahan, for instance—it is not taken seriously as a political force. In spite of enclaves such as the Lyons group of Christian federal parliamentarians, Canberra remains mercifully secular.

This is not to say that we should not remain on guard: the rise of Pauline Hanson and her more sinister hangers-on is a healthy reminder that the forces of bigotry and prejudice can emerge here as easily as in the United States. But at least we can be thankful that, so far at least, they are not organised and financed on anything like the scale of the American model, and that they have no spokesman as driven and vicious as David Brock.

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist for many years. The publications he wrote for included Nation Review, The National Times, The Australian, and The Sydney Morning Herald.