David Brock, who was described in The Wall Street Journal this week as "the John Walker Lindh of contemporary conservatism," carried with him into adult life two burdensome secrets. One, curiously, was the fact that he was adopted. "Thirty years ago, adopting children carried a stigma," he says in his autobiography, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. Sounds untrue to me, but he says his parents believed it. When David and his sister were told during childhood that they were adopted, they were also told to keep it a secret. Mr. Brock disobeyed his parents in other ways, but told almost no one about his background until he was 37 and his father was dead.
Homosexuality was his other secret. He says he knew his sexual nature at age 11 but hid it through adolescence. At the University of California at Berkeley, he let it be known he was gay. Then, when he moved to Washington and worked at The Washington Times and The American Spectator, he slipped back into the closet and peeked out only occasionally.
He believes those clandestine aspects of his life explain the duplicitous adult he became. He tells us he founded his career on dishonesty, embracing conservative views that were often uncongenial to him and concocting half-truths to please his editors, publishers and sponsors. He was first drawn to conservatism because he found Berkeley liberalism narrow and bigoted. Unfortunately, he lacked any serious knowledge of conservative thinking.
He displays an overheated idea of history that could only be grounded in ignorance: "If a previous generation had been defined by the cataclysmic struggle between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss over whether Hiss was a Soviet spy, my generation had Clarence Thomas versus Anita Hill." The poor fool is serious. He equates an accusation of spying against a senior public servant (which eventually sent Hiss to the penitentiary) with a law professor's story about a Supreme Court nominee talking dirty around the office.
Ignorant or not, Mr. Brock threw himself into advocacy journalism. He wrote about Arkansas state troopers who claimed they had supplied women for Bill Clinton when he was governor; he wrote a book-length attack on Anita Hill and called her "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." He set out to expose Hillary Clinton but instead found himself defending her. That was how his life among the conservatives came to an end.
He has since disowned his combative conservative writing, and set out to explain what made him do it. He offers the West Side Story defence, though he doesn't call it that. The Jets, juvenile delinquents in that show, memorably explain to Officer Krupke: "We're depraved because we're deprived." They know that's funny. Mr. Brock doesn't. He stuffs his apologia with every fragment of psychobabble that comes to hand. He was emotionally fatherless, so he adopted conservative father figures, who all encouraged him to lie for the cause. "I was in the closet, alienated from myself, and I was also a social misfit." His "fragile psyche yearned" for a sense of identity. This process turned him, as a journalist, into "a mad dog, an emotional monster."
That qualified him for the mean and endlessly disputatious politics of the 1990s, when point-scoring mattered more than honesty or insight. He and his colleagues made politics into a team sport; they did everything but wear sweaters with big Cs on the front. It was inevitable that someone would eventually switch teams.
He was a likely candidate for that role, too. His adoptive father was literally more Catholic than the Pope: He left the church after Vatican II so that he could celebrate mass in Latin. As a convert, David Brock became an extremist. He's now told his story three times -- in a 1997 Esquire article, "Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man," a 1998 Esquire article framed as an apology to Bill Clinton for helping start the process of impeachment, and now his book. In each case he's tried to clear his conscience by atoning for his sins. Where before he was a serial character assassin, he's now a serial confessor.
He's exceptionally committed to his new liberal life. By 1998 he was such an enthusiastic player on the new team that he gave private advice to the White House on fighting impeachment. He went even further than that. He attended a dinner at which he heard Maya Angelou read a poem and found it "graceful." Finally, he listened to a speech by Al Gore and called it "heartfelt." That's a case, surely, of being more Democratic than the Democrats.
In Blinded by the Right, Mr. Brock seems to suggest that this process has finally reached an end: "Having rid myself of any rage or desire for retribution, I am personally at peace." What can he do next? He's probably employable, but it's hard to see how he will remain where he obviously wants to be, in the public eye. Like Monica Lewinsky, he's surrendered most of his charisma just by telling his story. What can he do now? She at least can design handbags. Whatever his future, his book will stand as a grotesque but compelling artifact of 1990s political culture. Students of that period will be looking at it, and shaking their heads in wonderment, for many years to come.