This article was originally published by Salon on March 23, 1998.
David Brock is famous once again. In the April Esquire, and in countless television interviews, the slayer of Anita Hill, the outer of “Paula,” the relentless scourge of sanctimonious liberals goes down on his knees to plant an unlikely kiss on the presidential posterior. In an “Open Letter to Bill Clinton,” Brock apologizes to the president for not having been interested in good government when he wrote the story of the ex-governor’s alleged sexcapades in Arkansas and the state troopers’ allegations they were used to pimp his scores. The story, which Brock modestly claims is the true origin of the present presidential crisis, was motivated by a more primitive ambition. “I wanted to pop you right between the eyes,” he now says.
This is but the latest chapter in Brock’s odyssey from right to left. Chapter 1 appeared in the July 1997 Esquire, under the headline “I Was A Right-Wing Hit Man.” Accompanying the article was a staged photo of Brock tied to a tree, one nipple seductively exposed. The editors didn’t say whether he was waiting to be shot, or to nurse.
“Writer Tells Truth, Conservatives Can’t Handle It” is the way Brock would like to spin the story of his exit from the political right. He has already been hailed by hit men of the left, like Slate’s Jacob Weisberg. Weisberg followed Brock’s mea culpa with an obituary for conservatives titled “The Conintern: Republican Thought Police.” Here, a theme only suggested by Brock — that conservatives have become the very enemy they despise — is presented as a foregone conclusion by the enemy himself.
As in all such capers, however, there is the “story” and there is the real story.
David Brock first made a name for himself as the only reporter who bothered to track down the details of Anita Hill’s life and career, while the rest of the journalistic community lazily accepted her own heroic version of self. In “The Real Anita Hill,” he gathered enough evidence to blow a barn-sized hole through the principal claims that had made Hill’s case against Clarence Thomas seem credible — that she had no ulterior agenda in pressing her charges; that she was a put-upon, apolitical (and even conservative) victim; and that she was too shy, too timid or too unsophisticated to have pressed sexual harassment charges when the incidents allegedly took place, 10 years in the past.
Brock showed the reality to be quite different. Hill was, in fact, an ambitious and aggressive climber, fashionably steeped in left-wing feminism, with a penchant for lying when faced with adversity. Asked to leave her first Washington legal job for reasons of incompetence, she found refuge in the leftist victimology she had picked up at Yale. Ironically, it was by claiming she had been sexually harassed at Wald, Harkrader and Ross that she originally won the sympathy of Clarence Thomas, who generously gave her a job in his Civil Rights Commission office. Brock also convincingly established a pattern of petty ambition and spiteful revenge that served to explain Hill’s otherwise inexplicable behavior before, during and after her celebrated performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court.
For his efforts, Brock was pilloried mercilessly in the liberal press. In a typically overheated attack, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis characterized the book as “sleaze with footnotes,” only to confess privately afterwards that he had “breezed hastily” through it before writing his condemnation. Brock was contemptuously dismissed as “not only a sleazebag but the occasion in others for sleazebaggery” by Garry Wills, who, like other liberal writers, didn’t appear troubled by the ransacking of Thomas’ garbage, video-rental lists and divorce papers and the highly questionable nature of the 10-year-old charge that no one outside of Hill could corroborate. In another gutter attack, Frank Rich of the New York Times accused Brock of hating the entire female sex, while not so subtly outing him as a homosexual in the process.
In the event, Brock’s outing had no adverse effect on his reputation in conservative circles. On the contrary, his star kept rising as a hero who had single-handedly accomplished what a decent, nonpartisan press should have done in the first place — check out the story of a character assassin. When Brock followed his coup by interviewing the Arkansas troopers who told of moonlighting as panderers for the governor in Little Rock, his stock among conservatives soared even higher.
At this juncture, New York’s only (!) conservative publisher, Free Press, offered Brock a $1 million advance to do an investigation of the career of Hillary Clinton. Given what already was known about Hillary’s extraordinary luck in the commodity markets, obstructions of justice blatant enough to make Nixon’s transgressions look tame and a rumored liaison with Vince Foster, expectations about a Brock investigation were predictably high. A first printing of 200,000 copies was announced. Newsweek arranged to run an excerpt and a major book tour was planned.
But somewhere along the way Brock lost his journalistic bearings. When the book was finally delivered, none of the expected goods came with it. The response at Newsweek was typical: “The editors are in tears that you don’t have Hillary in bed with Vince, or at least someone,” was the message Free Press relayed to him, along with the news that Newsweek would pass on the excerpt. Not only did Brock not have anything new to reveal, his account of the old was something less than incisive. So disappointing was his version of Hillary’s Whitewater dealings, in fact, that James B. Stewart chided him in the New York Times for bending over backwards to defend the first lady on points that were indefensible.
As the rest of the media became aware that Brock had failed to deliver, network appearances and scheduled interviews were canceled. The book tour was aborted before it started, and the stacks of books from the 200,000 first printing, piled high in Barnes & Noble and other chains, were pasted with “50 percent off” stickers. The “Seduction of Hillary Rodham” was remaindered almost before it was even published, and the publisher was looking at a total loss.
Brock had violated the most elementary principle of bestseller marketing: Don’t defeat the expectations you raise. Fans of Brock, who expected an exposé, felt let down by his kid glove treatment of a woman they despised. Fans of Hillary Clinton, who despised Brock for exposing Hill, couldn’t care less that he was now willing to give another feminist icon a break. Neither audience bought the book.
But Brock was surprised. He concluded that conservatives were out to punish him because he had “told the truth.” He was disinvited to parties. He was no longer a hero. Conservatives, as he put it, could not forgive him for being “somewhat sympathetic” to Hillary. This version of events is written all over the anecdote with which Brock opens his kiss-off to conservatives in the current Esquire. Brock tells how he was disinvited to an A-list party of Washington conservatives and congressional staffers. “Given what’s happened,” Brock quotes a voice-mail message the hostess left him, “I don’t think you’d be comfortable at the party.” The impression left is that because Brock was soft on Hillary he was no longer welcome among conservatives who had once been his best friends.
What Brock withholds from the reader is that the anger directed at him came from congressional staffers who had helped him on the understanding that he would not reveal his sources. Brock had reneged on the agreement and blown their cover. In other words, it was the betrayal of confidences and friends rather than party lines that was at the heart of the matter.
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