It is well-nigh impossible to review a book by David Brock without reviewing David Brock.
At 52, the author of Killing the Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government has become such a polarizing, indeed novelistic, fixture in the Washington media-political complex that his persona tends to overwhelm his self-professed principles.
That is surely the case with Brock’s latest literary effort, which inescapably will be read through the prism of his personal biography as a modern-day Whittaker Chambers who dramatically switched allegiances in the war between right and left, although Brock by his own admission is less motivated by ideology, a subject that barely interests him, than by political calculation and personalities.
His remarkable metamorphosis to ardent acolyte from sworn enemy of Bill and Hillary Clinton (his voicemail greeting during the first Clinton term informed callers, “I’m out trying to bring down the president”) was the subject of his best-selling 2002 memoir, Blinded By The Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative.
That book prompted a congratulatory phone call to Brock from the former president, a friendship of sorts with his erstwhile victims, and a lucrative alliance with the Democratic Party establishment that resulted in the formation of Media Matters for America, Brock’s liberal-leaning press watchdog organization that today operates from a posh Washington office space with a multi-million-dollar budget and nearly 100 employees. (Among his other abilities, Brock possesses an undeniable genius for fundraising and organizing.)
Blinded was an outgrowth of an attention-getting 1997 Esquire piece, “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man”—for which Brock posed in a photo, bare-chested and tied to a tree with kindling at his feet, in Joan-of-Arc fashion. He followed that up with a second Esquire essay in which he publicly apologized to President Clinton. “What the hell was I doing investigating your private life in the first place?” he wrote. (It is a singular talent of Brock’s, one that he shares with Donald Trump, to efficiently cut through the media clutter and bring the spotlight to himself.)
He burst upon the scene in the early ’90s as the marquee writer for The American Spectator. The magazine is still best known for Brock’s scurrilous hatchet jobs on Anita Hill—whom he famously derided as “a bit nutty and a bit slutty”—and Bill Clinton, whose extramarital dalliances (facilitated, Brock claimed, by Arkansas state troopers on the governor’s security detail) were the subject of a 11,000-word exposé rife with seamy details that he never bothered to verify, part of the so-called “Arkansas Project” to delegitimize the Clinton presidency, generously funded by right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Brock’s January 1994 attack on Clinton contained a passing reference to a certain “Paula,” a low-level Arkansas state government employee who had supposedly offered herself to the then-governor as his “girlfriend”—a citation that prompted the married Jones to sue Clinton in order to clear her name, thus launching an astonishing chain of events that ultimately resulted in the president’s impeachment.
By the time I first encountered Brock—at the February 1994 Conservative Political Action Conference, at which Paula Jones went public with sexual harassment allegations against the sitting president—he was gleefully reveling in his freshly minted celebrity.
Swarmed by admirers as he autographed copies of The Real Anita Hill , his best-selling book of the previous year that trashed Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’s principal accuser, Brock told me: “A friend of mine said to me last night, ‘You’re gonna be like Mick Jagger here.’” (Not with all the CPAC conventioneers, however: “He’s in the wrong place,” sniffed prominent social conservative Paul Cameron, expressing disgust at Brock’s exceedingly rare status among the faithful as an out gay man. “Homosexuality,” Cameron added, “is a dead-end lifestyle.”)
Brock has claimed—and presents a scrubbed version in Killing the Messenger—that it was the harsh reception by his right-wing fellow travelers to his next book, a 1996 Hillary Clinton biography for which he accepted a million-dollar advance, that provoked his defection from conservative activism.
The Seduction of Hillary Rodham was supposed to have been a vicious takedown, but instead was a measured and largely fair assessment of the first lady that bitterly disappointed Brock’s comrades-in-arms, who—in his telling over the years—cut and shunned him once he was no longer their useful idiot. He also detected among various false friends a previously concealed bigotry toward his sexual orientation.
“Contrary to what my patrons expected, I found no silver bullet that would stop the Clintons,” Brock writes in Killing the Messenger. “What I did find was a woman with a steadfast commitment to public service, a clear political vision, and a deep well of personal integrity. I couldn’t write the book conservatives wanted, not without betraying the facts as I saw them—and betraying myself in the process.”
That, funnily enough, is a conveniently revisionist and rather unreliable account of what Brock actually wrote in his Hillary biography, which attributed the failure of her healthcare reform initiative to “not just surprisingly poor judgment on her part but character flaws of a particularly dangerous and self-destructive sort.”
Indeed, in an observation that could be applied to the current email scandal by Clinton’s present-day detractors, Brock wrote two decades ago: “Hillary has failed because she never really accepted the simple truth that legal and ethical structures and standards of accountability exist not just to protect us from the ambitions of the wicked but from the hubris of the good.”
One can only imagine the righteous wrath that today’s David Brock would bring down on the hapless pundit who expressed a similar opinion.
So Killing the Messenger is partly a sanitized summary of Brock’s already exhaustively-chronicled personal history, partly an attack on the journalism establishment, and partly a call to arms on behalf of his favorite presidential candidate—whose cause he has been zealously championing via Media Matters and his pro-Hillary super PAC, Correct The Record.
Brock did his candidate no favors this week when Correct the Record circulated a controversial email that tendentiously attempted to link Clinton’s main rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to comments praising the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, and claimed to identify troubling similarities between Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, the new leftist leader of Britain’s Labour Party, who (according to the email) has called the death of Osama bin laden “a tragedy,” has invited representatives of Hezbollah to discuss peace in the Middle East, and has sided with Russia over America’s NATO allies.
Killing the Messenger—which was completed in July—doesn’t even mention Sanders, who is catching up to Clinton in Iowa polls and beating her soundly in New Hampshire public opinion surveys. Instead, Brock offers a Pollyanna-ish analysis of the inevitability of the Clinton juggernaut, a rosy scenario that has been overtaken by events, and repeats dubious talking points concerning the email flap.
The book also presents a sour critique of the mainstream media, especially The New York Times, for alleged eagerness to do the bidding of “the vast rightwing conspiracy” (in which Brock, two decades ago, was a leading operative) and to perpetrate various outrages against the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state.
“What’s the matter with the New York Times? It is really that bad? It is,” Brock writes in the afterword. “As it concerns Clinton coverage, the Times will have a special place in journalism hell.”
Say what you will about Brock, it would be foolish to challenge his intimate familiarity with journalism hell; by his own reckoning, he committed countless hellish sins (publishing uncorroborated rumor, fabrications, slander, and in at least one instance blackmailing a source into lying) in the service of his career in the ’90s, when his vocation, as he writes today, was “to get dirt into print.”
One hopes, of course, that Brock has discarded all of the sleazy, lazy habits that initially made him rich and famous, but the nagging feeling that he hasn’t is difficult to ignore—especially in his sustained ad hominem attacks on Carolyn Ryan, until recently the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times (she has returned to Manhattan to run the paper’s political coverage).
While the Times has certainly erred in important aspects of its coverage of Clinton’s email problems, the paper’s extensive and repeated acknowledgement of fault, both by its top editor and its in-house press critic, could serve as a model for, say, a presidential candidate who made her own mistakes in judgment and stubbornly refused to apologize for them.
As for Ryan, Brock writes, without citing any specific sources, “She is installed at the helm of the Times Washington bureau and is said to have her eye on getting the paper’s top job one day—but is regarded by a number of her colleagues as a bantamweight in comparison with the many esteemed editors who have held the prestigious and powerful position over the years.” (Presumably Brock would exclude former bureau chief and Clinton critic Howell Raines.)
Without giving examples, except for Ryan’s apparently nefarious decision to assign a fulltime reporter to the Hillary beat back in 2013 (when the former secretary of state was raking in big bucks on the lecture circuit and clearly positioning herself to run for president), Brock continues: “Ryan has astonished colleagues in the bureau by wrongly claiming credit for the good work of others in a crass effort to impress the paper’s owners, they say ... Experienced journalists in the Times Washington bureau, I’ve been told, are appalled at Ryan’s unprofessionalism on the Clinton beat.”
Then Brock goes on to quote “one source in the Times,” without further identification: “She has a hard-on for Hillary ... She wants that coonskin nailed to the wall.”
Regrettably, there seems to be inconclusive evidence that Brock made an effort to do the standard good-journalism thing and get Ryan’s side before printing his accusations. Brock tells me he emailed Ryan several questions before going to press but got no response; neither Ryan nor the Times PR department (to which she would have referred such an email) recalls seeing it.
Once a hit man, always a hit man? That is the cross Brock realizes he must bear.