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David Brock & the Watergate Legacy

By Robert Parry
May 6, 2002

David Brock’s tell-all Blinded by the Right parallels another account by a young man who came to Washington and found a home in Republican circles. That confessional book was Blind Ambition by Richard Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean, who described how his drive to succeed led him to join the crimes of Watergate.

In that sense, the two “blinded” books by former insiders can be seen as book-ends. Dean’s marks the early days of Nixon’s vision of a mechanism for dirty tricks to neutralize political enemies – and Brock’s chronicles its maturity through the impeachment battles against Bill Clinton and ultimately its success installing George W. Bush in the White House.

This continuum of Republican attack politics from Watergate to W. is the unacknowledged back story of Brock’s book, which is its own back story to the last third of those three decades. While missing the larger historical context, Brock’s book still ranks as a valuable guidebook explaining how the conservative attack machine worked in the 1990s and who had become its key players.

The book’s value in dissecting the dirty tricks – along with detailing the raging hypocrisies of many right-wing operatives – has prompted a new campaign by conservatives to discredit Brock personally and thus his book. They have denounced him as an admitted liar in the past who allegedly is lying still, a reaction reminiscent of the Republican fury directed at Dean when he shifted from helping Nixon’s Watergate cover-up to exposing it.

In both cases, the conservative attacks on these “traitors” had a “pay no heed to that man behind the curtain” quality. In Dean’s case, the attacks failed because Nixon’s White House tapes corroborated Dean’s account. In Brock’s case, the outcome is still in doubt, as a far-more sophisticated conservative attack machine seems confident that it can promote any false counter-charge against Brock and make it stick.

The most prominent assault on Blinded by the Right’s credibility has come from David Horowitz, a conservative operative who says Brock defamed him with a bogus anecdote in which Horowitz allegedly uttered an anti-gay slur. As more information has come out, however, Horowitz’s denial has collapsed, with Brock’s account now corroborated. [See below for more details.]

Getting lost in the shouting matches about Brock’s credibility is the solid historical foundation underpinning Brock’s account. While Brock adds color and texture to the grotesque portrait of the Republican attack machine, its outlines have been known for years, reported in books, such as The Hunting of the President by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, and at a few Web sites, such as Consortiumnews.com.

Nixon's Vision

Brock’s experiences as a right-wing media hitman in the 1990s also didn’t occur in a historical vacuum.

The genesis of the modern Right-Wing Machine dates back to the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon saw the need for an infrastructure to attack – or in his view, counter-attack – his enemies. With his chip-on-the-shoulder pugnacity, Nixon wanted to punish Vietnam War protesters and Eastern liberal Democrats who Nixon believed looked down on him. He also lashed out at Jews.

Parts of Nixon’s strategy were recorded by his loyal chief of staff H.R. Haldeman whose notes were published posthumously in The Haldeman Diaries in 1994. On Sept. 12, 1970, for instance, Haldeman wrote that Nixon returned to his pet plan for creating a conservative infrastructure. That morning at Camp David, Nixon was “pushing again on [his] project of building OUR establishment in [the] press, business, education, etc.,” Haldeman wrote.

The urgency for this conservative “establishment” grew in 1971 when former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg leaked the secret Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War, which revealed that the U.S. government had misled the nation in justifying the bloody conflict. Nixon demanded action to neutralize Ellsberg and other perceived enemies.

“We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy,” Nixon said in a tape-recorded White House conversation on July 1, 1971. “They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? … Now, how do you fight this [Ellsberg case]? You can’t fight this with gentlemanly gloves. … We’ll kill these sons of bitches.”

Nixon then referred to an obscure White House official named Cooke, who had given Ellsberg some papers when Ellsberg worked at the Rand Corp. “I want to get him [Cooke] killed,” Nixon said. “Let him get in the papers and deny it. … Get a story out and get one to a reporter who will use it. Give them the facts and we will kill him in the press. Isn’t that clear? And I play it gloves off. Now, Goddammit, get going on it.”  [For more details, see Stanley I. Kutler’s Abuse of Power.]

Another Nixon scheme for distracting the public’s attention from the substance of the Pentagon Papers was to transform it into a spy scandal with a House subcommittee on internal security finding a Jew to serve as the scapegoat.

“Don’t you see what a marvelous opportunity for the committee,” Nixon said on July 2, 1971. “They can really take this and go. And make speeches about the spy ring. … But you know what’s going to charge up an audience. Jesus Christ, they’ll be hanging from the rafters. … Going after all these Jews. Just find one that is a Jew, will you.”

The 'Plumbers'

Nixon’s men did play it “gloves off.” Under Nixon’s direct supervision, a special group of operatives, known as the “Plumbers,” went to work repairing the damage from the leaked information. The Plumbers broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist looking for dirt to discredit Ellsberg.

The Plumbers operations then merged with a broader secret operation to spy on and neutralize the Democrats before the 1972 election. The Plumbers planted electronic listening devices in the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, but the operation went awry on June 17, 1972, when the White House burglars went back in to replace malfunctioning bugs and were arrested.

Nixon immediately launched a cover-up, drawing Dean and other White House officials into a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice. Dean helped contain the scandal for the months before the November election, but the cover-up unraveled in 1973 and Dean warned Nixon that the cover-up was becoming a “cancer on the Presidency.”

Dean later became the star witness before a Senate committee investigating Watergate. Dean detailed the criminal actions of Nixon and his inner circle. Nixon and his loyalists countered by trying to pin the Watergate blame on Dean, essentially making the same argument now being used against Brock – that since Dean had lied earlier in Watergate, his testimony about the cover-up couldn’t be trusted.

Only the release of Nixon’s White House tapes, under order of the U.S. Supreme Court, made clear that Dean’s testimony was truthful and that Nixon was the one lying. On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned the Presidency.

Retaliation

Though the evidence against Nixon was overwhelming, his followers continued to blame the “liberal” news media for hounding Nixon from office and for “losing” the Vietnam War, another charge that even Pentagon historians concluded wasn't true. [See William M. Hammond's The Military and the Media: The U.S. Army in Vietnam, an official U.S. Army publication.]

Still viewing themselves as the victims, Nixon's supporters redoubled their work on building “OUR establishment.”

Taking the lead was Nixon’s treasury secretary, William Simon, a Wall Street financier who also was president of the John M. Olin Foundation. In the late 1970s, Simon pulled together executives of other conservative foundations to coordinate their efforts to build a network of think tanks, media outlets and attack groups.

Millions of dollars were soon flowing to conservative organizations that vied with each other for the biggest bucks by demonstrating how effectively they could undermine liberals, Democrats and other “enemies.” The tougher the attack strategies, the more likely the organizations would get fat checks from the foundations.

The Reagan-Bush Years

In the 1980s, this expanding conservative apparatus gained additional strength from its close alliance with the Reagan-Bush administration. The machine’s goal was, in effect, to ensure that another Watergate didn’t happen – and to give Reagan a free hand in carrying out his military policies in Central America without fear of Vietnam War-style opposition.

The conservative media highlighted favorable stories about Ronald Reagan while joining with the the administration and conservative attack groups in trying to discredit mainstream journalists who reported information that put Reagan’s policies in a negative light. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]

When events spun out of control, as they did in fall 1986 with the disclosures that led to the Iran-contra scandal, the conservative apparatus only battled more fiercely to protect Reagan’s political flanks and contain the damage.

"This is the cauldron I stepped into [in 1986] when, at age 23, I entered the grand marble and brass lobby of the Washington Times building," Brock wrote in Blinded by the Right. Brock started his Washington career writing for the Washington Times, a newspaper founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a right-wing South Korean theocrat who presents himself as the messiah whose religious movement will rule the earth and extinguish all human individuality. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's The Dark Side of Rev. Moon.]

Brock’s career as a conservative journalist was complicated by the fact that he was gay and the “family values” conservative movement viewed homosexuality as a sin and a perversion. Still, Brock seized his first big opportunity: the 1991 confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas who had been nominated by President George H.W. Bush to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Given Thomas’s thin qualifications and his hard-line conservative views, he already was facing stiff opposition when a former aide, Anita Hill, testified that Thomas had subjected her to crude sexual harassment, a charge Thomas angrily denied. The Thomas confirmation hearings deteriorated even further, into a tawdry exchange of ugly charges with Republican senators depicting Hill as delusional and scaring off another potential woman witness who claimed to undergo similar experiences with Thomas.

With the conservative attack apparatus in full gear, Thomas eked out a narrow victory in the Senate. Still, Thomas’s reputation was in tatters, a situation that gave Brock the career opening he needed. In an article for the conservative American Spectator, Brock trashed Anita Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” He followed that up with a best-selling book, The Real Anita Hill, which further denigrated Hill and portrayed Thomas as a wronged man.

Brock skyrocketed to fame and fortune as the exemplar of conservative investigative journalism.

The Clinton Wars

With Bill Clinton’s electoral victory in 1992, the conservative apparatus changed roles, though not techniques. From playing an aggressive defense – attacking those perceived as threatening the Reagan-Bush agenda – the conservative machine switched to playing aggressive offense – doing all it could to destroy the Clinton Presidency.

In the final days of the 1992 campaign, high-ranking officials in George H.W. Bush’s administration had tried to make Clinton’s Whitewater real-estate investments a campaign issue by having a criminal referral sent to Washington. That gambit failed when Republican U.S. Attorney Charles Banks in Little Rock, Ark., refused to participate in what he viewed as a corrupt scheme to influence the outcome of a presidential election.

In 1993, with Clinton in the White House, conservatives revived the strategy of the Whitewater criminal referral, touching off a media frenzy that pressured the Democratic administration to accept a special prosecutor. Later, a conservative-controlled three judge panel, headed by Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle, a protégé of Sen. Jesse Helms, picked Bush’s conservative solicitor general, Kenneth Starr, to lead the investigation.

Though living in a relative obscurity during these years, Nixon continued to give strategic advice to Sen. Bob Dole and other Republican leaders, according to Nixon aide Monica Crowley who chronicled the last years of his life in her book, Nixon Off the Record. On the Whitewater controversy, Nixon again was egging on the Republicans.

On April 13, 1994, in one of his last political remarks, only four days before the stroke that would kill him, Nixon told Crowley, “Our people must not be afraid to grab this thing and shake all of the evidence loose. Watergate was wrong. Whitewater is wrong. I paid the price; Clinton should pay the price. Our people shouldn’t let this issue go down. They mustn’t let it sink.”

'Troopergate'

Though Brock might not have been aware of the lineage of the conservative attack strategy, he soon became a lead figure in the drive to settle Nixon's score. In the first year of Clinton’s Presidency, Brock cobbled together a bizarre set of allegations from state troopers who had guarded Clinton.

Again writing for the American Spectator, Brock turned the tales about alleged sexual misbehavior by Bill and Hillary Clinton into another national media frenzy in December 1993. The so-called Troopergate charges – some which proved to be false or highly unlikely – smashed the modern taboo against prying into the private life of a sitting American president.

Brock became a hero to the American Right, despite his sexual orientation which was widely rumored in national political circles. In February 1994, I covered the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington where Brock spoke to a packed banquet hall of cheering activists. At the same hotel, Paula Jones, whose first name was mentioned in Brock’s Troopergate article, gave a news conference indicating she might file a lawsuit.

The angry tone of the CPAC gathering made clear that the bumper stickers on sale, which already were calling for Clinton’s impeachment or worse, were not empty political slogans. The increasingly powerful conservative apparatus was determined to oust Clinton over one charge or another. Nixon’s political legacy – mixing dirty tricks, “rat-fucking,” character assassination and cover-ups – had become the everyday tricks of the trade for America’s conservative movement.

Bizarre Behavior

Looking back on this strange political world in Blinded by the Right, Brock paints a panorama fitting of Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch artist of the late 15th and early 16th centuries whose nightmarish work depicted demonic creatures preying upon hapless victims in hell.

Brock’s first-hand account reveals these modern-day tormentors crawling around drunk, having promiscuous sex while condemning others, spending “charitable” donations on lavish life-styles, sneaking up to spy into the private home of a Clinton administration official, and hanging a portrait of Lenin – apparently because the Communist dictator was admired for his ruthless political style.

While some of the operatives existed on the fringes of American politics – Richard Mellon Scaife, the Rev. Moon, Ann Coulter and a cast of sharp-tongued talking heads – others were paragons of the Republican establishment. They included former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Laurence Silberman, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr and current Solicitor General Ted Olson.

Other key characters in the book include well-connected GOP lawyers who worked behind the scenes as the “elves” transforming the dubious Paula Jones sexual harassment charges -- which Brock says even the operatives didn't believe -- into a chance to corner Clinton with embarrassing questions about his sexual habits and partners.

In Brock’s account, the anti-Clinton moralizing was pursued in stunning disregard of the conservatives’ own wild behavior, featuring illicit drugs, heavy drinking and extramarital sex. Brock’s book portrays the well-known cases of Republican stalwarts, such as Henry Hyde and Newt Gingrich, dallying with younger women, as more the rule than the exception.

The Counter-Attack

By detailing this breathtaking hypocrisy, Brock’s book presents a clear and present danger to the conservative movement. If rank-and-file Republicans and Christian conservatives ever came to recognize the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behavior of the professional conservative elite of Washington, the political cost could be devastating.

So, Brock is getting a taste of his old medicine. His former conservative colleagues – and some liberal adversaries – are trying to discredit Brock and his book by using the same methods that Brock employed in his conservative-writing days: exaggeration, selective use of fact and outright falsehoods.

Ironically, a key venue for this assault on Brock’s credibility has been Salon.com, which was one of the few news outlets that went against the grain during the Clinton onslaught.

Writing for Salon, reporters Murray Waas, Joe Conason and Gene Lyons exposed the so-called Arkansas Project, a Scaife-financed operation to dig up dirt about Clinton in Arkansas. Those lurid Arkansas tales then were spread through conservative news outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the American Spectator, into the gullible mainstream news media.

Blinded by the Right corroborates Salon's reporting on the Arkansas Project. But following Brock’s book, Salon has published two vitriolic articles by David Horowitz, an ex-leftist-radical-turned-rightist-operative who is leading the charge against Brock.

After breaking with the Left in the 1980s, Horowitz founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which became a major recipient of conservative foundation money as the group attacked supposed liberal bias in the media. According to a 1997 study by the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, Horowitz’s center received $3.3 million from 1992-94 from 12 “core” conservative foundations.

Horowitz shows up briefly in Blinded by the Right as an example of a conservative who appears on the surface to be tolerant of gays while privately mocking them. Brock wrote that Horowitz uttered an anti-gay slur to a conservative editor who unbeknownst to Horowitz was gay. The editor, whom Brock didn’t identify, disclosed his sexual orientation and took Horowitz to task for the remark.

An Alleged Lie

Upon reading this passage, Horowitz deduced that the unidentified gay editor was Chad Conway at the Free Press and placed a call to Conway to discuss the anecdote in Brock’s book. On April 17, Horowitz reported in Salon what he claimed to be Conway’s response. Horowitz wrote that Conway denied Brock’s account.

“When I read Chad the passage, he was as appalled by Brock’s slander as I had been,” Horowitz wrote. Horowitz quoted Conway as saying, “You have never made an anti-gay slur to me or about David Brock or anyone else.”

Horowitz said the account proved that Brock was still a liar. “The only accurate statement in Brock’s account of my ‘slur’ is that I didn’t know for a time that my editor at the Free Press, Chad Conway, was gay,’’ Horowitz wrote.

Horowitz said that when he confronted Brock on National Public Radio “with this refutation of his claims, he was not the least apologetic or regretful for what he had done. He neither retracted his slander, nor attempted to defend it.”

The subhead of Horowitz’s article stated that Brock “lied about me” and any fair reading of the article would conclude that Brock had fabricated the anecdote, that Horowitz had never said anything that might be regarded as an anti-gay slur to Conway.

A Spreading Accusation

Indeed, that was the interpretation made by Salon’s editor-in-chief David Talbot, who wrote a broader article the same day, touching on Brock’s book. Talbot said Horowitz was the only one who “has plausibly challenged even Brock’s minor charges.”

Whether “minor” or not, Horowitz’s supposed debunking of Brock’s anecdote became Exhibit A that Brock was still lying and that his book couldn’t be taken seriously. On April 25, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson used Horowitz’s article to batter Brock when he appeared on CNN’s Crossfire.

Referring to Brock’s anecdote about the anti-gay slur, Tucker said, “Horowitz reads this and is upset by it, tracks down the person, your friend, who says that’s totally made up, fictitious. Brock made that up. Horowitz confronts you with this. And what do you do? You ignore him. You don’t even address the charge that you made this up.”

Brock responded, “I’m standing by what I wrote.”

“I’m telling you that there are a lot of things that you made up,” Carlson said, concluding his remarks about Brock’s book to CNN’s listeners: “Don’t believe a word of it.”

A Reversal

In the following days, however, Conway, the book editor, sent out e-mails challenging Horowitz’s version of events and corroborating Brock’s anecdote. One of the e-mails went to Salon and was published on April 30.

Conway said that after Brock’s book was published Horowitz called to complain. “The moment Horowitz told me the anecdote in question I remembered it well,” Conway wrote. “I had dined out on the story for weeks – once on David Brock’s tab.” In other words, Conway confirmed that he had told Brock about Horowitz uttering an anti-gay slur.

Conway elaborated on the slur: “During one of many amusing and stimulating phone conversations I enjoyed with Horowitz over the years, a piece he had written on some gay issue came up and he said to me, ‘The problem with the gays is that they are all hysterical!’ I laughed and said, ‘David, you don’t think I’m hysterical, do you?’ ‘Jesus,’ said Horowitz, ‘you’re not gay, are you?’ He then apologized for the remark, and I laughed it off, enjoying his discomfort enormously.”

Conway then describes his more recent conversation with Horowitz: “When Horowitz called me to tell me about Brock’s book, I reminded him of the story (he remembered it, too, in a vague form), laughed and said I had told a lot of people that story, including Brock. … Horowitz is wrong for trying to turn this on Brock. For the record, I don’t think Horowitz is anti-gay and I always enjoyed him. But, yes, he did, before he knew I was gay, make an anti-gay slander to me and Brock was quite right to use it as an example of the sorts of things said when ‘we,’ the homos, are not in the room.”

Beyond confirming Brock’s anecdote, Conway makes clear that he informed Horowitz about its truthfulness before Horowitz’s April 17 article, which alleged that the anecdote was false. Conway also notes that Horowitz remembered the anecdote “in a vague form.” So, if Conway is to be believed, Horowitz knowingly published a dishonest article.

No Apology

Also on April 30, Salon published Horowitz’s reaction to Conway’s e-mail. Instead of apologizing to Brock for the earlier misleading article, which portrayed Brock as a liar, Horowitz launched into another diatribe again calling Brock “a liar.” On the substance of the anecdote, however, Horowitz did not challenge Conway’s central point – that Conway had confirmed the accuracy of Brock’s anecdote.

“I did neglect to describe the details of the original conversation with Chad (Conway) in my Salon article,” Horowitz wrote. But he claimed he had a good reason. “When I called Chad to talk about it before writing my Salon piece, neither of us could remember the specific issue that had provoked the comment and had led to Chad’s ‘coming out.’ This is not surprising since the conversation took place three or four years ago. It is crucial, however, because context determines the meaning of such remarks.”

Horowitz’s argument appears to be that since he didn’t remember the detailed context of the anecdote, it was all right to pretend that Brock had fabricated the anecdote when, in fact, the anecdote was true and Horowitz knew it to be true. This deception was then repeated in an article by Salon’s editor-in-chief and passed on to a national audience watching CNN’s Crossfire.

While Salon may feel that its journalistic duty was fulfilled by publishing Conway’s e-mail, the larger point is that Horowitz misled Salon’s editor, its readers and millions of people who now believe that Brock is continuing to lie and that his book should not be trusted. In such cases, traditional journalistic standards call for a correction and an apology, not another round of denouncing the victim.

For those who read it, Brock’s book may clear up much of the confusion about what happened in the 1990s. Still, it is unlikely alone to change the nation’s political drift toward an Orwellian world where any fact can be twisted in any direction by committed propagandists backed by seemingly limitless money.

That unpleasant reality was demonstrated again when the truth that Brock now conveys got ground up by the attack machinery of which Brock was once an important cog.

To address the larger problem will require Americans who care about democracy to commit themselves and their resources to building a different news media, one that respects the principles of honest journalism and is willing to tell the hard story of how this nation's political system veered so far off the track in the past three decades.

In the 1980s, as a correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-contra scandal. His latest book is entitled, Lost History.

In the 1980s, as a correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-contra scandal. His latest book is entitled, Lost History.

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