Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I love David Brock

David Brock does such good work with his Media Matters for America organization. But don't overlook his excellent autobiography Blinded by the Right - The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative.

When he was a conservative, Brock wrote a book called The Real Anita Hill which smeared Anita Hill and portrayed her as "a little bit nutty, a little bit slutty." When Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson's book Strange Justice came out in response to the Brock book, Brock and conservative friends went to work:
...Ricky (Silberman, vice chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision and close friend of Clarence Thomas) and I sprang into action to discredit the Mayer and Abramson book. At mid-morning, we met at the Capitol Hill offices of Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation, the most powerful right-wing lobby behind the Thomas nomination... Rick was joined by Barbara Ledeen, a neo-conservative operative who was the executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, the antifeminist group Ricky had formed, in part with Scaife money, from Women for Judge Thomas...

Like the Hiss-Chambers case, the Thomas-Hill case lent itself to endless hairsplitting over the true meaning of obscure factoids. I knew the ins and outs of the case better than anyone, and I knew how to twist and turn them to our advantage. I had done this previously, in my book, in the service of a sincerely held belief. Now, I wasn't sure why I was doing it. I was just doing it. As Barbara Ledeen took notes on a legal pad, I played the role I was expected to play. Donning my defense lawyer hat, I dissected the Mayer and Abramson excerpt, methodically turning back each new damaging allegation they raised and patching up the sizable holes they had shot in Thomas's defense.

The three of us then collaborated on a radio script for Rush Limbaugh's show at noon... We would use Rush to crush Mayer and Abramson, defend Justice Thomas, and protect Republican prospects in the impending election that would bring Newt Gingrich to power. We faxed off the script. Tuning in to his show, I listened as Limbaugh read from the fax virtually verbatim. The war was on! Hearing Rush blast those feminazis gave me a jolt of adrenaline. I was back on message. Forget that hysterical Ricky Silberman, I told myself. I'd show her, too, by going out and proving that Mayer and Abramson were frauds and liars. Consumed by a kind of mania, as if my entire worldview and indeed my self-conception depended on the outcome, I was now on a mission to sink Strange Justice.

Working harder than I ever had, I set about re-reporting the book for a review for the Spectator... My work on the Spectator review inevitably caused me to reinterview sources I had relied on in writing my book. One of them was Armstrong Williams, who had been on Thomas's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff at the time Anita Hill also worked for him in the early 1980s... In my book, I relied heavily on Williams's recollections to discredit the testimony of Hill and another ex-employee of Thomas's, Angela Wright, who also claimed that Thomas had behaved inappropriately toward her. Williams had supplied me with a particularly evocative anecdote that I used to show Thomas - in contrast to Anita Hill's portrait - as prudish in sexual matters. According to Williams, Thomas had once compelled him to dispose of a copy of Playboy Williams had been toting, telling his aide the magazine was "trash." I had interviewed Williams in his Dupont Circle office and on the telephone several times, and we had kept in touch since the book's publication, though we hadn't spoken at any length since I had come out as gay in the Washington Post eight months before. Williams invited me to discuss Strange Justice over dinner at a Tex-Mex place on the Hill, then asked me back to his apartment for a drink.

Sitting on an overstuffed sofa not far from me, Williams had something else besides Strange Justice on his mind. As he began to pepper me with graphic questions about whether I was dominant or submissive in bed, I shuffled uncomfortably in my seat, looked away, and tried to change the subject. Williams, who was unmarried, countered with increasingly lewd banter until I quickly brought the conversation to a close, thanked him for his time, got up, and walked out. Was Williams baiting me like an antigay bigot? Was he coming on to me? I had no way of knowing for sure, but either way, I had to conclude that he was a poor character witness for Clarence Thomas... I grew agitated as I glimpsed some uncomfortable truths about who these conservatives really were, and what they really represented...

The biggest problem raised by the Strange Justice authors for the Thomas camp was the testimony of yet another woman, Kaye Savage, who had not been heard from during the first round of hearings. Savage made the claim... that she had seen Playboy pinups papered along the walls of Thomas's apartment in the early 1980s, when she and Thomas had been friends and Anita Hill was working for Thomas...

...Mark (Paoletta) phoned me back. He said he had posed my question about how to discredit Savage to (Clarence) Thomas, who knew I was at work on a review of the Mayer and Abramson book. Mark told me that Thomas had, in fact, some derogatory information on his former friend Savage; he passed it along to Mark so that Mark could give it to me. Quoting Thomas directly, Mark told me of unverified, embarrassing personal information about Savage that Thomas claimed had been raised against her in a sealed court record of a divorce and child custody battle more than a decade ago. Thomas also told Mark where Savage worked after Mark related that I was eager to hunt her down as soon as possible. Surely skirting the bounds of judicial propriety to intimidate and smear yet another witness against him, Thomas was playing dirty, and so was I.

...I grilled Savage, a mild-mannered, middle-aged African American civil servant, with the menacing threat of a personal exposure hanging in the background. I then told her that she could either cooperate with me and give me what I needed to discredit Strange Justice, or I would have to discredit her as a witness by disclosing whatever personal information I had about her, just as I had blackened the reputation of all the other women who had come forward with damaging information about Thomas. In the face of this threat, Savage refused to recant her accusations. I continued to press for anything I could get her to say to blunt the impact of her accusation. We agreed that Savage would give me a written statement in which she would say the Strange Justice authors had distorted and sensationalized her quotes. When I got back to my office at the Spectator, Savage faxed me a statement, but it was too weak to be of any use: the Strange Justice account would still stand. I called Savage at her office and insisted on some changes that would allow me to cast at least some doubt on the way Mayer and Abramson had quoted her. After a struggle on the phone in which I renewed my threats, Savage made some handwritten changes to the document and faxed it to me again... I knew Savage had given me enought to work with so that I could use the statement in my review to make it appear as though she had recanted the story, which in fact she had not.

...I next set out to blow away the Mayer and Abramson story that Thomas had been a frequent customer of an X-rated video store near Dupont Circle, called Graffiti, where in the early 1980s he was alleged to have rented X-rated videos of the type that Hill claimed he had discussed with her in graphic terms. In the hearings, Thomas had pointedly refused to answer questions about his personal use of pornography other than to categorically deny that he had ever talked about porn with Hill. The Graffitti story was another theretofore unknown piece of evidence for Hill's case, and it was a powerful counterpoint to the prudish image of Thomas presented by supporters like Armstrong Williams and repeated by me in The Real Anita Hill. Now that Mark had opened up a channel directly to Thomas, I asked him to find out for me whether Thomas had owned the video equipment needed to view movies at home in the early 1980s. Such equipment was not then as commonly used as it was in the mid-1990s, and I figured if I could assert in the review that Thomas had no way of watching the movies, the matter would be settled definitively.

Mark came back with a straightforward answer: Thomas not only had the video equipment in his apartment, but he also habitually rented pornographic movies from Graffiti during the years that Anita Hill worked for him, just as Mayer and Abramson reported. Here was the proof that the Senate investigators and reporters had been searching for during the hearings. Mark, of course, was still a true believer in Thomas's innocence. He couldn't see the porn rentals as at all significant. To Mark, Hill was still a liar despite suggestions to the contrary. But I had some distance from Thomas and I was troubled by the damaging report. It made Hill's entire story much more plausible. I can still remember exactly where I was sitting when Mark let me in on what had to have been one of the most closely guarded secrets within the Thomas camp, a secret, no doubt, that had been kept for three years among Thomas's most trusted advisers.

It was at this moment that Brock finally admitted to himself just how low he had fallen to be part of the hard-right crowd:
...I was no better than the Arkansas Project brigade after all. The strange lies were mine. All the attacks, the hateful rhetoric, the dark alliances and strange conspiracies, an eye for an eye, nuts and sluts, defending Pinochet, throwing grenades, carpet-bombing the White House, Bob Bork, Bob Tyrrell, Bob Dornan, Bob Bartley, Bob Barr - it all led right here: I lost my soul.
Brock has been working on getting his soul back ever since, and running Media Matters is part of that project.

This is important stuff. But one of the most memorable parts of the book has to be this portrait of Laura Ingraham:
I hadn't known of Laura's antigay past at Dartmouth, where along with her then-boyfriend Dinesh D'Souza, she had participated in the infamous outing of gay students, who were branded "sodomites," until I cringed as I read about her Dartmouth Review exploits in a 1995 profile in Vanity Fair. To make matters worse, I was quoted in the piece saying that Laura was unreservedly accepting of homosexuality, which in my presence she always had seemed to be. On more than one occasion, I had taken her barhopping along the gay strip in Washington, where she seemed to have a blast. Inevitably though, as we drownded ourselves in more and more alcohol, the evening would take a ghastly turn. One night, after downing several cocktails and snorting an unidentifiable white powder an acquaintance had given me - which turned out to be the cat tranquilizer Ketamine - I was sick in the bathroom for several hours trying to get my bearings as Laura, in a drunken stupor, crawled through the packed two-story dance club on her hands and knees looking for me. Her purse had been locked in my car trunk, causing her to call a friend in the wee hours of the morning to rescue her. In the meantime, she had managed to leave me a series of violent messages, threatening to "break every window in my house" if I didn't return the keys immediately.

David Brock is a regular guest (usually Wednesdays) on the Al Franken Show.