As he tells the story, David Brock’s life changed profoundly one day during his sophomore year at the University of California at Berkeley. On that day, he began a journey that would eventually lead to a starring role in the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that crippled a presidency.
The date was February 15, 1983. United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was scheduled to deliver a speech on human rights at Wheeler Auditorium on campus. At the time, Brock was a young reporter for the Daily Californian, and he recalls getting the assignment to cover Kirkpatrick’s spiel “quite by chance.” As a liberal who decorated his dormitory room with postcards depicting the Reagans as the victims of a nuclear holocaust, Brock didn’t consider the speech a juicy assignment. He thought the talk would be a dry academic address from one of the Reagan administration’s leading wonks.
It was anything but dry. Protesters repeatedly heckled Kirkpatrick, the architect of President Reagan’s anticommunist foreign policy in Central America. According to several news accounts, they shouted “US out of El Salvador,” “Genocide in Guatemala,” “Forty thousand dead,” and for an added touch of disrespect, loudly squeaked air from balloons. Kirkpatrick walked off the stage in frustration, escorted by security guards. Although she soon returned and finished the rest of her speech, Kirkpatrick went on to cancel another Cal appearance scheduled for the next day.
“The scene shook me deeply,” Brock recalled in “The Making of a Conservative,” a chapter from his new confessional memoir. “Was the harassment of an unpopular speaker the legacy of the Berkeley-campus Free Speech Movement, when students demanded the right to canvass for any and all political causes on the campus’s Sproul Plaza? Wasn’t free speech a liberal value? How, I wondered, could this thought police call itself liberal? As I raced back to the threadbare offices of the Daily Cal, where we tapped out stories on half-sheets of paper hunched over manual typewriters, my adrenaline was pumping. I knew I had the day’s lead story.”
There was just one problem with Brock’s account of the event he claimed had radically altered his worldview: It wasn’t true.
David Brock is a liar. It’s one of the few things people of all political persuasions can agree he has told the truth about.
This well-earned reputation for dishonesty notwithstanding, Brock managed to wreak more havoc on American politics in the 1990s than any other journalist. As a reporter for the archconservative Washington Times, and later for the reactionary American Spectator, Brock was a participant in what Hillary Clinton once called the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Brock’s nasty stories for the Spectator earned him his credentials as a right-wing hit man. The victim of his breakthrough character assassination was Anita Hill, the woman who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Brock’s article, “The Real Anita Hill,” portrayed Hill as, among other things, “a bit nutty and a bit slutty,” although Brock misquotes himself in his book, recalling the line as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Conservative radio kingpin Rush Limbaugh read excerpts from the story on his nationally syndicated program. Dittoheads gobbled it up. Brock’s sensationalistic efforts helped boost the magazine’s circulation from 30,000 to 300,000, and the young reporter parlayed his newfound notoriety into a best-selling book, also titled The Real Anita Hill.
Then came the election of Bill Clinton, the first Democrat sent to the White House in more than a decade. Culture warriors such as the mysterious multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife made ruining Clinton their top goal. Brock and the Spectator were only too happy to oblige. In December 1993, Brock wrote a lurid tale relying on interviews with four Arkansas state troopers who claimed that their official duties included helping Governor Clinton cheat on his wife. Portions of the article would later be discredited, including a suggestion that Clinton tried to silence a trooper by offering him a federal job. But it was a throwaway line from the piece that had the most lasting impact: Brock quoted a trooper as saying he helped facilitate a hotel encounter for his boss with a woman he only remembered as “Paula.” Paula turned out to be Paula Jones, the woman who later filed a lawsuit against the president with the backing of Clinton-hating conservatives. That led to what some have called the “perjury trap,” in which Clinton was asked under oath about having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. And that, of course, led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Now Brock is promoting a tell-all book about his role in this conspiracy. Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative begins with an odd warning not often found in personal memoirs: “This is a terrible book. It is about lies told and reputations ruined. It is about what the conservative movement did, and what I did, as we plotted in the shadows, disregarded the law, and abused power to win even greater power.”
Brock filled his book with a generous amount of scorn for himself and his former conservative coconspirators. He admits taking a $5,000 check from GOP fund-raiser Peter Smith to look into whether Clinton fathered a love child with a prostitute. He says pinup pundit Ann Coulter once told him she wanted to leave her New York law firm “to get away from all those Jews.” He claims that former White House assistant counsel Mark Paoletta privately conceded to him that Thomas rented pornography, just as Anita Hill had alleged to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He charges that senatorial aide Terry Wooten, who later became a US district court judge in South Carolina, passed along the confidential FBI file of another female witness who could have offered damaging testimony on Thomas. He claims that US Solicitor General Ted Olson, then a high-powered Republican attorney and member of the Spectator‘s board of directors, played a prominent role in the Scaife-financed “Arkansas Project” that dug up dirt on Clinton. He says that friend and Thomas apologist Ricky Silberman gasped to him over the phone after reading a balanced account of the Thomas-Hill hearings, “He did it, didn’t he?”
As the first insider account from this milieu, Blinded by the Right garnered its author a flurry of high-profile media interviews and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list for the past eight weeks. Brock has made countless TV appearances flogging his book, himself, and his old pals. Talk magazine printed an excerpt in which he admitted using dubious information to smear Anita Hill. New York Times columnist Frank Rich devoted 3,335 words in the paper’s Sunday magazine to the book, which he said “may be a key document for historians seeking to understand the ethos of the incoherent ’90s.” But Rich also cautioned, “By his own account, Brock has lied so often that a reader can’t take on faith some of the juicier newsbreaks from the impeachment era in his book.”
Rich identified the central conundrum facing historians and readers who evaluate Brock’s work: Is the liar telling the truth now?
The answer lies in Berkeley.
Questions about Brock’s truthfulness and reliability have plagued the writer ever since reporters Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer debunked many of his accusations about Anita Hill in their 1994 book Strange Justice. Afterward, Brock set out to preserve his tarnished journalistic reputation by attempting to poke holes in Abramson and Mayer’s reporting. But Brock now admits that he knew he was the one who screwed up. For instance, he wrote at the time that there was no evidence Clarence Thomas had ever rented pornography, although by then he had solid information to the contrary. “When I wrote those words,” Brock now maintains, “I knew they were false.”
Following the huge success of The Real Anita Hill, Brock received a $1 million advance to write a biography of the First Lady. According to Brock, the only question publisher Jack Romanos of Simon & Schuster asked before cutting the check was, “Did I think Hillary Clinton was a lesbian?” But The Seduction of Hillary Rodham didn’t deliver the sizzle its publisher or conservative audience may have hoped for. Suddenly, Brock found himself snubbed by prominent conservatives. He even began hearing his former pals using his homosexuality — which he publicly acknowledged in 1994 — to besmirch him behind his back.
So Brock took his career into a new direction — repudiating the very right-wingers who had made him rich. In a 1997 Esquire article “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man,” Brock wrote that Clinton-haters were more interested in hatchet jobs than good journalism. The following year, Brock wrote a public apology to President Clinton in Esquire for not checking out his sources’ claims more thoroughly and for invading the president’s personal life with his coverage of what later was dubbed “Troopergate.” Last year, he upped the confessional ante with his Talk mea culpa.
But even when Brock has struck a confessional pose, he’s been less than forthright. In his 1998 apology to President Clinton in Esquire, Brock conveniently failed to name Peter Smith, a Chicago investment banker, as his initial link to the operations in Arkansas. After the piece came out, Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times he personally paid Brock $5,000 to investigate Clinton. In a follow-up, The New York Post quoted unnamed sources saying that Brock had denied taking Smith’s money until he was confronted with proof — the canceled check with his name on it. “I didn’t immediately remember, but I never denied it,” Brock told the Post. “I said if Smith has the documentation, I’d be happy to confirm it.”
Many of the people Brock accused in Blinded by the Right have vocally rejected his latest version of events. Wooten denied giving Brock Angela Wright’s FBI file. Paoletta has said he never confirmed for Brock that Thomas rented porn videos. Ricky Silberman told the Washington Post, “I never in a million years could have, would have, or did say what he said I said.” And Ted Olson denied playing a role in the Arkansas Project during his confirmation hearings after being named solicitor general by President George W. Bush.
Brock’s dubious credibility puts his erstwhile conservative supporters in an awkward position. If we’re not supposed to believe Brock now as he dishes dirt on the right, then we also probably shouldn’t believe anything he wrote about Anita Hill or Bill Clinton’s libido. Of course, Brock’s conversion also puts liberals who’d like to believe his latest disclosures in an awkward spot: They must justify why he now should be deemed trustworthy.
Like many liberal readers who want to believe Brock’s insider account, Michael Tomasky argued in The Nation that we should trust Brock today. “Brock names names, places, dates, the food and wine consumed, the color of the draperies,” Tomasky wrote. Todd Gitlin, a liberal media critic who teaches journalism and sociology at New York University, also seemed inclined to believe Brock in his Los Angeles Times review. “One reason to take him seriously is that he is not particularly self-serving,” Gitlin wrote, citing two embarrassing personal admissions as reasons to believe Brock must now be telling the truth. In one, Brock wrote that he tried to get a former Daily Cal colleague in trouble by falsely accusing the editor of being the subject of a complaint by the vice-chancellor. In another, he said he falsely denied to his longtime boyfriend that he’s an adopted child.
Predictably, Brock’s former conservative pals have been less generous. Last month Wall Street Journal editor Robert L. Bartley called Brock “the John Walker Lindh of contemporary conservatism.” Liberal-bashing syndicated columnist L. Brent Bozell called Brock “a pathetic little man.” On the point of Brock’s credibility, Bozell wrote, “Consider that Brock’s first two books were weighed down with footnotes, with zealous research of the public record. The new screed against conservatives has no footnotes, no index, no real historical substance. Why not?”
But in spite of this raging debate, no one has conclusively refuted the assertions in Blinded by the Right. Part of the reason is that many of his revelations concerned events that happened in private, as National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg observed in an interview last year. “Everyone I contact that you mention by name, either I have or other reporters have gotten denials, so we’re back to the question of how we can believe you?” said Totenberg, who first reported the Anita Hill story. Brock told Totenberg: “Good credible journalists can look into what I’m saying, examine it, and get to the bottom of this, and they can find the truth.”
The best place to act on Brock’s challenge is at the university where it all began. Brock writes that he came to Berkeley in 1981 partly to anger his conservative Irish-Catholic dad, whom he describes as “pro-life, anti-busing, pro-death-penalty.” He arrived from Texas as a self-described liberal whose hero was Bobby Kennedy. He joined the Naderites at the California Public Interest Research Group. He also started writing for the Daily Californian, the main student newspaper. He was named a full-fledged staff writer before the end of his first year. By his sophomore year in the fall of 1982, his byline regularly graced the paper’s front page. He was a rising star.
Around the time Jeane Kirkpatrick visited campus, Brock was preoccupied with an altogether different story: Who was going to become the next president of the University of California? On February 11, 1983, in a front-page story copyrighted by the paper, Brock reported that Berkeley chancellor Ira Heyman was one of three finalists in the competition to succeed David Saxon as UC president. Two weeks later, Brock scored a major scoop — one still remembered by some of his former colleagues — when he reported that David Gardner was going to get the job. The following week, Gardner indeed got the job.
So by the time Kirkpatrick rolled into town, four days after Brock’s Heyman scoop, Brock was hardly the “cub reporter” he describes in Blinded by the Right. “He was one of our best reporters,” recalls then-Daily Cal editor-in-chief Dan Woo, now a senior producer at ABC News. But the selection of the next UC president was a more important story for an ambitious young campus reporter than a protest of an unpopular administration official. Protests in Berkeley? They happened all the time.
But this particular protest was destined to spur a national debate over campus free speech. In 1983, US foreign policy in Central America inspired protests at college campuses across the country, especially Berkeley. And at the time, Students Against Intervention in El Salvador was one of the most prominent and vocal critics of the Reagan administration’s policy.
When Kirkpatrick came to Berkeley, the byline atop the Daily Cal‘s coverage was not Brock’s. It belonged to Chris Norton, a freelance writer who contributed news stories and editorials about US foreign policy. Back issues of the February 16, 1983 paper show Norton’s name beneath the lead headline “Kirkpatrick clashes with hecklers over US policy.” “Someone told me to go cover this and I said okay,” says Norton, who later became a Central American correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and Newsday. “He didn’t write the story; I wrote the story,” adds Norton, who expressed disbelief when told that Brock claims to have written that day’s main story. Indeed, Brock did not have any story in the paper that day.
The next day, Norton wrote a brief follow-up noting that Kirkpatrick had canceled her next scheduled speech at Cal. Brock, meanwhile, cowrote a front-page story on a class boycott over student fee increases. Three days after Kirkpatrick’s appearance, Brock did finally publish a piece about the event — albeit a short article on student body president Kathy Read proposing to yank the funding of Students Against Intervention in El Salvador because of the group’s role in shouting down Kirkpatrick.
Of course, no one can be expected to remember every event from their past in perfect detail nearly twenty years after the fact. Indeed, most of the nineteen former Daily Cal staffers interviewed for this story struggled to recall the exact circumstances of Kirkpatrick’s visit. Still, you’d expect a reporter who casts an event as a defining moment in his life to remember whether or not he wrote about it. Former Daily Cal city editor David Lazarus, now a business columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, doesn’t remember Brock acting like he’d had some great epiphany during the Kirkpatrick aftermath. “I don’t recall him jumping up and down from the furniture shouting, ‘I’ve seen the light.’ ” If the event was indeed a defining moment for Brock, “he kept it to himself,” Lazarus says. And from what other contemporaries recall of Brock, that would not have been his style. Larry Levitt, a Daily Cal editorial page editor in the winter of 1983, recalls Brock being the kind of reporter who would lobby his editors to get top billing for one of his stories if he felt strongly about it. “I distinctly remember him fighting persuasively for stories he wanted,” adds former university editor Michael Ciraolo, who would probably have assigned the Kirkpatrick story.
Nor is Brock’s faulty memory limited to that detail. Brock makes other errors in the section of his book about his Berkeley days — more than enough to suggest that something other than a poor memory was at work. He wrongly identified Dwinelle Hall as the venue for Kirkpatrick’s speech; in fact, the ambassador spoke at Wheeler Auditorium.
Brock also described a moment when “a protester leaped from his seat just offstage and splashed simulated blood on the podium.” But three people who attended the speech — Norton, Bob Bryzman of Students Against Intervention in El Salvador, and former law school dean Jesse Choper — don’t remember anyone throwing fake blood. Additionally, no stories in the next two days from the Daily Cal, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Berkeley Gazette, Oakland Tribune, or Los Angeles Times mentioned anything about fake blood being hurled near Kirkpatrick, an action that surely would have elicited some ink.
Brock has long cited Kirkpatrick’s shabby treatment as the point at which he began to reject the left and embrace conservatism. By the fall of 1983, his newfound ideology found its way into the editorial pages of the Daily Cal. On Halloween, Brock penned a defense of the American invasion of Grenada. The signed opinion piece didn’t go over well with everyone at the decidedly liberal paper. As the newsroom’s only real conservative, Brock was a divisive figure. “He became a lightning rod,” says Anita M. Seline, editor-in-chief when the Grenada editorial ran. “People didn’t like his politics.”
But Brock relished the attention he attracted as a conservative provocateur on the lefty-dominated campus. He also took to wearing bow ties to stand out more — something his former Daily Cal compatriots still chuckle about. David Lazarus recalls, “David enjoyed being the pebble in everyone’s shoe.”
Brock still managed to maintain a few allies at the Daily Cal after the Grenada fallout. In August 1984, he and a few colleagues started their own campus paper. “Feeling responsible for some Daily Cal colleagues who were blackballed at the paper because of their affiliation with me, I helped found another outlet, a dignified, neoconservative weekly magazine we called the Berkeley Journal,” Brock wrote in Blinded by the Right. “We raised money from conservative alumni by convincing them that the campus needed a voice more in tune with the mainstream politics of ’80s students.”
But here again, Brock’s account is disputed by other participants. About the only thing Brock’s fellow exiles agree about is that the weekly they started was called the Berkeley Journal and that Brock was its publisher.
Steve Kettmann, the short-lived Journal‘s only editor-in-chief, said about ninety percent of the money used to finance the newspaper — not magazine — came out of the staff’s pockets, not from conservative alumni. “Brock’s primary job as publisher was to sell ads, which he did, and we had a few of those, which raised a little money,” says Kettmann, an occasional contributor to the Express. “I can believe he raised some small amount of money from alumni, though I do not recall any talk of that at the time.” Former managing editor Lisa Leff says that as a proud progressive she would have raised a stink if anyone had raised money from conservative alumni. “I think I would have wrestled with that if it were true,” Leff says.
Kettmann’s bigger beef is with Brock’s description of the Journal as “neoconservative.” Kettmann says that except for Brock, everyone at the Journal was a Democrat. He says the staff was “on the left without a doubt,” although he concedes that staffers were “put off by the mannerisms of the student left at the time.” Kettmann and Pete Danko, a senior editor at the Berkeley Journal, said they considered the authoritative, objective tone of The New York Times their news model. “We wanted to take stuff that was sexy, and make it nonsexy,” Danko chuckles.
A review of the Berkeley Journal‘s thirteen issues show that the paper’s ideology was more politically correct than neoconservative. The paper came out in favor of making ethnic studies a graduation requirement, and argued for paying female university employees the same as men doing comparable work. Perhaps the one exception was Brock’s Journal cover story, “How Jeanne [sic] Kirkpatrick Haunts UC Berkeley: The Debate Over Free Speech Rages On” and an accompanying editorial urging tolerance for unpopular views on campus. (Brock was not responsible for the misspelled headline.) Brock’s only other feature story for the Journal was a fashion puff piece in which he announced that long hair for men was making a comeback.
Kettmann recalls that Brock had a personal interest in adding a story on the Kirkpatrick fiasco to his personal clip file. “Brock did not write the Daily Cal story on the Kirkpatrick incident,” Kettmann wrote in an e-mail. “That is one reason he wanted to do a big story on the topic for the Journal.”
The next year, Brock authored a 3,000-word story for the neoconservative Policy Review on conservatives being shouted down on college campuses. The Policy Review article led to a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, which led to Brock’s job at the Washington Times, which led to his job at the American Spectator, which led to the vast right-wing conspiracy, which led to the national debate about whether oral sex counts as sexual relations. You get the picture.
In a society where tell-all confessionals regularly reach the best-seller lists, Brock revealing unflattering facts about himself is hardly proof of his credibility. But it definitely is shrewd marketing. Bruce Bawer, a former American Spectator contributor, put it nicely in his Washington Post review of Brock’s book: “He quotes the worst things critics said about him, and agrees with every word. In a strange way, it’s both too much and, somehow, not enough.”
Ever since his college days, Brock has displayed a knack for making stories ostensibly about someone else revolve around him. In his apology to President Clinton in Esquire, for instance, he boasts, “I made Paula Jones famous.” An episode from the Daily Cal also fits into his Brock-centric view of the world.
After Brock’s Grenada opinion piece, his Daily Cal critics plotted to have him recalled from his new post as university editor. But the embattled Brock survived, as he remembers, because the paper’s bylaws didn’t allow for the ousting of sitting editors. Brock wrote in his book that after he finished his term as university editor, the bylaws were amended so that sitting editors could henceforth be ousted, a change he describes in his book as “The Brock Amendment.” Jose Novoa, a Brock foe at the time who later became editor-in-chief, said nobody ever used that term, but that it’s indicative of Brock’s general self-image. “Brock played pretty fast and loose with the truth,” Novoa says. “He had this vision of himself as the center of the universe.”
If Brock were really coming clean now, why would he lie again about something that happened almost twenty years ago? Somewhere along the line, maybe he started to believe that he’d played a greater role in the coverage of the event that helped send him on a right-wing trajectory.
“I think this became a turning point for David retrospectively,” says Pete Danko, who worked with Brock at the Daily Cal and the Berkeley Journal. “It fits the story nicely of David’s twists and turns through the years.” Daily Cal and Berkeley Journal veteran Jack Robinson adds: “I think he was looking for a niche to sell himself. He was looking how to package himself in a way that was most attractive. I think it was pure opportunism on his part.”
Many of Brock’s old college pals view his recent conversion skeptically — just as they viewed his crossover to conservatism skeptically two decades ago. “As for us as students, it was widely accepted as a given that if you were ambitious, you embraced conservative thought because it would be far easier to get a job in Washington, climb the ladder, et cetera,” Kettmann recalls. “I do not remember who actually put it this way, but I recall telling Brock that an established intellectual or journalist had told me at that time, ‘If I were a young intellectual on the make now, I would have to embrace neoconservatism.’ “
Now, after being exiled by the right wing, Brock has found another niche: serial confessor and tattletale.
This story wasn’t going to be all about David Brock. At one point during this newspaper’s first interview with Brock — before any of the author’s latest lapses had been discovered — he was asked what kind of story he wrote after returning to the Daily Cal‘s offices from the notorious speech. “I think it was pretty straightforward and just described what happened,” Brock replied. “I think that I argued to give it a lot of play, that it was a big deal that this had happened.”
Then, while reviewing back issues of the Daily Cal, a reporter discovered Chris Norton’s byline underneath the story that Brock claimed changed his thinking about politics. Brock was interviewed a second time and asked to explain why the published record did not support his previous claim that he wrote the story.
“I think I did,” Brock said. “I’m sure I did. I remember talking to the editorial board conference about the whole thing.”
By then, Steve Kettmann had publicly disputed Brock’s description of the campus paper they launched two decades ago. So in the same interview, Brock was invited to answer Kettmann’s critique. He conceded that Kettmann “was certainly right that they were not self-identified conservatives in the way that I was.” But Brock stuck by his description of the Berkeley Journal as neoconservative. “There were definitely editorials run that were to the right of the position that the Daily Cal was taking on various issues. To me, you know, that’s neoconservative. … There was criticism of affirmative action, I remember that.”
In fact, the Journal never editorialized against affirmative action in any of its thirteen issues.
By the last of three interviews with Brock, the Express had talked to nineteen former Daily Cal staffers, including Chris Norton. More inaccuracies had come to light, such as Brock’s assertion that someone threw fake blood at the UN ambassador. Brock also got the venue wrong. Something was fishy. Was Brock even there?
“I went to the lecture as a reporter for the Daily Cal,” Brock insisted, suggesting that while he ultimately didn’t write the story, he still might have been assigned it. Brock said it was not unusual for two or more reporters to be assigned to a big campus event. But ex-Daily Cal university editor Michael Ciraolo says such tag-team efforts usually featured a shared byline, or a contributing credit at the end of the story for the reporter who did less work.
Then Brock posed a bizarre but revealing hypothetical: Even if he didn’t write the original account of the Kirkpatrick incident, it doesn’t take away from the thrust of the anecdote he tells in his book: “It was a pivotal moment for me in terms of my political thinking … quite aside from whether I wrote the story the next day.”
Given his historically strained relationship with the truth, Brock was remarkably blasé about having gotten major facts wrong in his book — including one so important to his own political identity.
Drew Digby, who butted heads with Brock when the two worked at the Daily Cal together, recalled his old rival as prone to error and embellishment even back then. Digby, now a history instructor at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, faxed a copy of an ancient release from the university press office correcting four errors in a 1983 Brock story about Berkeley physics professor Charles Townes. Digby argues that it should have been a straightforward, if dull, story about Townes accepting the National Medal of Science from President Reagan at a White House ceremony. Instead, Brock tried to jazz up the story by saying Townes designed nuclear weapons, which university officials disputed.
“At some level, Brock was a brilliant reporter … and a beautiful writer. But he could never leave it at that. He always had to make a story more, and he did it a lot.”
And that is the real David Brock.