THE MAKING OF A CONSERVATIVE
Bobby Kennedy was my first political hero; his legend helped shape my early social conscience. Before heading off to college, I looked forward to serving as an intern at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., which was dedicated to continuing RFK's work. The year was 1980, and the country was at an ideological crossroads in the presidential election between Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who had defeated Senator Edward Kennedy in a bitterly contested primary battle, and Carter's conservative challenger, Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California. In Washington, I worked out of a charming old town house with polished pinewood floors for a man named David Hackett, a close friend of Bobby Kennedy's who had worked in the Kennedy Justice Department in the 1960s. A man in his late fifties, with a lean, athletic build and the endearing air of an absentminded professor, Hackett possessed both the brimming idealism of the Kennedy clan and the Kennedy swagger. He zoomed into work each day in a plum-colored Fiat Spider.
Working comfortably with a group of fellow aspiring journalists and liberal public policy advocates from around the country, I was assigned to one of the foundation's projects, the Student Press Service, a youth-run newswire that dispatched reports from the nation's capital on federal policy dealing with young people--financial aid, child welfare, bilingual education, youth employment, national service--to subscribing high school and college newspapers. I had been living in Washington only a few months when I cast my first vote, for Jimmy Carter, who lost his bid for reelection. With the Reagan administration now in power, the mood at the foundation turned grim. Many of the government programs we advocated were in peril; the Student Press Service reported sympathetically on Democratic efforts to save them. "Budget Plans May Hurt School Desegregation Efforts," read one headline. "Voting Act Extension Causes Controversy," warned another. The cover story for a press service report in late April 1981 was an exposé by me on the Ku Klux Klan Youth Corps--a "segregated Boy Scouts" that was conducting "paramilitary youth camps" throughout the South and West in the early months of the Reagan era. Working the phones and tapping out copy, we were following a liberal political line, which conformed to a view of journalism I had come to in high school, after reading Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, a muckraking exposé on the abysmal working conditions in Chicago's meat-packing industry. Journalism was a forum to agitate for social justice.
I took these concerns with me to Berkeley, California, where I enrolled as a freshman in the fall of 1981. I had chosen the University of California at Berkeley specifically because of its long tradition of liberal political activism, beginning with the famed Free Speech Movement of 1964 and culminating in protests against the war in Vietnam in the early 1970s. Yet my first year on the Berkeley campus was not at all what I had anticipated. Rather than a liberal bastion of intellectual tolerance and academic freedom, the campus was--though the phrase hadn't yet been coined--politically correct, sometimes stiflingly so. Many on the faculty, having come of age in the 1960s, adhered to a doctrinaire leftism to which I had never been exposed. Though it is a blunt overgeneralization, the sociology department seemed to me to be filled with socialists, the philosophy department with devotees of Michel Foucault's relativistic deconstructionism. History tended to be taught from the perspective of New Left revisionists, who blamed the Cold War on the United States. In English literature, the Western canon, composed of "dead white European males," was out of fashion.
The politically correct culture was even more ubiquitous in the surrounding left-wing city of Berkeley--some called it Berzerkeley--where many of the sandal-clad 1960s campus activists had settled and were now running fiefdoms like the Rent Control Board. The evils of Reagan's anti-Communist policies in Central America, the campaign to establish a Third World College on campus--these were the subjects of endless rants over lattes at Café Roma. As the arms race with the Soviet Union escalated under Reagan, the nuclear weapons labs run by the university in Livermore and Los Alamos were a rallying point for sometimes-violent student protests. Researchers there were branded "fascists." I decorated my dorm room with postcards portraying the Reagans as victims of a nuclear holocaust, but something felt wrong.
In my sophomore year, as a cub reporter for the Daily Californian, the student-run newspaper that was widely read both on the sprawling Berkeley campus and in the city, one of the first assignments that I drew, quite by chance, was to cover a campus speech by Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's United Nations ambassador and an architect of his hard-line anti-Communist policies in El Salvador and Nicaragua, which countenanced human rights violations throughout the region by our anti-Communist allies. An acerbic, schoolmarmish neoconservative Democrat and former university professor, Kirkpatrick had been invited to deliver the Jefferson Lectures, a distinguished annual series on the history of American political values. As with nearly every campus event in Berkeley, a protest was announced in leaflets that had been stapled onto bulletin boards in the main plaza.
When I arrived at the auditorium at the appointed hour, the expected conga line of sign-holding protesters had not materialized. Berkeley's lecture halls were cavernous, and on this warm day in early fall Dwinelle Hall was filled to capacity. I walked into the hushed room and took a seat up front near the platform. Opening my reporter's notebook, I was set to jot down the details of what I expected to be a rather dry academic address. Kirkpatrick was introduced by the mild-mannered Berkeley law school dean, and she approached the podium with a clutch of papers in a hand that looked more like a bird's claw. No sooner had she begun speaking than several dozen protesters, clad in black sheets with white skeletons painted on them, bolted from their seats, repeatedly shouting, "U.S. Out of El Salvador," and "Forty Thousand Dead," a reference to political assassinations by death squads linked to the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military junta. Kirkpatrick stopped speaking, waiting patiently for the din to die down; but as soon as she uttered another word, the chanting commenced, and it grew louder and louder with each recitation. As an exasperated Kirkpatrick pivoted toward the law school dean for assistance, a protester leaped from his seat just offstage and splashed simulated blood on the podium. After several more attempts to be heard with no help from the hapless dean, Kirkpatrick curled her lip, turned on her heels, and surrendered to the mob.
The scene shook me deeply: 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. For the rest of the academic year, a controversy raged in the faculty senate and within the board of regents, where several of former Governor Reagan's appointees still sat, over whether the campus administration should have done more to secure Kirkpatrick's ability to speak freely. The few outspoken conservatives on the faculty, and the Reagan regents, raised their voices in support of Kirkpatrick's free speech rights. The liberals seemed to me to be defending censorship.
Later that year, I declared a major in history with an emphasis on European and American diplomacy. Repelled by the Berkeley left, especially in the months following the Kirkpatrick incident, I gravitated toward the few conservatives on the faculty who had taken up the cudgels against the anti-Kirkpatrick protesters. Through my studies, including seminars with Walter McDougall, a young, mustachioed foreign policy hawk and occasional contributor to conservative intellectual William F. Buckley's National Review, I formed some early ideas about the need for vigilant American defense policies, and under his tutelage I developed a strong anti-Communist viewpoint.
Outside the classroom, my political education consisted of devouring copies of Norman Podhoretz's Commentary, the leading monthly magazine of the ex-liberals known as neoconservatives. I stumbled upon an issue of Commentary on a library reading rack and charged off into the stacks of Moffitt Library, where I read back issues for days. Like Podhoretz's famous piece "The Present Danger," Commentary specialized in alarming essays on the Soviet threat, some of them by Kirkpatrick herself. The intellectual vigor and fiery polemics appealed to me more than the foppish, Anglophilic bent of National Review or the American Spectator, the other leading conservative magazines of the day. Commentary seemed to speak to everything I was learning in class at that young age--the need for a strong military was so plain, if you studied history--and also to everything that troubled me about Berkeley's political extremism. I couldn't get enough.
I loved writing for the Daily Cal, and I thrived there as a reporter, fitting in easily with the brainy newspaper crowd. In my junior year, I was elected by the staff to a top-level news-editing post. I won election because I had worked hard breaking stories, including a series of investigative articles proving that a university vice president had misappropriated university resources to benefit a private company he ran on the side. The articles forced his resignation. I was a respected reporter on the staff, and as an aspiring young journalist exposing corruption, I was gratified to win my first scalp.
With my new post came a seat on the paper's editorial board and the opportunity to write signed op-ed columns. For some weeks, the editorial page editor had been after me to contribute a column for the paper's international opinion page. The October 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, where American forces overthrew a Marxist-leaning regime, seemed like an obvious chance to hone my polemical skills. Inspired by a McDougall seminar on "just war" theory, and a bracing op-ed in the New York Times by right-wing columnist William Safire, I sat in Café Roma and scribbled out in longhand a ringing endorsement of the "liberation" of Grenada from the Soviet sphere of influence that steamrolled over legitimate arguments against the invasion. To me, the column was an academic exercise; I hadn't realized that it would be received in Berkeley as a political thunderclap. While I wasn't knowingly playing the part of provocateur, when the column was published on a Monday morning, all hell broke loose.
By the early 1980s, most of the thirty-thousand-plus Berkeley student body had no interest in carrying on the scruffy activist traditions of the 1960s. They were tall and blond and from places like Orange County and had keg parties at their frats. Or they were the studious children of immigrants, devoted to their engineering books. While most students seemed unconcerned with events in Grenada, the military operation was deeply unpopular with Berkeley's small but very vocal population of activists, who saw it as an example of rapacious American imperialism and had taken to the streets with flag-burning protests. My column stoked the flames of the local fires, and I rather unintentionally became the focus for the protesters' rage.
The main opposition to my column came from some lefty faculty members, like Charlie Schultze, the award-winning chemist who was always protesting at the Livermore weapons lab, and the city of Berkeley's political establishment--Mayor Gus Newport, an avowed socialist, and liberal Democratic Congressman Ron Dellums, whose staff had close relations with Maurice Bishop's ousted Grenadan regime. There was opposition, too, within the Daily Cal, an off-campus cooperative run independently of the university, led by the general manager, Marty Rabkin, one of those '60s types who had come to Berkeley and never left. "How could you?" an indignant Marty said to me in his office as we watched the desecration of the American flag in the streets below.
How could I? I wasn't the one burning the flag. Though critics, including Rabkin, were outraged by what they saw as the grave injustices of U.S. foreign policy in Grenada, I didn't see their point of view, just as I had been unable to credit the position of the anti-Kirkpatrick demonstrators, who believed that her policies condoned murder. All I understood was that I was being targeted in a campaign by the left to recall me from my post as editor for speaking my mind. I remember rushing by, feeling vulnerable and turning my face away in embarrassment, as huge rolls of brown paper petitions against me were unfurled on Sproul Plaza.
To me, liberals were flatly and unapologetically advocating censorship of opinions they considered illegitimate and immoral, a rerun of the Kirkpatrick incident. The argument went: An editor at a newspaper with a 150-year progressive tradition should not be allowed to publish such obscene views. I was branded a warmonger, a fascist, and worse. I was determined to stand my ground and fight, all the more so because, as I saw it, the fight was not about Grenada, but about the First Amendment. Viewing it this way, as a moral rather than an ideological struggle, I became as self-righteous and rigid as my critics, who in my eyes were not just wrong but un-American.
I survived the threatened recall only on a technicality. The bylaws governing the cooperative had no provision for removing editors, and they could be amended only at the end of the academic year when new editors were elected. Continuing on as editor, I accepted and even embraced the controversy I incited, willfully doing everything I could to enhance my outsider status. I baited my liberal adversaries, publishing a diatribe against a board of regents proposal to strengthen affirmative action programs. Meanwhile, every editorial decision I made was seen by many on the staff as motivated by an evil right-wing plot. Being an outspoken conservative in Berkeley got me noticed, which I relished. I imagined myself as David against the liberal Goliath.
By the end of my junior year, I had become both a hated--and, I'm sorry to say, something of a hateful--figure in the newsroom. I demonized my enemies on the staff, led by a bubbly blond from Pasadena and a brooding Hispanic fellow, both of whom I openly and wrongly scorned as witless affirmative action hires. I was also caught in an embarrassing lie. A small cadre of loyalists had stuck by me through the Grenada controversy. As a way of building up my power base, when a problem arose in a story one of them had written after it was published, I sought to tarnish the reputation of one of my foes, who had edited the piece. I told the editor in chief that the vice chancellor had called to complain about the story. She immediately called the university official and found out the truth: He hadn't called. When the editor confronted me about the lie, I froze, speechless, and walked away. Soon enough, everyone in the newsroom knew I had lied. Though my poor cadre knew about my lie and voted for me anyway, I lost overwhelmingly in my campaign to be elected editor in chief. For good measure, the bylaws were amended to provide for the removal of editors on a majority vote of the staff: the Brock Amendment.
Though my discomfort with the extremist elements in Berkeley was understandable and in some ways valid, it was distorted by an emotional overreaction to the Grenada controversy. Like most political arguments in college, the episode had a distinctly personal edge. Rather than settling in some reasonable middle ground between left and right, my feelings of persecution caused me to swing to the right. To hold myself together during the campaign to recall me, I dug in my heels, assumed a warlike posture, and closed my mind and my heart to all things left and liberal for good. Moreover, I now viewed politics as a knife fight, my critics as blood enemies. My still-nascent ideological commitments acquired a vengeful overlay: I'll get them.
At the same time, I was able to find comfort--a sense of belonging and a measure of stature--in the sectarian right-wing Berkeley campus underground that rose up to defend and embrace me. In addition to historian Walter McDougall, there was the witty political scientist Paul Seabury, whose lectures were sometimes protested because he was a member of Reagan's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. The bald, bespectacled Seabury was a smoker, and after class I would sit with him as he indulged himself and told me of his political journey from left to right, in reaction to the radical anti-Americanism and what he called "the fascistic style" of the 1960s left. I also became a research assistant to Aaron Wildavsky, a renowned neoconservative social theorist, on his book The Beleaguered Presidency, in which he argued that the Democrats were becoming "a party that delegitimized the nation's second-largest constituency--white, working, Christian males." I romanticized these faculty conservatives as stalwart defenders of constitutional protections, civility, and tolerance, never once wondering if they might have jumped into the fray to defend Jeane Kirkpatrick and me for ideological reasons. With McDougall, Seabury, and Wildavsky taking me under their wings, happy to have a bright new recruit with a sharp pen in the cause, I settled comfortably into conservatism.
I fell easily under the spell of my surrogate father figures, as though anyone who gave me attention could dictate my beliefs. From them I found the moral and ideological clarity, the critical affirmation and acceptance, and the firm sense of who I was that my fragile psyche yearned for. I slapped the label of the entire conservative movement on my lapel, gave it authority over my being, without even understanding what it meant. Stumbling into a fight over Grenada at the age of twenty, I came out of it playing the role of right-wing ideologue--right-wing robot, really--to the hilt. I jumped on a conservative trajectory that would cause me to live my life along a certain but wrong course for the next fifteen years.
From the Hardcover edition.