RADICAL SON A Journey Through Our Times By David Horowitz Free Press. 468 pp. $27.50 LUCKY READERS will recall a poem by Ogden Nash entitled "The Seven Spiritual Ages of Mrs. Marmaduke Moore." It concerns a woman who in the course of her life passes from Methodism to Episcopalianism to "the sweet Bahai and Bahai" to "the gospel according to St. Freud" to Yogi to the Oxford Group, and it ends with the splendid lines: "When a lady's erotic life is vexed/ God knows what God is coming next." Substitute filial relations for erotic life and ideology for religion, and you have the case of David Horowitz, who has careened from one radical politics to another, espousing each with a fierce anger that barely disguises the true purpose of his hegira: a reconciliation with, if not a triumph over, his late father. His story, as he tells it in this overlong and surpassingly humorless autobiography, is meant to describe a "generational odyssey" from the leftist politics of his parents to the rightist ideology now in fashion in certain intellectual circles. What it really describes, though, is a self-administered therapeutic process that does not, on the evidence presented here, appear to have worked. In the course of his nearly six decades Horowitz has managed to become known for a number of things. In the 1960s he was one of the founding ideologues of the New Left. He was an editor of Ramparts, the leftist magazine that stirred a mild amount of trouble before staggering to its self-administered demise. With his colleague from that magazine, Peter Collier, he somewhat improbably became coauthor of bestselling family histories, one about the Rockefellers and a second about the Kennedys; a third, about the Fords, did not fare quite so well. Then in the mid-1980s he achieved a degree of eclat by renouncing his old loyalties and racing, with somewhat unseemly ardor, into the camp of the enemy. Since then he has been a chief spokesman for those who, for whatever reason, have turned their backs on the '60s and discovered the comforts of middle-aged conservatism. It is not exactly an unfamiliar story, though Horowitz tends to treat it as one. The idealism and zeal of youth usually fade in the face of life's vicissitudes, leaving us to value what seems to have permanence and to distrust pies in the sky. Many of us have made such passages and have managed to do so without turning the process into a federal case, if not a cosmic eruption. But this -- again, on the evidence presented by the man himself -- would not be in character for Horowitz. When he was 17 he dated a girl who does not seem to have found the event enthralling, for she told him, "You don't live an experience, because you're too busy analyzing it." Nothing that has happened in his life seems to have escaped this insatiable urge for explanation, so it stands to reason that something so traumatic as an ideological about-face would call for more than 400 pages of dissection. But what it all boils down to is one word: "Daddy!" Horowitz is the son of a mother "who spoiled me" and a father who offered neither praise nor love in amounts sufficient for his hungry, needy son. At this point you are quite entitled to ask: Just how many hackneyed old plots does this story have, anyway? But it's not hackneyed if you've lived through it; Horowitz managed to make it the major enterprise of his life. His parents were Jews of the Old Left, reared on the socialist and communist passions of the '30s, loyal to them long after their colossal faults had been exposed. Growing up among Gentiles in suburban Long Island, David Horowitz was handed a double dose of exclusion: He was an outsider both because of his religion and because of his parents' politics. Though he does not seem to have taken his Judaism especially seriously, he latched on to leftist politics as a matter of inheritance and, apparently, as a way of demonstrating his bona fides to his father. Horowitz's account of this central relationship would be heartbreaking were it not so unintentionally hilarious. Given evidence of what even he can recognize as "paternal blessings," he manages almost immediately to reclaim "my original feelings of rejection." In a moment of self-awareness he concludes that "I had become my father" and immediately adds: "The idea was unnerving." Into his thirties he was "still trying to connect with my father" and to "test the space between us." He frets and fumes: "What did he think of me? What did I want from him? . . . I wanted a paternal blessing. I wanted him to acknowledge the distance his son had traveled." But rejection, real or fancied, suits his psyche better, so even when his father lies in his coffin, Horowitz finds his touch "cold, repellent . . . like a final rebuff, even though I knew it was only death that was rejecting me." ONE REJECTION deserves another, so off Horowitz marched into the armies of anathema. He doesn't say quite so much himself, but it is clear enough that since Horowitz couldn't win his father's praise in the form he desired, he would reject not merely the father but his politics as well. Though there certainly were legitimate reasons to abandon the New Left and sign up with the neocons -- Horowitz explores many of them, often with clarity and insight -- this really does not seem to have been what happened. He "had made a decision," he writes, "to speak from the right in the voice of the New Left -- outraged, aggressive, morally certain," and in so doing he lets the secret loose: It is the anger, not the ideology, that matters. The real pity of all this is that Horowitz never manages to persuade us that the anger has any authentic source. If his father was diffident, uneasy with emotions and incapable of giving them free expression, he was scarcely the first man to have labored under these limitations. If anything, the stories Horowitz tells about his father and the extracts he offers from his father's letters suggest that Phil Horowitz tried hard, in his fashion, to be a loving, supportive father to his only son. The problem seems to have been that, for whatever reason, David Horowitz wasn't willing or able to settle for the father whom fate gave him. He wanted someone else, and when that wish wasn't granted, he spent much of the rest of his life exacting retribution. That, to this reader at least, is the real story of Radical Son.
Jonathan Yardley's Internet address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAPTION: David Horowitz in 1973 (right) holding a press conference