The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative

By David Brock

Crown. 336 pp. $25.95

Say what you want about David Brock, but he sure knows his clothes. In his new memoir, Blinded by the Right, the now flagrantly repentant right-wing attack dog recalls that when he first worked at the Washington Times, his "impeccably tailored" boss, Arnaud de Borchgrave, complimented his "pale-blue spread-collar shirt" from Neiman-Marcus with these words: "Young man, who is your shirtmaker?" One Republican mover and shaker, Brock reveals, wore a "navy blue suit and Herme{grv}s tie," while John Fund of the Wall Street Journal went around in "brown double-knit suits" and Matt Drudge "often was clad in an ill-fitting seersucker suit and straw fedora." More up Brock's line, obviously, were the ensembles favored by R. Emmett Tyrrell, his editor at the American Spectator, whose taste ran to "Savile Row suits and Turnbull & Asser shirts and ties." Comments Brock: "I found myself wanting the material comforts he had."

It didn't take long before he got them. His bestselling 1993 book, The Real Anita Hill, and his American Spectator Troopergate stories, which led to the Lewinsky scandals, made the young journalist not only a movement hero but also a rich man. (Friends called his D.C. townhouse "the house that Anita Hill built.") So valuable was he to his conservative allies that when threats of outing forced him to acknowledge his homosexuality, even the most abhorrent gay-bashers among them kept inviting him to parties. (Lucky him.)

His biggest triumph of all was the million-dollar advance he got for The Seduction of Hillary Rodham. Yet he couldn't bring himself to write the vicious slam his editors expected. He looked for dirt, he says, but found little. What's more, he liked the lady: "In finding Hillary Clinton's humanity, I was beginning to find my own." When the book appeared in 1996, the right turned on him. Party invitations dried up. The next year, he got a splashy Esquire article, "Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man," out of his fall from grace; later, the same magazine ran an "open letter" in which he apologized to Clinton for Troopergate. (Clinton accepted.)

Now, in Blinded by the Right, Brock goes whole hog, retracting pretty much the entire oeuvre on which he made his rep. He admits he knowingly printed lies. He apologizes to Anita Hill. And he claims that deep down he was, all along, not a conservative but a classical liberal.

Why, then, did he ever become a "right-wing hit man" -- and remain one even after the fall of Soviet communism, when the right turned its ire on gays? He offers many explanations. In attacking the left, he was only expressing his own gay self-hatred. He was courting his reactionary father's -- and colleagues' -- approval. ("The sad reality," he tells us, "is that I was trying to fill my unmet, private emotional needs through my professional life.") Also, his parents had raised him to be an unreflective camp follower -- and besides, he "didn't have the ability, or temperament, or patience" to write intellectual-type essays "for highbrow publications like Commentary." And then, of course, there were those Savile Row suits.

And oh, the parties! He still seems to cherish the memory of those fabulous movement soire{acute}es, about which he quotes himself being quoted in National Review: "Losers don't have good parties. Part of what energizes the Washington social scene is being in power."

Now, however, he's eager to pillory himself. The old David Brock, he asserts, was "a mad dog, an emotional monster," "a whore for the cash," "unbalanced," "a Jew in Hitler's army," "a witting cog in the Republican sleaze machine." "I didn't know," he acknowledges, "what good reporting was." 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.

He insists he's learned compassion. Yet alternating with these hyperbolic mea culpas are reams of familiar-sounding trash talk. Notorious for calling Anita Hill "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," Brock now serves up equally tacky putdowns of dozens of ex-friends, including "right-wing fag hags" Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Arianna Huffington. Berating himelf for having smeared liberals with ideologically irrelevant gossip, some of it secondhand and unconfirmed, he now does exactly the same thing to conservatives. (For good measure, he also disses one left-winger, Christopher Hitchens, whom he describes, none too charitably, as "misshapen, unkempt, and seemingly unshowered.") It's neither a pretty nor a dignified performance.

Brock says he's traded "party-line polemics" for "independent thinking." Yet at the same time he purports to have reclaimed his boyhood hero-worship of RFK (he refers, without a hint of irony, to "the brimming idealism of the Kennedy clan"). Can it be that he's put "all those Bobs -- Bork, Tyrrell, Dornan, Bartley, Barr" behind him only to embrace the legend of Bobby?

And if he has, is he sincere about it? "I lost my soul," he laments; now, he maintains, he's found his conscience. One thing's for sure: he's found a new -- and well-dressed -- social circle. Toward book's end, born-again Brock attends "the annual black-tie dinner" of a gay-rights lobbying group, where he basks in the glow of "a graceful poem by Maya Angelou, and a heartfelt speech by Vice President Al Gore." Remembering that exactly four years earlier he'd been at a Christian Coalition conference, he declares that he feels "happy, finally, to be in the right place, both morally and emotionally."

Yet given Brock's unsavory record, his continued below-the-belt attacks and his obvious talent for turning contrition into a career move, it's fair to ask: Where is he really, morally and emotionally? We know where he is geographically: He's still living in "the house that Anita Hill built." His professions of remorse may well be sincere; I'll believe them for sure the day he hands Ms. Hill the keys to the house. *

Bruce Bawer is the author of "A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society" and "Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity."