The Mighty Wurlitzer

David Brock says he's sorry. His extended mea culpa -- Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex Conservative -- recounts the tale of a recovering right-winger. He describes his journey from unformed gay, vaguely libertarian Berkeley undergraduate; to closeted right-wing wordsmith; to hit man on Anita Hill and Bill Clinton; to remorseful independent. The trek is mired in bogs of sophomoric self-analysis and pop psychology. But along the way, Brock tours the political infrastructure that makes the right wing so formidable.

Brock exploded on the national scene with his assault of Hill in defense of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. He went on to spark "Troopergate," the sex-obsessed investigations of Clinton, with his story -- based on interviews with Arkansas state troopers -- of Clinton's sexual escapades as governor. That story led Paula Jones to join right-wing zealots by bringing her suit against Clinton. The rest is history. Brock now admits that Hill was probably right about Thomas, and that the troopers were surely embellishing their Clinton stories. And he regrets that he was part of the right-wing jihad against Clinton that so poisoned American politics.

The "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Clinton isn't news. What Brock adds is how it felt from the inside, along with delicious and venomous snapshots of various gems in the right-wing diadem. Richard Mellon Scaife, a right-wing financier, was a "gutter drunk." The Moonie-run Washington Times would routinely "Prudenize" news stories -- that is, slant them rightward on the diktat, or by the hand, of then-editor Wesley Pruden, whose father was "chaplain of the White Citizens Council of Arkansas, an adjunct to the Ku Klux Klan." R. Emmett Tyrrell of The American Spectator is a "public moralist" and a private woman-chasing, hard-drinking "fun-loving libertine," living high on the hog off money from the tax-exempt foundation that funds the magazine. William Bennett, America's self-nominated moralist, employs a stable of ghost writers to churn out his books.

More important is what Brock describes in passing: the institutions and arrangements that enable the right to drive the political debate. Here the contrast between the right-wing apparat and what exists on the left is stark.

Most formidable, of course, is the right's money machine. The imbalance between right and left is neither secret nor surprising. The Heritage Foundation, the most influential conservative think tank, runs on more than $25 million a year; the Economic Policy Institute, the premier think tank of progressives, gets by on less than $6 million annually.

The money on the right is also entirely ideological. Brock describes in passing the large fortunes and foundations -- Richard Mellon Scaife, Smith Richardson, Coors, Olin -- that pour millions into right-wing institutions, and guide corporate and Wall Street money to them as well. They set out to build an infrastructure on the right -- from scabrous college journals like The Dartmouth Review to cushy think tanks, journals of opinion, issue lobbies, and grass-roots operations. They make no pretense of funding nonpartisan research, or independent inquiry into public issues. They fund Heritage, Empower America, and other groups explicitly charged with propagating a right-wing agenda. Liberal foundations, by contrast, create think tanks like the New America Foundation, which markets itself as the voice of a new generation, and prides itself on its ideological muddle. (And unlike Reagan and both Bushes, who deliberately filled their staffs with up-and-coming right-wing operatives, the Clinton administration, wary of progressives with an ideological agenda, prided itself on its independence from ideology rather than on strengthening and credentialing a new generation of progressive leaders.)

The right is no less ego-laden and disputatious than progressives. But Brock reveals a remarkable array of efforts to coordinate activities. Most prominent is Grover Norquist's famous Wednesday meetings, which convene a who's who of conservative activists from 70 or so groups with grass-roots operations, from the NRA to the Christian Coalition, plus conservative congressional aides and writers who serve as movement propagandists. But there are also weekly Wednesday night gatherings of under-30 conservatives, called the Third Generation, at the Heritage. There are monthly Chinatown lunches of the Federalist Society, a network of right-wing judicial extremists. There's Tyrrell's Saturday Evening Club, a monthly confab of leading conservative writers and pundits at a French restaurant. And there's the annual national Conservative Political Action Committee meeting, where of hundreds of grass-roots activists from around the country are roused to battle and given their marching orders.

These gatherings, public and private, create consensus on message, support for issue campaigns, and coordinated attack and defense strategies in the ongoing political debate. It's stunning how little of this there is on the progressive side of town. And what does exist there tends to be issue-specific, rather than strategic and multi-issue in nature.

With all that ideological money, institutional heft, coordination, and credentialing, the right has perfected what the CIA used to call a "mighty Wurlitzer" -- a propaganda machine that can hone a fact or a lie, broadcast it, and have it echoed and recycled in Fox News commentary, in Washington Times news stories, in Wall Street Journal editorials, by myriad right-wing pundits, by Heritage seminars and briefing papers, and in congressional hearings and speeches. Privatization of Social Security, vouchers for school, Vince Foster's supposed murder, Hillary's secret sex life, you name it -- the right's mighty Wurlitzer can ensure that a message is broadcast across the county, echoed in national and local news, and reverberated in the speeches of respectable academics as well as rabid politicians.

With no factual basis, Brock trashes Hill -- " a little slutty and a little nutty" was the quote chosen for effect -- in The American Spectator, with a circulation of 30,000. Rush Limbaugh then reads from the article on his radio show, broadcast to two million people. Conservative pundits recycle the charges in columns and radio shows across the country. Brock turns the article into a book at the Free Press, which gets George Will to hype the book in a column. The Wall Street Journal devotes virtually an entire editorial page to excerpts. That ensures that the book is treated seriously in The New York Times Book Review and kindred publications. And so it goes. A biased, politically inspired hatchet job becomes a bestseller, clothed in the praise of conservative pundits.

There is nothing on the progressive side of town remotely competitive with this. There is no progressive TV network and few progressive pundits. Several good journals of opinion exist, but nothing with the reach of Rush Limbaugh, the Journal editorial page, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News network, or even The Washington Times.

The right-wing scandal machine can and regularly does go off tune. It was so fixated on getting Clinton that it didn't realize the rest of the country was fed up with the poisonous and hypocritical assaults on his private behavior, however disreputable.

Now, however, the right has discovered that its extreme ideological postures -- social Darwinism, market fundamentalism, government in the bedroom -- are out of step with the values and views of most Americans. So its politics have become even more poisonous and personal, a politics of scandal rather than ideas (a prime example of which is the demonization of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle). Its tactics are more brutish; its contempt for Americans -- and thus its willingness to lie and distort -- more pervasive. But until progressives develop the institutions and the arrangements needed simply to get into the debate -- to be able to present ideas, broadcast them, echo them, and defend them against the assault from the right -- our politics will be driven and degraded by the institutional forces Brock describes.