Seven years ago, after a decade of working at a high level in conservative politics and media, I made a conscious decision to break ranks — both privately, to try to reset my own moral compass, and publicly, to try to reset a distorted record, for I felt a responsibility to correct the history books before it was too late.
Oddly enough, I had come to this personal and professional crossroads having made a name for myself in the political media by harnessing the well-financed and well-organized machinery of the conservative movement to attack those who had the courage to try to stand up to it. It was the early 1990s, and following the Republican party line, I had chosen sides in the raging culture war, taking on Anita Hill and the Clintons in ways that I’d come to realize were false and wrong.
The real issue at the heart of this unfolding realization was not political or partisan, although it inevitably played out in a right-left context. The issue was one of honesty and integrity. People who had encouraged me to defend Clarence Thomas, it turned out, didn’t even believe the bill of goods they had sold me. And when one of the lawyers working for Paula Jones, whose sexual-harassment lawsuit I had triggered with a salacious article, told me he didn’t believe his own client — it was all just politics — I began to understand that my celebrated role as a right-wing journalistic hit man was the very opposite of speaking truth to power. Once I admitted this to myself, I had to stop.
But I had to do more than stop. Making a conscious decision to separate myself from the destructive politics I was involved in meant that I couldn’t remain silent. My own remorse was a simmering catalyst for going public and setting the record straight. Yet coming clean would not be easy; it meant exposing not only the inner operations of the world I had worked in and lived in for years but also, in no uncertain terms, my own zealous and increasingly lucrative participation in it.
At the end of the day, there would be no passing off responsibility to others. And there would be the inevitable attacks on my motives and credibility that accompany almost every act of whistle-blowing. As we’ve seen more recently with Sherron Watkins of Enron and Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism official, there is no glory in refusing to stay silent, but there can be some personal honor.
In business, in politics, in journalism, in the military — in any organization large or small — there seem to be few incentives to stand on principle today. Doing so, speaking up for what I believed was right, I learned, can be a profoundly isolating experience, which may be why, whether at Abu Ghraib or in the spate of corporate scandals, leaders try to pass the buck rather than accept responsibility for their actions and those of their subordinates. The act of thrusting oneself into a kind of professional purgatory can feel like self-immolation.
In such moments, one searches for examples of others who seem to have traveled a similar path. In my case, I kept coming back to an indelible image of Lee Atwater, the Republican pit-bull strategist who made telephone calls from his deathbed apologizing to those he had slandered. Atwater had the courage to spend his twilight hours acknowledging his misdeeds, known and unknown. And while he didn’t have to live with the consequences of admitting his sins, Atwater’s declarations of guilt may have been and may continue to be an inspiration to those who realize that making a clean breast is, in the end, the only path to choose.
I would never say that I am courageous. Courage, I now see, is a journey involving self-doubt and self-examination, with the end never in sight. Since I decided to stay in Washington as an outspoken critic of the political Right, what I did is popularly understood as “switching sides,” but it feels more complicated than that. As opposed to the years of self-righteousness and ideological certainty, the possibility that I may be wrong is now with me all the time, when I have the courage to think about it.
David Brock, author of Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, is the founder and president of Media Matters for America, a new progressive media-research center in Washington, DC.