Politics & Policy

Rick Perlstein’s Descent into Intellectual Hackery

He has traveled from being a fair leftist to being a judgmental one.

Rick Perlstein made his reputation with his first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, detailing the rise of the Goldwater Right. In it, he made shreds of pundits who saw the Republican candidate’s stunning loss to President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 as proof of a permanent liberal consensus. Such was Perlstein’s fairness, evidenced by sympathetic portraits of conservatives and attacks on smug liberals, that he drew kudos from such neocons as William Kristol.

But something happened to Perlstein on his way to his next books. He became shrill and judgmental, and unable to find anything of value in his opponents. Moreover, he followed a shameful tradition of both the far Left and the far Right: When challenged, attempt to dodge the issue; edit out any challenging information; and argue that your opponents are worse.

These tendencies are on display in Perlstein’s latest article in The Nation. Readers are cued to the venom about to be sprayed by the original title (now changed), “Turncoats We Have Known.” In it, he unloads on those who made the journey from Left to Right, specifically Whittaker Chambers, David Horowitz, and Ron Radosh. Following in a Nation tradition, he refuses to entertain the idea that this journey was thoughtful; indeed, the very fact that there was a journey at all is condemnation enough. He eschews complexity and argues that these figures merely brought their revolutionary hatreds and prejudices and fantasies with them and became in the process the mirror image of their previous selves: Manicheans who still hate liberals.

But Perlstein ignores some of the reasons these journeys were made. This is wise, for those reasons don’t look too good for the Communist Left. Although former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers claimed that reading anti-Stalinist books is what turned him away from Communism, Sam Tanenhaus has shown that Chambers was equally, if not more, motivated to leave his cell because he feared for his life. Several of Chambers’s fellow spies had “disappeared” after being recalled to Moscow (he himself was also recalled, but refused to go). And Chambers’s finally going to the U.S. government with what he knew wasn’t solely because of his new anti-Red zeal, but also because of his anti-Nazi beliefs. Chambers informed, in limited doses, Adolf Berle, a member of the Roosevelt administration, about the spy ring because he feared that said ring was passing intelligence to the Nazis (which Stalin, in point of fact, had been doing for years).

Despite Perlstein’s attempts to categorize Chambers as a liberal-hating right-winger, Chambers shared certain views with the liberals. He was an opponent of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and counseled (in vain) William F. Buckley Jr. to have nothing to do with this “raven of disaster.” Nor did he eschew liberal characterizations  voiced also by Perlstein’s Nation  of McCarthy as an American Hitler. On economic issues he broke ranks with Buckley’s free-enterprise enthusiasts by castigating über-capitalist Ayn Rand (“dogmatism without appeal”) and embracing Keynesian economics, the theoretical underpinning of the New Deal (“There will be no peace for the islands of plenty until the continents of proliferating poverty have been lifted to something like the general material level of the islanders”). He refused, unlike many on the right, to regard Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev as the same kind of “monster” as Stalin, and he opposed the arms race: “The West keeps piling up weapon systems which lead of course to two bad alternatives: (1) to retreat wherever there is any danger of using the weapons; (2) the temptation to use them.” Chambers also opposed conservatives who advocated wiretapping and tampering with the mail of American Communists, characterizing these actions as “obscenities” that helped “pave the road that leads to 1984.” Thus, Chambers was hardly the Manichean right-winger portrayed by Perlstein. His positions on a number of issues could even be labeled liberal.

David Horowitz is given similar treatment, despite his resemblances to the real Chambers. Perlstein never mentions that Horowitz’s movement away from the hard Left, like Chambers’s, occurred because of a murder. In this case, it was the bookkeeper of the Black Panthers, Betty Van Patter, whose severely beaten body was found floating in San Francisco Bay. Horowitz believed the Black Panthers were behind her death, a position shared by his sometime political opponent Christopher Hitchens. But Horowitz, rather than howl with Manichean fury, lay low throughout the 1970s. When he resurfaced supporting Ronald Reagan’s candidacy in 1984, he was pelted by the same type of “good guys versus bad guys” categorizations by the Left that Perlstein accuses newly minted rightists of practicing. Sidney Blumenthal, a future enabler of the Clinton administration and dirt-peddler against Monica Lewinsky, accused Horowitz of abandoning his wife and children when he journeyed rightward. Hitchens attacked Horowitz’s activities as “sinister,” particularly his 1987 Second Thoughts Conference about the Sixties, which included as speakers several socialists and liberals. David Rieff, a Nation contributor, spat at Horowitz after Horowitz appeared on Booknotes to promote his book, Destructive Generation, an attack on the New Left.

Although accused by Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn of being a social conservative, Horowitz was hardly one. He was an agnostic who, in opposition to those on the right who regarded AIDS as “God’s curse for immoral behavior” (Horowitz’s words), compassionately sought to halt the spread of the disease and save the homosexual community. He advocated the “closing of the bathhouses; testing among those at risk; contact tracing to warn those in the infection’s path.” His proposals were not an expression of Bible-thumping fury but simply a rational response to the fact that 95 percent of the spread of the disease was due to promiscuity. This attitude was shared by Bill Kraus, a liberal and gay activist, though Kraus did not express it in public. Today Horowitz, Perlstein’s “rigid extremist,” supports gay marriage, and “transgender operations for those who need them.”

Another of Perlstein’s “turncoats,” and in many ways the chief target of his article, is historian Ron Radosh. Radosh is most famous — and notorious on the left — for writing a book, The Rosenberg File, confirming that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy. Perlstein, in a rare moment, rightly quotes the historian as charting his departure from the Left because of its attacks on the book. Perlstein challenges this portrayal of the Left, however, by proudly showing that Walter and Miriam Schneir defended Radosh’s conclusions in an issue of The Nation. (Radosh has asserted that they first qualified their defense of him by asserting that the intelligence Rosenberg gave to the Soviets was useless; later, they dropped their belief that he was an NKVD agent.) Perlstein accuses Radosh of editing out this information. But Perlstein doesn’t include the attacks on Radosh by other Nation writers. Long-time contributor Michael Wreszin drunkenly took a swing at Radosh over the book. E. L. Doctorow, a Nation regular and the author of a thinly veiled and complex “fictional treatment” of the case (The Book of Daniel), refused to appear on a television program with him.

Perlstein also neglects to mention the easily available evidence that Radosh was hardly a right-winger at the time The Rosenberg File was published. A year later, he was still calling himself “a democratic socialist,” and he voted for Mondale rather than Reagan. Against the labels of right-wing extremist and McCarthyite lodged against him by Perlstein, Radosh was in actuality in the forefront of those denouncing Diana West’s book American Betrayal, which argued that the New Deal and indeed the Allied war effort against the Nazis were Communist-directed. Of this work, for which Perlstein’s label of “right-wing” is a better fit than for the others mentioned above, Radosh wrote: “Ms. West writes without an understanding of historical context and lacks awareness of much of the scholarly literature on the subjects she writes about. Moreover, she disregards the findings of the sources she does rely on when they contradict her yellow journalism conspiracy theories. Consequently she arrives at judgment after judgment that is not only bizarre on its face, but also unwarranted by the evidence and refuted by the very authorities she draws on.”

In the light of the departures by Chambers, Horowitz, and Radosh from Perlstein’s characterization of the “Right” — on social, economic, and civil-liberties issues (the latter including McCarthyism) — it becomes apparent that Perlstein’s beef is with their anti-Communism. With this, he displays a cultural lag. His article could easily, with some adjustments in references, have been written in 1951, when the ultimate sin in the eyes of the Nation crowd was appearing to be anti-Communist (Nation contributor and Stalinist Dalton Trumbo feared being identified as one, and as such kept any qualms about the Soviet Union private). In that period, anyone who opposed Soviet totalitarianism — from the Left, Right, or Center — was tagged a McCarthyite. Distinctions between various varieties of anti-Communism (Vital Center liberals, firmly anti-Communist, were very critical of McCarthyism and of the National Review crowd) were not even entertained.

Perlstein should tread lightly in attacking those who take any kind of ideological journey. In his most recent book, Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, he displays the behaviors of an extremist. For example, he peddles the rumor — which he treats as fact — that Reagan attempted to join the American Communist Party in 1938 but was rejected for being “too dumb.” But this is a one-source deal; the rumor came from the hard Stalinist Howard Fast, and because of Fast’s notoriety for dishonesty, it was dismissed by many on the Left. Perlstein’s hatred of Reagan is so strong that he defends the totalitarian actions of Trumbo, in a meeting of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of Arts, Sciences and Professions, to block a general vote on an anti-Communist resolution. Perlstein attacks the American POWs held in the Hanoi Hilton, such as John McCain, for resisting their wardens, and he argues that those who didn’t fight back were treated much more humanely — an echo of Jane Fonda’s assertion, now 40 some years old. When Perlstein does consider that those asking-for-it POWS were tortured, he asserts that it was nothing compared with how the South Vietnamese treated their prisoners.

Perlstein, if one is to assume that his first, reasonably objective book on Goldwater was an expression of his views at the time, has made his own journey. Once someone who, Orwell-like, was harder on his own side, he has now abandoned any criticism of the Nation Left, and has doctored history, ignored competing information, and blanket-generalized his portrayal of those who have made the journey away from Communism.

But most embarrassing to Perlstein and his Nation crowd is the distance of his journey from fair leftist to judgmental one. Horowitz and Radosh and Chambers moved from Communism to a variety of styles of anti-Communism. No matter the distance, their journeys were well thought out and even painful. Perlstein’s journey was in reality merely a baby-step, and its shortness doesn’t look good for the Left he represents.

— Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Va.

 

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