In the eight years of Reagan, Elliott Abrams served in the State Department. In the eight years of George W. Bush, he served in the White House. He was a national-security aide, and had a few different titles. Basically, he was “the White House Middle East guy,” as he writes. He dealt with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, in particular. And he has now written a memoir of that experience, Tested by Zion.
Readers of this magazine know Abrams, not only for his public service, but because he has long contributed to these pages, and to our website.
Even as his memoir is appearing, a book about him, or partially about him, is appearing: Little Red: Three Passionate Lives through the Sixties and Beyond, by Dina Hampton. “Little Red” refers to the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, one institution, despite the two-part name. This is a radical school in Manhattan. Hampton is an alumna of the school, and she writes about three other alums, who have lived those “passionate lives”: Angela Davis, the famous Communist; Tom Hurwitz, the less famous New Left figure; and Abrams. Her book reminds me a little of Gang of Five, a 2002 book by Nina J. Easton that chronicled five conservatives, including William Kristol and Grover Norquist.
I will mention some other “Little Redders” of note: Mary Travers, of Peter Paul & Mary; the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the atomic spies; and Robert De Niro. Hampton writes that De Niro’s parents “were both well-regarded Greenwich Village artists whose bohemian credentials were equal to those of any of the school’s parents.” Some future conservatives came out of Little Red, in addition to Abrams. These include Abigail Thernstrom and Ronald Radosh. In her Prologue, Hampton refers to Radosh as an “anti-communist ideologue.” I wanted to stop reading right there — because anyone who would describe Radosh as an ideologue is probably not worth the time. In leaving the Left, Radosh left ideology, certainly of a rigid kind. I persevered in the book, however, to find as soon as page 7 that Hampton was at it again: describing Radosh as a “conservative ideologue.” At least she’s committed.
Her sympathies are consistently on the left. Unlike Radosh, Thernstrom, and Abrams, she did not rebel, evidently. She is a true-blue Little Redder. She groups Communists with “progressives.” (Some of us think of them more as “destructives.”) Angela Davis can be expected to wear a white hat, Elliott Abrams a black one. But you can learn interesting things from Hampton, including about Abrams. And she has bursts of fairness — though she always takes care to reestablish her left-wing street cred (or so it seems to me).
Abrams was a dissenter at Little Red, a nonconformist. There used to be a bumper sticker on the left: “Question Authority.” Abrams did. He saw that the library carried such periodicals as I. F. Stone’s Weekly and The Nation. “Why, he asked Isabel Suhl, the sweet-faced librarian, could the school not achieve some balance in the publications it displayed? Why not stock a magazine like The National Review?” (People have been putting a The in front of our name for eons.) Abrams was for diversity before it was cool. And though most of the students “saw Castro as a romantic revolutionary who was bringing economic and social justice to his people,” Abrams “viewed him as just another standard-issue Communist dictator.” That’s our boy: clear-eyed even then.
He was a liberal, not a leftist, and later went to work for two Democratic senators, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Then, like so many others of his mind and temper, he entered the Reagan orbit.
I found that I could usually filter out left-wing bias to learn and profit from Hampton — even enjoy her. But sometimes it was very hard. For instance, she says that Abrams learned from Norman Podhoretz, the conservative intellectual leader, and Abrams’s father-in-law, that “it was not a problem to dissemble, even to lie.” Oddly enough, that is a characteristic of the Left — as many supporters of the Rosenbergs well knew.