A Radical Transformation

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2001; Page C01

Former '60s Agitator David Horowitz Has Changed His Politics,
But Not His Tone


BERKELEY, Calif. — The student warriors have pants that pool about their feet and tattoos that crawl around their biceps, and more piercings than a Dinka chieftain. They're gathered to hear a former high priest of the 1960s left.

"I marched for civil rights not only before you were born," the speaker begins, "but before many of your parents were born . . ."

The audience shifts, restless.

"Thirty years ago I contributed to the atmosphere here" – he pauses; his eyes dance – "and I'm appalled! This is a place of intellectual terror! Leftists have contempt for America."

So perfect, this David Horowitz moment, the blend of agitprop and indignation and intellectual provocation. A week before, the 62-year-old Marxist turned conservative Republican firebrand called the Berkeley student newspaper and took out an advertisement to advance his new cause: "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too."

It ran, and a student "coalition of color" confiscated the newspapers and marched into the Daily Californian office and demanded that the editor apologize for running the ad. Which, they insisted, was hurtful, and racist, and oppressive.

Horowitz's trap was so well laid that its jaws slapped shut before the students realized what had happened. Soon newspapers and liberal writers and civil libertarians across the country were slamming the radicals for political correctness run amok.

"Censorship is the weapon of the impotent." Horowitz is a short cork of tightly wound energy, and his voice trips a bit as he paces the well of the Berkeley auditorium. He's flanked by two broad-shouldered bodyguards. "Apparently on this campus some ideas are too dangerous for people to hear.

"It's pathetic."

The left is authoritarian, the academy peopled with cowards, the students sheep in service of socialist impulses. Horowitz finishes, and a gentleman with a large Afro who describes himself as "a longtime former university employee" stands atop a chair.

"You, sir, are a racist and a bigot."

Horowitz frowns. "If this university weren't such an intellectual monolith you would realize how stupid this sounds."

"You're a bigot."

"And you're stupid."

Boos keen and Horowitz slides out a side door. But not before he smiles a provocateur's smile.

"I've always had dangerous ideas. It's just that now different people find them dangerous."

Long Strange Trip

The transmigration from left to right, the long march from Marx and Lenin to Adam Smith and the joys of bourgeois democracy, is a road well traveled in American politics and culture. The Great Depression of the 1930s sent thousands of Americans into the arms of the communists; revelations of Stalinist depredations sent many back into the embrace of anti-communism.

The '60s and the Vietnam War produced another defector class. When Weathermen leader Bernardine Dohrn offered a pitchfork salute to Charles Manson in 1970, and some bomb-mixing radicals managed to blow up their own Greenwich Village town house, more than a few comrades fled the hills of the far left.

"As happens with many sensible people, when they start decapitating people in the name of the revolution, reality settles in," says Hilton Kramer, a conservative critic of art and culture. "David's political change of heart is one of the most familiar scenarios in the 20th century."

Few migrated so far and so conspicuously. Horowitz had genuine lefist bona fides: He edited Ramparts, the quintessential '60s radical mag. He wrote respected tomes on Marxism and revolution and advised Black Panther leader Huey Newton.

Reel forward 30 years:

Horowitz runs Frontpage Magazine, a conservative "shin-kicking" Web publication (www.frontpagemag.com). He has the ear of Bush adviser Karl Rove and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. And his most recent book, "The Art of Political War," is a how-to guide for beating the Democratic Party senseless.

His rhetoric is white-hot; no shadows. The day after his speech, Horowitz puts fork to endive and romaine at the Cafe Rouge, in Berkeley's gourmet ghetto. He's talking Clinton.

"Because Clinton is brilliant and a sociopath, he was able to disguise that the Democrats have become a very ideological, left-wing party." Horowitz pauses in mid-attack and smiles. He's having an interior moment. "I know myself: I can really argue a hard line."

Republican activists love it. They claim Horowitz as their radical pamphleteer and guerrilla leader – as if Tom Paine met Mao at a William F. Buckley mixer.

DeLay passes out Horowitz's books at Republican forums. Former congressman James Rogan is an unabashed acolyte: Horowitz, Rogan writes, is the "Sun Tzu of the 21st century," comparing him to the ancient military philosopher.

"He's definitely got a flair, and cradle conservatives have a lot to learn from him," says Kate O'Beirne, Washington editor of the National Review. "He is less intimidated by the left and he throws their tactics back at them, and that's very bracing."

Former comrades are less admiring. Richard Parker lived in Berkeley in the 1960s and labored at Ramparts with Horowitz, before moving on to more liberal magazines.

"David has an intelligence that sees the world in bold black and white," says Parker, a fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. "He likes his Beethoven played on the ninth mark of the volume control. It's a world of good and evil, and he knows who is going to Hell."

But the question arises: Why does Horowitz play the bomb-thrower, no matter how clever? Why not aspire to becoming the next Buckley, the right's new Thomas Burke?

Horowitz nods. He knows the tug of such ambition – on the left, he fancied himself the man who would reinterpret Marx. An agreeably voluble man with a gray-flecked goatee and hair that curls down over an open collar, Horowitz recognizes that role is no longer his.

"I understand I'm provocative. It's hard to change your character." A shrug. "You have to interview other people: I don't know how I got where I got."

From Red to Right

Actually, Horowitz has the narrative worked out. No psychological plumbing needed here; the arrows are laid out in neon. Horowitz, in his telling, peered into the left's heart of darkness and nearly lost his soul.

A red-diaper baby, the bookish son of Jewish communists in Sunnyside, Queens, Horowitz came to Berkeley in 1968 with a wife and four children in tow. A Columbia University graduate, he had passed six years in Scandinavia and England, writing books and lecturing on Marxism. He had tired of his tendency to analyze rather than live life. He feared he was becoming his father, a depressed schoolteacher.

Where better to become an activist than Berkeley, a bungalow city stoned on revolutionary fumes?

"I remember when I first met David," says Peter Collier, his longtime collaborator and another emigre from left to right. "I thought, 'My God, this guy writes these Marxoid books. Doesn't he have basketball sneakers? Doesn't he have a gas mask?' "

He and Collier came to edit Ramparts with all the subtlety that characterized the era. One of its covers featured a burning Bank of America with this line: "The students who burned the Bank of America in Santa Barbara may have done more towards saving the environment than all the Teach-ins put together."

Horowitz soon met Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panthers, a man of exquisite dialectics and thuggish impulse. Horowitz was entranced. As he sees it today, he fell for a familiar left trope: the romance of the outlaw.

"It's the Rousseauian vision of the noble savage," he says. "The violence of the poor is always romanticized because their consciousness has not yet been raised."

Horowitz helped launch a Panther school. When Newton was accused of killing a teenage prostitute, and fled to Cuba in 1974, Elaine Brown took over the Panthers. She was no softy; she has written of watching Newton beat a middle-aged tailor to a brain-smeared pulp and realizing just how little she cared.

She asked Horowitz to recommend an accountant.

He sent over Betty Van Patter, who worked on Ramparts' books. Months passed, and she called Horowitz one night, upset at what she had found in the party's books. She took her concerns to Brown.

A month later, police found Van Patter's body floating in San Francisco Bay, her head caved in. (Although journalistic investigations, including one Horowitz wrote, pointed to Panther involvement in her kidnapping and murder, no one was ever charged.)

The death upended Horowitz. He had seen the Panthers' gangster style, sensed their menace, and yet failed to properly warn Van Patter.

Twenty-five years later, his voice catches and his face flushes as he recalls the moment. "When Betty died, I was taken right off my high horse and blasted into the ether. It was like my personal report card was ruined. I could no longer justify myself."

His slow inquiry into her death became an inventory of his self-deceptions. His marriage broke up, he became alienated from his friends.

By the late 1970s, he had come to question the entire Church of the Left: He had seen the far left dissolve into violence, and the moderate left fail to reckon with the toll taken by communist-led revolutions in Cambodia, Vietnam, Angola and Central America.

The church analogy is apt, says Collier. "After the first doubt . . . you cannot keep from sliding to the bottom and questioning everything."

In 1979, Horowitz wrote a piece for the Nation, called "A Radical's Disenchantment." Many allies and friends on the left all but excommunicated him. In 1984 1985, he and Collier wrote a Washington Post piece explaining their votes for Reagan.

Former comrades say Horowitz's view of the left is drawn far too broadly, and in crayon. That he confuses the banshees of the radical left with a larger and more ecumenical liberal movement.

It can be disorienting to listen to Horowitz's analysis. The modern left may appear in disarray now, but in Horowitz's telling, it's won. Socialist ideology lies at the center of the Democratic Party project.

"I wouldn't disagree for a minute that part of the left has a lot to answer for," says Parker of the Shorenstein Center. "Just as there is a whole wing of the Reagan movement that refuses to recognize the killings perpetrated by Augusto Pinochet.

"David needs to grow up. He's never come clean about how deeply involved he was with the Panthers, and that prevents him from taking a full and measured view of his soul and human complicity in evil. His experiences should produce caution."

If Horowitz views leftism as a displaced pathology, his critics return the favor. They speculate that Horowitz's political transformation is grounded as much in his character as in his ideology. "And I will leave it to the psychiatrist to figure it out," says Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the liberal American Prospect.

That seems too harsh. Left-leaning liberals of the 1970s were surely slow to recognize the authoritarian nature of many Third World liberation struggles. And however much he is haunted by his service in the New Left, Horowitz's writings on the Black Panthers, American communists and New Left nihilism offer a bracing rejoinder to the romanticism that lingers about those groups to this day.

"David's writings, particularly on the Black Panthers, have been hugely influential even among liberals," says Kramer, the cultural critic. "As they read it, many liberals just quietly walked away."

Che Horowitz

Question on the Horowitz Web site: David, what's your recommendation for the Republican strategy on the Florida recount?

Horowitz: "This is my answer, courtesy of Al Capone: 'If he comes at you with a fist, you come at him with a bat. If he comes at you with a bat, you come at him with a knife. If he comes at you with a knife, you come at him with a gun.' "

Crowds of boisterous young Republicans gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices considered the election case last December. Waving signs, chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Al Gore has to go!" the demonstrators were a '60s flashback rendered in bow ties and plaid.

And Horowitz was their Che, their Mao, their Abbie Hoffman.

The activists passed Horowitz's e-mailed "war room" briefings back and forth. They carried his books. And several credited his teachings with inspiring what columnist Paul Gigot celebrated as the "bourgeois riot" in Miami that persuaded Dade County election officials to suspend their recount.

So the former Marxist achieves celebrity status. But behind his revolutionary roilings, his personal life has reached a calm patch. He and his third wife live comfortably in Los Angeles, and he has reconciled with his first wife and children.

He smiles, a bit sheepish; his ex and their children carry an immunity to his politics. They vote Democratic. "I cling to family. I work towards reconciliation." Friends are another matter. He and his former friends on the left communicate in angry open letters and phone calls not returned.

"Politics is a choice of comrades," he says. "I appreciate that it's very hard to peer over the edges of your own prejudices."

And yet . . . he claims to yearn for a more serious dialogue.

"I don't have the platform," he says. "When you have a cultural authority, you can afford to do the nuances. A part of me longs for a reflective dialogue."

Horowitz, however, often creates his own dissonance. Two years ago, he wrote a series of polemical yet incisive and serious essays on race, affirmative action and the left. And he bound them together in a book, which he called "Hating Whitey: And Other Progressive Causes," a title that ensures many of his critics won't read it.

The sense is of a man who bridles at being shut out of polite conversation on race and politics, yet delights in spilling milk across the Establishment's table.

The war over his reparations ad is no different. He seized on an idea that has recently moved into the public eye. And he wrote a 10-point attack manifesto and sought to place it as an ad in college newspapers, from Berkeley to Brown University. The Cornell, Columbia, Harvard and Yale dailies declined to carry the ad.

Quite a few of his points seem sensible enough: How, exactly, do you establish who gets paid 140 years after the fact? What of the white descendants of the 340,000 Union troops who died to win the Civil War, a conflict that ended slavery? Should the tens of millions of immigrants who arrived in the United States since slavery was abolished have to pay reparations?

And what of the guilt-tripping of reparations advocates, the insistence that the essential America was built on genocide, stolen land and stolen labor?

Yet his advertisement is written in a low argumentative style, designed to sting more than to convince. The tonal point is neatly encapsulated in Point 9 of his manifesto: "Reparations to African Americans Have Already Been Paid."

". . . Trillions of dollars in transfer payments have been made to African-Americans in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences," Horowitz argues in his ad. "If trillion-dollar restitutions and a wholesale rewriting of American law (to accommodate racial preferences) for African-Americans is not enough to achieve a 'healing,' what will?"

When some students and their faculty advisers react with outrage and theft of newspapers, and reporters across America write of the controversy, Horowitz all but vibrates with pleasure.

"I'm pushing the envelope," he says. "I'm actually helping liberals by getting them to denounce the lunatic left."

The next day, an e-mail arrives: Horowitz, challenging Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. to debate reparations with him anywhere, anytime.

"My personal odyssey has given me much less respect for intellectuals," he says. "I respect street smarts. I have the disposition to be a battering ram."

So the former Marxist bookworm picks up the rhetorical paving stone and flings it at the windows of the high Establishment.

Still revolutionary after all these years.


2001 The Washington Post Company

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29 mar 2001