Exit Right is a fascinating if flawed account of how six men entered into politics on the left side of the spectrum and wound up immured in varying extremes of conservatism.
Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, by Daniel Oppenheimer. Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $28.
By Harvey Blume
Don DeLillo’s superb novella, “Pafko at the Wall,” (absorbed into his novel Underworld) starts with a brilliant depiction of a baseball announcer doing radio play-by-play, far from any ball park, with nothing but ticker tape to guide him. “Pafko at the Wall,” is a marvel for many reasons, the portrayal of this announcer’s work not the least of them.
Don Delillo writes:
Somebody hands you a piece of paper filled with letters and numbers and you have to make a ball game out of it. You create the weather, flesh out the players, you make them sweat and grouse and hitch up their pants. You construct the fiction of a distant city, making up everything but the stark facts of the evolving game. Now the umpire’s dusting off the plate. Some wispy clouds hanging in the west ….
Well before he transitioned from acting to the career in politics for which he is better know, Ronald Reagan made a living doing this kind of broadcasting. In Exit Right, a fascinating if flawed account of how six men entered into politics on the left side of the spectrum and wound up immured in varying extremes of conservatism, Daniel Oppenheimer hones in on Reagan’s baseball broadcasting as emblematic of his career as Governor of California, then President of the United States. As Oppenheimer sees it, Reagan’s ability to dream up and convincingly recount baseball games from far away, with not much to go on, epitomizes his approach to politics.
Oppenheimer cuts just as cannily to the quick about others in this book. Take James Burnham, for example. Burnham, mostly forgotten now, was once a signal character in the ideological wars of the early to mid twentieth century. He was a Marxist of the Trotskyite persuasion. Soviet Communism to his mind defiled the Marxist dream but, in the compelling works of Trotsky, Marxism stayed true to its intellectual connection to the philosopher’s stone, a power rooted in the creed’s “astoundingly bold presumption that one could bring all of history, politics, economics, and culture into focus and then. . . discern within it a future that could be chiseled out if one was able to strike at just the right points with the right degree of force.”
This was, indeed, the very allure of Marxism. Know it, know it well, and you would know everything. When Burnham was done with Marxism, including even the Trotskyite variant, he wound up writing quasi-religious texts about the decline of the West, and the need for spiritual renewal. It’s worth adding that George Orwell thought enough of these texts to rebut them at length. The key point, though, is that one way or another, Burnham never settled for anything less than all the answers.
Oppenheimer brings the narrative more up-to-date with his account of David Horowitz. Horowitz, a New Leftist of my generation, was horrified when he found that the Black Panther Party he had touted as the agent of black liberation and avant-garde of social revolution, had murdered a friend of his, a white woman, who, at his suggestion, went to work with the Panthers as an accountant. She knew too much about their shady dealings. Their solution was just to kill her.
Oppenheimer writes that Horowitz concluded that the “Black Panther Party in Oakland, in the years he’d known it, wasn’t a political and service organization that had some unfortunate gangsterish tendencies around the edges. It was a street gang that also did some politics and service.” This realization drove him nearly mad, since his supposed brothers and sister in the Bay area left didn’t want to hear about it at all. It contradicted their worldview. If this reminds anyone of the left’s response to Stalinist and Maoist crimes and purges, it should. Horowitz’s response was to switch worldviews utterly and completely. Much as he had touted revolution to start with he now touted right wing conservatism. There was no in between for him, nothing like a wizened, cautious skepticism. It was one way or the other.
And so it was for the others Oppenheimer tracks. Whittaker Chambers transforms from spy for the Communist Party to ace witness for its enemies in a McCarthyite Congress. Norman Podhoretz morphs from a bright boy of the Jewish left into paragon of neo-conservatism. Christopher Hitchens, whatever lefty scold he was before, winds up exhausting all his rhetorical powers not only to cheer on Bush’s invasion of Iraq but to keep on defending it, long after other left/liberals had admitted they had been gulled.
Oppenheimer’s take on his central characters is superb, less so his grasp of clear prose. Writing of Whittaker Chambers clubbing in his youth, Oppenheimer describes the man as having “dysfunctional/oedipal/kinky/transferentially homoerotic relations with women from the party.” “Transferentially homoerotic”? Sounds kinky. If only Oppenheimer had stooped to explain. Though this sentence is not typical, there are far too many of the miserable type. Oppenheimer’s prose serves his purposes, but it buckles under too many awkward expressions.
Another fault in the book: all of Oppenheimer’s characters are white males. Were there no black lefties who entered left then turned right? Has Oppenheimer heard, for example, of Eldridge Cleaver?
Last, there is intellectual pretension. Oppenheimer modestly proposes to examine the depths of political belief, how we come to choose one view over another and how, given a different context, world views could be different. He doesn’t come close to fulfilling this goal. His attempts to do so are platitudinous.
What Oppenheimer does demonstrate is how one extreme turned into another in the six characters he details. His sufficiently rich and cautionary account of these ideologues more than compensates for the flaws in his first book.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.