Brock’s decision to abandon conservatism was a gradual one—and, unlike other famous apostates’, more personal than ideological. “I didn’t wake up one day and say, you know, ‘Supply-side economics doesn’t make sense,’ ” he says. In fact, his move from the right began after he failed to deliver the goods in a book about Hillary Clinton and some of his conservative friends expressed their displeasure with his efforts. Brock, in turn, began to suspect that these friends valued him only for his ability to destroy liberals—and possibly loathed him because he is gay.
But, like the most successful of his predecessors in political apostasy, Brock set out to make his departure as dramatic a spectacle as he could. In 1997, he wrote an article for Esquire titled “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man,” in which he declared, “David Brock the Road Warrior of the Right is dead.” To drive home the point, the piece was accompanied by a photo of Brock bare-chested and tied to a tree with kindling at his feet. Another Esquire article followed, this one an open letter to Bill Clinton, in which he asked, “What the hell was I doing investigating your private life in the first place?” Brock’s ultimate break with conservatism came in his 2002 memoir—a raw, angry book called Blinded by the Right. In it, he not only declared his ideological independence but also attempted to lay waste to the reputations of his erstwhile conservative friends—outing Matt Drudge, accusing Clarence Thomas of lying under oath to Congress, and dubbing Ann Coulter, (then-conservative) Arianna Huffington, and Laura Ingraham “right-wing fag hags.” Of course, Brock didn’t exactly spare himself, either, revealing everything from his occasional suicidal thoughts to the “torrid affair” he had conducted in high school with his “sophisticated raven-haired journalism teacher.” When Drudge retaliated by reporting on his site that Brock had written some of the book from a mental ward, a claim that Brock denied, it seemed as if the soap opera would never end.
Brock then: “I kill liberals for a living.”
Brock today: “Fox is more dangerous now; it’s more lethal—and so we’ve doubled down.”
But then, remarkably, it did. For the past decade, in his current incarnation as a progressive activist, Brock has strived to be anything but dramatic. Unlike Horowitz, who attempts to stay relevant by publicly fulminating against his old compatriots, Brock has taken a more difficult path—trying to master the inside game in a war against his former allies.
Brock is now 48, and his dark hair is streaked with gray. He is short and slight and still dresses stylishly, though he’s given up his dandy shtick: With his silver-framed glasses and Burberry suits, he looks like a prosperous tax attorney. Anxiously perched on a sofa in Media Matters’ conference room one recent afternoon, he speaks deliberately, seldom raising his voice or even moving his hands, as if he fears one intemperate or ill-chosen word could undo all of the hard work that has gone into his reinvention. “When I founded Media Matters, there was another model, which would have been to call this the Brock Report,” he says. “But I was much less interested in my own profile by that point, because I had already done that once, and it was not terribly fulfilling at the end of the day.”
All the effort he once spent cultivating his public reputation has been channeled into cultivating Media Matters’. “I’m an incredibly hard worker, I’m incredibly tenacious, and I’m incredibly detail-oriented,” Brock explains. He often plans his vacations with his boyfriend, James Alefantis, around visits to wealthy liberals who might donate to the organization. And whereas he used to think of himself as a conservative action hero—“I kill liberals for a living,” he once declared—he now reaches for a more mundane analogy to describe his role on the left. “I’m kind of a builder of institutions,” he says. “I think I’ve got some ability to look at what’s out here, look at a playing field, and identify gaps and niches.”
If you talk to Brock’s liberal admirers, however, that humble self-assessment is true only in the sense that Christopher Wren was a builder. In recent years, a certain cohort of Democratic politicos and donors has been engaged in an ambitious project to create liberal analogs to conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Media Research Center. This crowd talks about “patient money” and “a permanent infrastructure,” and they dream of a network of well-funded liberal nonprofit institutions that exists outside of—and therefore bolsters—the Democratic Party. Along with John Podesta, Clinton’s former White House chief of staff who now heads the Center for American Progress, Brock has been the central figure in this effort.
“I don’t know if anybody has a better understanding, in the broader context, of how institutionally we have to go about building a more politically potent force for the progressive movement than David,” explains former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. Paul Begala, the former Clinton aide who used to cross swords with Brock, says of his onetime nemesis: “I think he’s made himself nearly indispensable to the progressive movement. If he tells you it’s Easter, dye your eggs. The son of a bitch is never wrong.”