Despite his soaring New York success, however, the last thing Breindel would have expected -- given his unmistakable early promise -- was that he'd have to settle for a career as an editorial writer for a tabloid newspaper. The defining moment of his life, the episode that gives his story its tragic-heroic arc, occurred when he was 27. In the early months of 1983, after receiving a high-level security clearance from the FBI, Breindel went to work as Senator Moynihan's aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee. For someone interested in a career in government, it was a dream job. But on May 16, only eight weeks after he started, Breindel was arrested in the parking lot of a Washington, D.C., motel for buying five bags of heroin from an undercover cop. Two and a half grams for $150. The arrest report said he had tracks on his arms. He was a junkie.
It was, of course, a big story at the time. The coverage portrayed him as a "golden youth" -- Harvard Phi Beta Kappa, Harvard Law School graduate, doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics -- who had squandered his promise. In a reference to Breindel's background, Time wrote that the bust had "Brideshead Revisited overtones." The prodigy had fallen. Hard. Moynihan immediately asked for his resignation. Realistically, a career in government was now out of the question. He had been publicly shamed. In a plea agreement, he got a year's probation.
After a period of rehabilitation, for his body, his psyche, and his reputation, Breindel signed on at the Post's editorial page in 1986. And immediately, he came out shooting bullets. Homeless people, poor people, gay people, the mentally ill, single mothers. All were subjected to Breindel's uncharitable lashings. There were never even subtle shadings in his writing that indicated he was someone who knew what it was like to stumble, to give in to temptation, or simply to suffer from some common human failing. Given his own frailties, even some of his friends had trouble with this.
Indeed, as Breindel became an impact player in the Murdoch organization, in political circles, and among Manhattan's social set, Breindel-haters sprouted in New York and Washington. For some, it was simply a matter of style. They saw Breindel as unctuous, obsequious, willing to do whatever it took to ingratiate himself with the right people. But many on the left found his stiff-necked conservatism deeply hypocritical in light of his own rather stunning personal weaknesses.
"I found him fascinating as a character," says Pete Hamill. "Here's a guy who got busted on a heroin charge and was rescued by people who showed a certain amount of compassion, and maybe even pity, at the moment and helped him through it. But he couldn't find it in himself to have pity or compassion for anybody else, for some poor junkie lying in a hallway. It just didn't extend that way."
Breindel grew up a child of privilege, in a spacious apartment on Gramercy Park. His parents were refugees from Hitler's Europe, and his mother had been a prisoner in a concentration camp. Once settled here, his father eventually became chief of obstetrics at New York's Beth Israel Medical Center. Breindel went to Horace Mann and Exeter and enjoyed all of the luxuries that were part of a Jewish, upper-middle-class Manhattan family's life in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. There was the country club in Scarsdale, and yearly trips to Europe.
Despite the material comforts, Breindel already had a fairly dark, complicated view of the world by the time he was a teenager. The critical factor in shaping his outlook was his parents' experiences. He would always believe that the world was a place where terrible things could happen, and often did, to large numbers of people. He didn't move through life with a dark cloud over him, nor was he particularly pessimistic. He just believed, based on what he knew, that vigilance was the best posture.