Breindel's life was the sum of his obsessions, and chief among them -- quite naturally, given his background -- was the fate of the Jews. It was the locus from which all of his other political positions flowed. He believed that most of the world's evil took place under totalitarian regimes, and from this came his obsession with communism. When he died, he was at work on a book whose central premise was that every American ever accused of spying for the Soviets actually was (House Un-American Activities Committee investigator Herb Romerstein was his co-author; the book is due out in the fall).
But there was also an upside, a positive view provided by this prism through which he saw the world: his lack of cynicism about America. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was the child of immigrants. America was the country that saved his parents. "In a strange way, he was a throwback," says the Observer's Peter Kaplan. "In his politics, in the quality of his thought, in the intensity of his passions and his delight in America. It was our parents' experience, not ours. We were dulled by the success of America and everything that came along with it. But he was experiencing this country the way people who are now in their seventies did 40 or 50 years ago."
When Breindel got to Harvard, his obsessions served him well. They were the foundation on which he built what would turn out to be the seminal relationships of his adult life -- those with Moynihan, Peretz, and Podhoretz. Breindel was the perfect protégé and intellectual playmate: He was eager, respectful, brilliant, obsessed with the past, and full of ideas. Most important, he cared deeply about all the struggles they cared about.
"He seemed to move in a higher circle than most college kids," says Nicholas Lemann, a writer at The Atlantic Monthly who was one year ahead of Breindel at Harvard. "You have to understand that the average student will go through four years of Harvard and not have even one tenured faculty member who could pick him out in a police lineup. The fact that Eric was spending time with people like Moynihan was really unusual."
In his torn black jeans and frayed white Brooks Brothers button-down Oxford shirts, Breindel was an alluring figure on campus. He escorted Caroline Kennedy (his father didn't approve, because she wasn't Jewish). He roomed with David Kennedy and palled around with Bobby Jr. On a trip to Israel, he secured an interview with Prime Minister Menachem Begin and wrote a piece for Rolling Stone. "He was mysterious," says classmate Philip Weiss, who writes for the New York Observer. "He was sophisticated, he had a private life, he had girlfriends. And he had people who loved him. There were many people who were fiercely attached to him."
But there was also a dark side to his personality that came into full public view during his junior year. The episode happened during what's known as the Turkey Shoot, the annual vote to choose the president of the Harvard Crimson. The top spot at the legendary student newspaper, long a fecund breeding ground for some of journalism's best-known names, is one of the school's most coveted undergraduate prizes.
In 1975, the battle was between Breindel and James J. Cramer, the hedge-fund manager, ubiquitous financial journalist, and co-founder of TheStreet.com. There were clear differences of style and personality: Cramer was the fiery, abrasive, indefatigable worker (some things never change), while Breindel was the cool, sophisticated, worldly thinker. Though almost all of the players involved were Jewish, Breindel was somehow cast as the Waspy, polished, urbane private-school kid and Cramer as the raw public-school product who was a little gruff but had all the solid, honest virtues Hollywood always ascribes to simple, hardworking people.
Breindel lost the election by one vote. Half an hour after outgoing Crimson president Nicholas Lemann called everyone to tell them the results, Breindel and his supporters arrived at the offices of the paper. "They were really upset and angry," says Lemann. "They were borderline violent. One of Eric's guys literally put his hands around my throat and started to squeeze, as if to strangle me. It was simply an awful night."