It was a night many of the participants would go back to when Breindel was busted for drugs. "Some people theorized that the drug problem explained his behavior over the Crimson vote," says Lemann. "I'm not sure about that, but it was clear from his behavior that he was a troubled, unhappy man. I saw a side of him that was in pain of some kind."
Weiss, who voted for Cramer, says he learned some early political lessons from the way Breindel reacted: "He was so sophisticated in this dark way. He said to me, 'I understand what you did. You voted for your friend, and you have to be loyal to your friend.' This principle was not unfamiliar to me, but I'd never before heard it stated so baldly. Cramer and I were such innocents by comparison. He was vicious and calculating, and that was new to me."
The theories about how and why Breindel began using drugs fall somewhat loosely into three categories. Close friends and acolytes see his addiction as an obvious response to the physical pain he endured -- primarily from a wrist injury he suffered while on the wrestling team at Exeter that was never completely repaired despite several surgeries. From his time at Harvard till his death, he didn't have a day without pain, they say, and his search for relief led him eventually to heroin. While it is true that he was struck by a series of physical problems -- chief among them cancer in the early nineties and a recurring kidney ailment that required hospitalization for the first time only a few weeks before the Turkey Shoot -- both his father and his sister are doctors. It would seem that he would have had easy access to legal medications.
Theory No. 2 blames Breindel's fall on -- who else? -- the Kennedys. Listen: "He was mixed up with the Kennedy kids Bobby and David, and they were junkies," says Norman Podhoretz. Or this: "Eric got in trouble by hanging out with the Kennedys. I think he was quite impressed by them," says photographer Freddy Eberstadt, a close friend.
The third theory is that as smart and ambitious as Breindel was, he was still capable of a monumentally stupid, immature act. Perhaps he was looking for a rush, or for a way to express his manhood. Or maybe he was even looking for an escape from the pressures of the life he'd created for himself. Whatever the trigger, it's important to remember it was the seventies, and drug use among the elite was rampant.
After the arrest, his friends closed in around him. Norman Podhoretz, who saw drugs as one of the most destructive results of the counterculture -- they went against everything he believed in and had been devoting his intellectual life to -- still stuck by him. So did Marty Peretz, the Harvard lecturer and owner of The New Republic. Peretz met Breindel when he saw a piece he'd written in the Crimson about Israel. Impressed, he dropped the undergrad a note, they had coffee, and a bond quickly developed. Now Peretz was there for him, letting Breindel stay in his Georgetown house and hang around The New Republic for months.
Both Podhoretz and Peretz claim, however, that they had only the briefest of conversations with Breindel about what happened. Podhoretz "read him the riot act," and that was pretty much it: "He made no excuses and promised me he'd straighten out." Peretz says they talked only about the future: "I don't know what he felt at two in the morning, but with me he had essentially only one concern. He wanted to know what kind of professional life he could have after an experience like this."