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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

David Brock Calls Hillary’s Email Scandal ‘Phony,’ Says the ‘Air is Going Out’

The once-archconservative provocateur shares why he thinks Hillary will be the nominee and Biden and Sanders won’t.

David Brock Photo: Courtesy of Ian Blake

Back in the 1990s, David Brock went after Bill and Hillary with a vengeance. He was a young man on a mission to let the world know that the Clintons were so dishonorable, so corrupt they should never darken the doorway of any public institution, much less the White House. During that decade he was also busy trashing Anita Hill in a book, The Real Anita Hill, that famously described her as “a bit nutty and a bit slutty.” The right loved him and largely ignored the fact that he was an out-of-the-closet gay man. Until, that is, he wrote Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative in 2002, after which he became a darling of the left and a new buddy of Bill, by then out of the White House, and Hillary, then a U.S. Senator. Brock went on, with the Clintons’ help, to found Media Matters for America, in essence an opposition research outfit that instantaneously fact checks and derides any point Republicans might make. (He also founded two related groups, American Bridge and Correct the Record.) Today, the 53-year-old is one of the left’s most potent weapons and he has a loyalty to the former president and the would-be president that verges on the messianic.

All that is apparent in his latest book, Killing the Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary Clinton and Hijack Your Government.

It has its moments of insight and sharp analysis, and it has many moments of pure partisan screed. That said, if I could spend election night with any operative, I’d pick David Brock.

I spoke to Brock by telephone late Friday expecting a fire breathing zealot but finding instead a soft-spoken, polite, and reasonable man, albeit still on a mission. It was as if I called Donald Trump but instead connected with Ben Carson.

A condensed version of our conversation follows.

To start, give me a little biography.

I grew in Bergen County in New Jersey until I was 10. We relocated outside of Dallas. I finished high school there. I went to University of California at Berkeley, which is where I first became conservative. My father was a rock-ribbed Pat Buchanan–style conservative.

Will Hillary be the nominee?

Yes I’m confident she’ll be the Democratic nominee. Absolutely.

Should Bill Clinton should play a bigger role in her campaign?

He’s beginning to do some fundraisers on her behalf, one or two in Chicago. I’m sure that any level of involvement that he would want to do would be welcome. He has got to be the most effective surrogate one could have.

Did he hurt her in 2008, especially in South Carolina, where he appeared to playing the race card against Obama?

No, I don’t think so. I think that was misrepresented largely.

What about Biden? Is he going to run?

My gut is no.

Why?

I think he’ll realize that at this point in his career he can go out with everyone’s respect and esteem. Why go through what could be a very challenging process?

Politico has reported that Clinton devotees were whispering warnings to Biden, “Don’t get in this race.” Are you or your groups tied to any of what sound like threats?

No.

Hillary recently mentioned that Biden wasn’t helpful on the bankruptcy bill when they were in the Senate together. Was that smart on Hillary’s part?

He hasn’t made a decision yet, but if he did get in it you would need to draw contrasts. So, yeah, I don’t have a problem with that.

One of the ugly issues in a race for the nomination between Hillary and Joe Biden will be Biden’s role as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Conventional wisdom has it that he helped Thomas win confirmation by not calling certain pro-Anita Hill witnesses. Will that hurt Biden?

I think inevitably it would come up, and there’s the potential to be unhelpful. I think that episode is probably not to his advantage.

Are Obama and the people close to him secretly working to persuade Biden to get in? Obama said, after all, that the smartest decision he made in politics was select Biden as his VP.

Actually, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know if they are or they are not.

What do you think?

I imagine there’s got to be some of that going on.

I’ve heard and read speculation that David Axelrod will work for Biden should he decide to run. Do you know anything about that?

I only know what I read, which is that he said his hands were full with what he’s doing teaching and at IOP [the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics].

There’s no special love between Axelrod and HIllary? My sense is always that Axelrod doesn’t like her much, not withstanding the obsequious email he wrote her while she was Secretary of State that came out in the last batch.

I’ve read some things from Axelrod that were not super helpful—tweets and some stuff like that.

Bernie Sanders isn’t in your book. He just visited Chicago to appear at Axelrod’s IOP. I’m sure he was invited by Axelrod. What do you make of Bernie? Is he a real threat or is he unelectable?

I think we’ve gone through a ’small d’ democratic process on the Democratic side. He’s speaking to issues such as reining in Wall Street, campaign finance reform, and income inequality that excite a lot of people in the Democratic base. But Hillary Clinton’s speaking to those things, too. I think if you took campaign finance reform, you could say that she has put more meat on the bone in terms of her proposals that could actually achieve some real reform. If you go back to 2011 at this time in that cycle, the year before the election, and you look at polling in the early states, you’d have President Rick Perry or you’d have President Michele Bachmann. … So I’m not real concerned about it. I think we will have a healthy debate in Las Vegas [on October 13] and I would just compare that to all the name calling that goes on on the Republican side, none of which we’ve seen on the Democratic side. 

I’ve seen that you were critical of Sanders and said that he praised the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. You also tied him to the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party, socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Still sounds like you might be a bit worried about Bernie.

No, all it was was an attempt to start to draw some differences and some contrasts. This is a political campaign, and inevitably you’re going to have to do some of that.

For the most part, Sanders doesn’t attack Hillary and Hillary doesn’t attack Sanders. Should that change? Should Hillary be speaking out more against him?

I don’t think so. I think she was asked on “Face the Nation” and said there wouldn’t be negative advertising and negative attack. [She’s] going to try to keep the debate completely substantive. I think that’s good.

If the polls are right and Bernie wins the caucus in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire, is it a light wound or a deep wound?           

I think you always want your candidate to be ahead in every poll and win every primary, but that’s not politics, so there’s no way that it wouldn’t be something of a setback. But I think the Clinton campaign is organized to such a degree that even if that happened, and I don’t think it will, she’s still very well positioned to be the nominee.

The fact that Sanders is drawing thousands to his rallies and she’s drawing hundreds to her rallies—how do you explain that?                        

Well, again, there are certain issues that he has picked up that are finding a constituency in the Democratic party. I think that’s one explanation. Another explanation is Hillary has run before; she’s been in the public sphere for decades. She’s a very known commodity. He’s something different, so I think that’s another reason he’s attracting that kind of attention.

The meeting that Joe Biden had last month with Elizabeth Warren, what was that about? Is there any possibility that she’d run as his VP?

Elizabeth Warren is so well positioned to be a progressive leader in the Senate that I think that is the role she wants. So I think that’s where she’ll stay.

On the subject of the emails, with some of the news in the last week or so, are things for Hillary Clinton on a downward trajectory?

No, quite the opposite. I consider it a phony scandal, but the air is going out of it. … Hillary gave the interview to ABC News where she said she was sorry and she took responsibility for her part in this. I think that the more emails that come out and the more people see what’s in them, they’re totally benign. They’re about wanting skim milk in your tea. … The story can’t completely go away because all the email hasn’t come out yet.

One of the main actors in the email scandal is a guy who grew up in Chicago named Sid Blumenthal. Is he a friend of yours? And what’s the relationship between Sid and Hillary?

Yes, he’s a friend. I don’t think there’s anything unusual. Sid and Hillary have a friendship that goes back more than 30 years. And as a public official, you hear from your friends on a whole variety of issues. To me what it means is that she was interested in having information that was independent of government channels, and to me that suggests an open-mindedness and a desire to know everything that one could know about various subjects.

Have you ever met Anita Hill?

I’ve never met Anita Hill. We corresponded around the time that Blinded by the Right came out in 2002. I sent her a note and I sent her the book.

Who’s the most extreme of the Hillary Clinton bashers in the media, say among syndicated columnists?

It’s definitely [the New York Times’s] Maureen Dowd. She hasn’t let up. Even lately there have been a whole series of columns all of which read to me very similarly, just sort of stridently anti-Hillary and making a lot of characterizations that I think aren’t right.

What about newspapers, say the Times versus the Washington Post?

I think the Washington Post is more fair than the New York Times. I single out the New York Times in the book and I try to trace it going back to the original Whitewater story in 1992; the history of the paper and the Clintons. … There’s a persuasive case that institutionally there’s a mindset about he Clintons at the Times that was formed in the 1990s. And the mindset suggests that they’re unethical or corrupt. It has never been borne out by any of the stories that they’ve done. In the last few months they’ve accused Hillary on the front page three separate times of some form of criminal misconduct, and all those stories have been flawed.

If you were advising Hillary—say you were campaign chair John Podesta—would have advised her, at the start, to apologize for the email ruckus and just get it behind her? Do you think she and her managers handled it badly?

No, I don’t think they handled it badly. One of the things I try to do in the book is kind of predict what the Republicans’ playbook looks like for 2016. And I think I have a pretty good handle on that, but if you asked me six months ago, would we still be talking about email six months later, I would have been surprised to see the way this story has metastasized. And so I don’t think I would have given different advice. I think if she said at her first press conference ’I’m sorry,’ the press would have raised the bar to you have to say you’re sorry while you’re on your knees, and we still would have had four, five, six months about this. … I think she handled it fine.

Do you see Bill Clinton socially?

Yes, occasionally.

You were one of the most notorious of the Hillary bashers, but now you’re close enough that you were even invited to a small family party the summer before last at their rental in the Hamptons. When was the first time you came face to face with her?

I was invited to talk about Blinded by the Right at a Senate caucus lunch [in May of 2002]. The senators who attend sit around a table and you have a few minutes to make your opening comments and most of it is a Q&A. They raise their hands and get called on, and she was directly across from me in the room and at some point it occurred to me that she hadn’t said anything yet, and I started to wonder about that. Toward the end of the hour her hand went up and she got up and basically summarized the entire hour of comments I had made and boiled it down into three points. You guys, here are the three things you should remember from what David said. And that left a big impression on me. I had met her once [before], when I was writing a book about her back in the mid-90s [The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, which started out as negative but ended up describing some positives about Hillary]. I went to one of her book signings for It Takes a Village to ask for an interview, which of course she declined.

And Bill, how did your relationship with him start?

Some months after the Senate lunch, President Clinton called me to find out what I was working on subsequent to Blinded by the Right. He was interested in my going out and doing more to promote it. I described to him a vague idea I had about setting up a media watchdog group from the progressive side, and he suggested to me that I write a business plan for that and send it to him. So I did. He shared it with Hillary. And then in fairly short order I was invited [in the fall of 2003] to pitch the idea to two meetings of her National Finance Council at their homes in Chappaqua and Washington, D.C., which I did, and that’s how I raised seed money to start Media Matters.

And he also suggested that you use his speaker’s agent?

He did. He wanted me to go see his speaker’s agent, which I did, but there wasn’t the market interest in me that he thought there was. So it didn’t really go anywhere.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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