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Curtain Call

By: Nicholas Clairmont
October 6, 2016

witching parties, like changing one’s religion, requires examining the fundamental beliefs that usually go unquestioned. Thus, converts can often explicate more effectively than life-long adherents what makes a belief system plausible and attractive. In Exit Right, Daniel Oppenheimer examines nearly a century of American Left-to-Right political conversion through chronologically arranged psycho-biographies of Whitaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens.

The first two were Marxists. Whitaker Chambers’s career as a Soviet spy-turned-patriot was outlined in the 1952 autobiography Witness. James Burnham’s struggle to come to terms with the horrors of Stalinism led him, at first, to an amorphous Trotskyite contingent pursuing a particularly American communism. The fantastic chapter on Ronald Reagan makes clear how the 40th president’s thinking evolved from his years in Hollywood to his political education as a public relations celebrity inside General Electric’s corporate subculture.

The treatment of Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary magazine, advances a compelling psychological theory. Since he had never been a comfortable traveler in New York intellectual circles, Podhoretz was offended when his book Making It was universally panned by left-wing friends like Normal Mailer. By recasting the book as a political rather than literary project, Podhoretz came to interpret its rejection as a disagreement, not a rebuke.

Oppenheimer ascribes David Horowitz’s anti-Leftist animus to deep-seated remorse over his days as a Bay Area radical. His slow, painful “exit right” was a mea culpa for complicity in crimes committed by the Black Panthers, his former allies. Christopher Hitchens, finally, was a brash, bon vivant internationalist wit, who never met a controversy he didn’t want to intensify. Bitter disdain for Bill Clinton set the stage for Hitchens’s stubborn, seemingly heretical support of the Iraq War.

Reagan and Hitchens stand out in this list as anomalies—Reagan because he’s not an intellectual; Hitchens because he can’t plausibly be termed a conservative, and never regarded himself as one. Exit Right suffers from a looseness with theme, and a tendency to err on the side of inclusion, but Oppenheimer writes confidently and even compellingly, providing fair, impressive summaries of competing worldviews.

In particular, his book examines motivations and emotions without leaning unduly on narrative speculation. Occasionally, however, Oppenheimer’s penchant for psychoanalysis betrays him. The essayists’ lives—Burnham, Podhoretz, and Horowitz, in particular—rather than those of the spy or the president, get sexed up with action verbs and dramatic weight. The misplaced melodrama makes the reader wonder if Oppenheimer, himself an ambitious essayist, might be projecting his own inner life onto his patients.

Regrettably, more than melodramatic excess gives the impression that Oppenheimer might be working out some issues. In the section on Hitchens, his disappointment with his subject’s support for the Iraq War is bitter and all-consuming. After the five preceding mini-biographies marked by evenhandedness, Oppenheimer switches into attack mode. The chapter on James Burnham, for example, closes gracefully:

“Trotsky was right, Burnham concluded. There was no Marxism without dialectical materialism, no Marxism without the Soviet Union, no Marxism without a Bolshevik-style command structure, and no Marxism without a ruthless will to power that would sacrifice anyone and anything—even entire nations—to the cause of its own realization. And if that was the case, Burnham could be no kind of Marxist.”

To compare:

“Hitchens, however, ultimately failed himself. He was too much the romantic, too much the contrarian, and too much the narcissist to chart out the ways that history might fail to conform to his desires. He chose to mistake thoughtful opposition for moral cowardice and jingoism for righteousness. His bullshit detector, which had served him so well for so long, somehow failed to properly take the measure of George W. Bush.”

The treatment of Hitchens isn’t the only moralizing that diminishes an otherwise useful book. Oppenheimer’s postscript gives a cocksure explanation of how to be political and live one’s life writ large, which reads as sermon. “The Trick, which isn’t a trick at all but rather the basic art of living, is to be grounded in a strong sense of self but attuned to one’s inner frictions and fictions.” So it’s not even a particularly good sermon, making it hard to avoid the conclusion that Oppenheimer has gone off script.

Each of the book’s biographies ends just when the protagonist “exits right,” cutting off the story at the climax. The reader is left curious and well informed, but unsatisfied. At the moment when we might expect some guiding lessons from studying people who made deeply personal yet public decisions to abandon the Left for the Right, we are left to draw our own conclusions.