David Horowitz Is Homeless
The 1960s radical decades ago switched his politics, fleeing the New Left to become a conservative provocateur. Then the right wing left him behind.
The first thing that David Horowitz wanted me to know was that he rarely leaves the house anymore. But one evening this past January, he graciously mustered the energy to meet me at a strip-mall steakhouse down the road from his home in California’s Santa Maria Valley, because he wanted to make himself clear. “I’ve been ghettoized,” he said. “My wings have been clipped.”
Just a decade ago, a National Review editor labeled Horowitz “the Most Valuable Player of the Right.” Now, sequestered on an acre and a half of land with his wife and six dogs—five of them Chihuahuas—the 73-year-old ex-Communist firebrand juggles writing projects while keeping his distance from all manner of political distraction. “I don’t read any magazines. I hardly even read FrontPage,” he told me, though he is listed on the online right-wing journal’s masthead as editor-in-chief. “I don’t read the L.A. Times or the New York Times. I despise the Times.”
Within minutes, however, he was grumbling about an article that appeared in the Times Magazine a day before, a long and sympathetic profile of the jailed former leftist zealot Judy Clark, who currently serves a 75-year sentence for her role as accomplice to a 1981 armed robbery—committed in the name of something called the Republic of New Afrika—that left a Brinks guard and two police officers dead. The article begins skeptically but concludes that Clark has genuinely reformed. Horowitz wasn’t buying it. “What I hold against these people is their unreadiness even 40 years later to tell the truth. It’s a total deception.”
This sense of an ongoing total deception—the word “total” is the crucial descriptor–perpetrated by the American left has animated Horowitz’s tireless crusade over the past four decades. A Queens-born red-diaper baby turned architect of Berkeley’s New Left, he spent three decades behind enemy lines; as a result he sees himself as the man best positioned to discover the opponent’s hidden agenda. As chronicled in his gripping, anguished 1996 autobiography Radical Son, the seeds of his political disillusionment were planted by his father’s reaction to Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” detailing Stalin’s crimes; instead of prompting a candid reassessment of his father’s loyalties, it merely confirmed the obstinacy of his Communist faith. Moving to Berkeley for graduate school, and later serving as editor of Ramparts magazine, Horowitz hoped that the New Left could advance a socialist agenda without the encumbrances of the God that failed. But David would eventually loosen the grip on his own deeply rooted dogmas in response to another leftist moral abdication: the support of brutal dictatorships in Cambodia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. “I thought to myself, would I rather be a prisoner in the hands of LBJ or Ho Chi Minh? It’s a no-fucking-brainer.”
Though the intellectual edifice of the revolutionary movement was already crumbling, it took the 1974 killing of Betty Van Patter, a friend he recruited as a bookkeeper for a Black Panther education center, to bring Horowitz to an emotional breaking point. Her murder remains unsolved, but Horowitz has mustered plenty of evidence suggesting that the killing was orchestrated by the Panthers, many of whom he had counted as colleagues and friends.
Rebranding himself as a Whittaker Chambers-style convert, Horowitz has since waged a compulsive rhetorical assault on new left icons like Kathy Boudin, Bill Ayers, Angela Davis, and Tom Hayden, who remind Horowitz of his former self and have built productive lives (and earned university sinecures) without fully reckoning with the enormity of past sins.
Atoning for his own youthful credulity with reactionary firepower, Horowitz has spent the past quarter-century in a mode of permanent apocalypse. “Being in the battle is kind of what I do for a living,” he said. He adopted an Al Pacino growl and likened his role to that of Mafia don: “I try to get out, but they keep pulling me back in.”
If what was once labeled extremism is now mainstream GOP boilerplate, then Horowitz deserves at least some of the credit. In a widely distributed 2000 pamphlet called The Art of Political War, praised by Karl Rove and endorsed by 35 state Republican party chairmen, Horowitz wrote: “In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability. Republicans often seem to regard political combats as they would a debate with the Oxford Political Union, as though winning depended on rational arguments and carefully articulated principles. But the audience of politics is not made up of Oxford dons, and the rules are entirely different. … Politics is war. Don’t forget it.” If you can remember a time when conservative discourse sounded like an Oxford lecture hall, then you have a sense of how far Horowitz has helped to steer this ship off course.
Certainly he must have followed the recent Republican debates with glee, right? He looked at me with disgust. “They make me fucking ill. Politics makes me ill now.”
For Horowitz to remain authentic, and to keep the enemy on its heels, he must cloak himself in paradox. He has made a sport of provoking racially divisive confrontation, but three of his grandchildren are black. He still travels the country making the case for a muscular Zionism, but he has never visited Israel. He rejects economic determinism as a discredited Marxist method of interpretation, but on climate change his “leftist instincts are very suspicious. There’s too much money going to scientists to say there’s global warming.”
Yet in a media climate fueled by one-dimensional sound-bites, both Horowitz’s taste for scholarly provocation and his appetite for paradox no longer match the temper of the times. When not under direct attack, liberal commentators have mostly learned to tune him out, and, more painfully, no university archive has asked to collect his papers and reminiscences, a failing he understands as “a reflection of the ideological debasement of our institutions of knowledge by a movement whose hallmarks are narcissistic self-absorption and intellectual intolerance.” His most deeply felt grievance, however, is a perceived lack of encouragement from mainstream conservative institutions. (This is not necessarily a financial issue: His foundation, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, is underwritten by the Bradley, Olin, and Scaife foundations.) In his turn-of-the-21st-century heyday, shortly after publishing Hating Whitey, an assault on affirmative action and race-based quotas—or “the anti-white racism of the left”—that preceded his campaign against reparations for slavery, Horowitz appeared on op-ed pages, talk radio, and television nearly every day. (He even wrote a bi-weekly column for the liberal Salon.com.) But in 2012, his books are not just ignored by the New York Times, but by the Weekly Standard and National Review. “There are plenty of conservatives who don’t like my manner,” he admitted. “It’s too aggressive, too Jewish, too leftist.”
If you can do some heavy lifting and abstract his achievements from their corrosive consequences, David Horowitz has led an extraordinary American life. He is an authentically passionate and informed public figure standing at the intersection of autobiography, history, manners, and polemic, who has also managed to aggravate the entire American intelligentsia over the course of a long career in part because he can be such a crude and unapologetic propagandist. One need not subscribe to the lurid pamphlets sold by his Freedom Center to get the sense that Horowitz has sacrificed his intellectual capital to devote himself more fully to the movement.
What remains of Revisionist Zionism, the ideology of the late Benzion Netanyahu, is its 11th commandment: Don’t be a fool.