David Brock's entry into Bill and Hillary Clinton's inner circle is one of the more remarkable turns in the political narrative of the past 25 years.
During his time as a reporter for the American Spectator in the mid-1990s, Brock was at the center of what Hillary Clinton once described as a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against her and her husband. He was the force behind all manner of dark and sordid accusations, including the so-called "Troopergate" scandal, in which Bill Clinton was alleged to have used a pair of state police officers during his time as governor of Arkansas to arrange extramarital sexual encounters. At the American Spectator, he was part of the "Arkansas Group," an effort bankrolled by a conservative billionaire that was tasked with uncovering various nefarious misdeeds on the part of Clinton in order to delegitimize his presidency.
But in 2002, Brock wrote a book called "Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative," in which he disavowed the right wing and his role in advancing its agenda. The tome was a 336-page apology for the damage he had done to the Clintons and others who crossed his path. The mea culpa sold big and, more importantly, persuaded the former president and then-senator from New York to welcome him into the Clinton orbit.
Today, Brock is on the front lines of the political battle to elect Hillary Clinton to the White House. He ranks among her most trusted allies and has quickly emerged as her most strident defender.
The 53-year-old former right-wing journalist and agitator runs Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC he created in May. Unlike most super PACs, which run paid advertising to boost their candidates, Correct the Record focuses almost solely on combating or discrediting opponents' attacks on Clinton in the press and online. Since the group doesn't run ads, it argues that federal regulations allow the super PAC to coordinate with the Clinton campaign. Brock is also responsible for Media Matters for America, a press watchdog he founded in 2004 as part of a broader effort to snuff out news stories that run afoul of the centrist liberal orthodoxy.
In his latest book, Killing the Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government, Brock details what he sees as the new coordinated effort to discredit the former secretary of state. Last week, Mic spoke to Brock about his partisan awakening, what makes the independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders such a tough competitor and why he believes an increasingly competitive Democratic primary will only strengthen his favorite candidate. The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mic: The story of your political reversal is really remarkable, as you write about in your book. You went from being a right-wing operative targeting the Clintons to becoming one of their most trusted allies. When did you know they had forgiven the past and embraced you?
David Brock: I published Blinded by the Right in the spring of 2002. About six months after that, President Clinton called me to talk about the book and to thank me for writing it. He very much appreciated the book and we talked for quite a while about it. That's the first time he and I had ever spoken, and the first time I had a signal that the apology had gone over fine.
With Hillary, it was earlier than that. It was, again, after the book came out. I gave a talk about it, probably in June of 2002, when she was in the Senate, which has a weekly lunch where they invite guest speakers. I spoke for the better part of an hour. When it was finished, Hillary asked to be recognized, got up and basically summarized everything I had said in the last hour in three bullet points that were more concise than what I said. She said, "This is what you should take away from what David said," and recommended the book. That was the first time I would've known how she felt.
One of the emerging lines of criticism of Clinton in this campaign is that she has taken some positions that conflict with her past views, most notably on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone pipeline. Do you think that criticism is unfair?
DB: I do. I just don't think it's realistic.
I think there are a couple different things. One, when you're in an administration and you're not the president and you're not calling the shots for the government, you're usually expected to go along with the policies of the president, unless it's some incredible issue of conscience where you have to resign. Two, the trade pact was an evolving agreement. The details that are there now were not known when she said this was the "gold standard" a few years back.
So I think you need to look at the fine print. The fine print told her that it wasn't the best deal we could get for protecting American jobs and our security. Then, I think, if you look at her history on things like NAFTA, there's a note of more skepticism that she's had on some of these deals traditionally. It all fits and is consistent and expected. When you're a candidate, you take a different tack than when you were in the government.
You called on Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to pull out of the race for speaker because of his comments about the committee investigating the Benghazi attacks in the House of Representatives. How much of a role do you think his comments played in his dropping out? How do you expect Clinton to be treated when she testifies before the committee in a few weeks?
DB: I certainly don't think that Kevin McCarthy took my advice. I do think that his comments played a role [in his decision]. They were extremely damaging to everything the Republicans had tried to do with the Benghazi inquiries over the past few years.
It was one of those gaffes that confirms what a lot of people already suspected. That's why it was so damaging and that's why it really stuck, because there was a strong suspicion that that's what it was, and then you had them in their own words saying it.
I think it changes the dynamic in the email controversy. I think it changes the dynamic of the hearing, in the sense that prior to McCarthy's statement, Hillary would have gone in there very much on the defense, and Republicans very much on the offense. I now think the tables are turned: The Republicans have to justify their continued existence, and Hillary has the wind at her back a bit because of the admission that this was nothing more than a partisan charade.
It also has the potential to change the dynamic in the presidential race, because whoever ends up being the Republican candidate [will be] the beneficiary of all the leaking and all the other shenanigans that this committee has been perpetrating. Now, as people are aware of it, they're less likely to get away with it.
I think propaganda ceases to have its effect once people start to understand what it is. So I think it's a plus for Hillary in the presidential race, as well.
Correct the Record is unique as a super PAC — you can coordinate with the campaign since you're not doing any paid advertising.
What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? What conversations are your staff having with the campaign, and how closely are you in sync?
DB: The rough division of labor is that campaigns — not just this campaign, any campaign — love to stay as positive as they can and stay on their message and stay above the fray. We've already seen that with the email controversy and the really unfair attacks on the Clinton Foundation. If a campaign can have another entity dealing with it, they're happier. They stay positive, we deal with the garbage.
A good example is when that book Clinton Cash came out a few months ago. That was a sustained organized effort to discredit the Clinton Foundation with charges that were false or unproven. We did battle with that author. You don't want Hillary Clinton doing battle with someone you've never even heard of, some right-wing operative who has a book out.
It's a lot of that. It's a lot of back-and-forth with the Benghazi committee. I predict that we're going to see more of these "Swift Boat"-type activities going forward because, where the Clintons are concerned, there is a whole 20-something-year-long cottage industry on the right. There's always money for it.
You're going to see a lot of shenanigans and the types of things that campaigns shouldn't really engage with. I would say that's our main role.
DB: The lesson is probably that Sen. Sanders is not the easiest person to necessarily find fault with. He certainly made lemonade out of this lemon. It was very interesting to watch. What it ended up doing was firing up his supporters. That was just a very interesting exercise. Yeah.
Why do you think Sanders has been so successful? Why has he emerged as Clinton's foremost competitor?
DB: Well, he has definitely tapped into something, and struck a chord with the progressive base of the party. The chord is probably more anti-establishment and more impatient for more systemic change than they think they might be getting from other Democratic candidates.
I think at the end of the day, though, that as far as Hillary is concerned, this is a good thing. I think Sanders is appealing particularly to young people, some of whom will be first-time voters. I think they'll tune into the Democratic debates because he's doing something to inspire them. But then they're going to see Hillary, too. I think a lot of that excitement will ultimately be helpful, to a large extent, in a turnout election with each side working to turn out their base. If our base is engaged that's all for the good, ultimately. I think it's all healthy.
There have been a lot of stories emerging recently that seem aimed at casting doubt on Vice President Joe Biden's prospects. A lot of people have said those stories are coming from you and your shop. You've denied that, but do you see anything wrong with putting it out there?
DB: Do I see anything wrong with putting research out on Vice President Biden?
DB: Well, we're not putting out any research on him. But I would just say it's premature. He's not a candidate yet, so I don't know that there would be any reason to do that. But I think that if he gets in the race, just like the others in the race, he's going to be vetted, he's going to be scrutinized. Whatever is in the public domain, in the public record, will be fair game. And we're a pro-Clinton super PAC, so, yeah, I think at that point it won't be surprising at all.
As you write in Killing the Messenger, the work you and your colleagues did through back channels in the 1990s is now the province of enormous super PACs and an entire national news network at Fox. But your stories seemed to be more powerful — they drew more attention and stirred up more trouble. Why is that? Is there a saturation now that didn't exist back then?
DB: I think there's some truth in that. What I try to do in the book is update the critique of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" to show what the right wing and its infrastructure looks like today. One of the things I say is that back in the '90s it was a fairly ragtag kind of operation, as compared to today. There was obviously some money behind it. There was some strategy. But it was a bit of a seat-of-the-pants operation.
Today there's more like a conglomerate than a conspiracy. It's much better financed and more sophisticated. In some ways they're better at what they do, particularly in manipulating the media. I do think there's probably some truth in the idea that there's now such a glut of right-wing material in the ether. You know, when I was doing the anti-Clinton work, there was no Fox News for that kind of amplification.
But I was at the very beginning of all this. Some of those things were the very beginning of the Clinton scandals. Maybe they got a little more attention in some ways because it was new. Now we're 20 years later and we're still doing the same kind of scandalmongering, but it's old hat.
You've gone from being a Republican to a Democrat, from one of the Clintons' chief boogeymen to maybe their most fierce supporter. Have you, in that process, become a more honest person?
DB: Definitely. Yes. The common wisdom is that both sides are somehow equally responsible and corrupt and dishonest, and it's all just politics. I really haven't found that. I find that, yeah, both sides spin. I get that. But there's a difference. With the right wing as I experienced it, the dishonesty was intentional. It was basically part of your being. It was rewarded, and we see it everyday. The shows that get the highest ratings are the ones that are the worst misinformers. So the culture is very different.
In Media Matters, we obviously go after some of these big right-wing targets like Rush Limbaugh, but I'll tell you, the integrity and the fairness that goes into the process we go through when we're quoting them, the standards are just a lot higher. The standards are just a lot higher on the Democratic side than anything in the Republican side. So, yes, I think it is a more honest culture, and I'm happy to be a part of it.