When Ronald Reagan joined the Hollywood Democratic Committee, it was riven with communists. Four decades later, of course, the Republican president stood in West Berlin and demanded of the communist bloc, “Tear down this wall!”
His is the least intimately told of the six stories of political transformation in Daniel Oppenheimer’s sweeping, beautifully written but not quite laser-focused new book “Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.” Reagan’s gradual drift across the spectrum also contrasts with the personal and intellectual car wrecks that flipped Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens.
Through their rises and crises, Oppenheimer takes us for a cruise to the century’s breaking points, from the Great Depression to Sept. 11. From the doctrinaire Trotskyites of the 1930s to the “pro-wit radical faction” partisan who closes “Exit Right,” most of Oppenheimer’s subjects strained to dislodge what he calls “the organization men, all going about their business of producing the affluent society, a new form of cultural-political-economic existence in which things seemed to be going smashingly well but no one was happy.”
And then, one by one, his boat-rockers hit the deck. Take Horowitz, who now heads a think tank obsessed with Islamic fundamentalism. Oppenheimer achieves a mind meld with the Horowitz of the late 1970s, as he emerges from full-contact involvement with the Black Panthers, concussed by the deaths of two women and compromised by affairs with two others. When he comes to in the mid-1980s, he’s an implacable enemy of everything and nearly everyone he once believed.
Chambers and Burnham betrayed various communist factions, crippling friends and mentors in the process. Podhoretz and Hitchens cut their teeth gnawing at racism and imperialism, seized posts high on the cultural food chain, but then developed a taste for pink flesh. Oppenheimer isn’t judging his subjects, and doesn’t betray an ideological bias. Most of his subjects, though, seem several shades duller as convinced conservatives than they were as conflicted leftists.
The book’s modest problem is that it doesn’t quite connect its six dots. “Exit Right” stops short of proving that these six men, or the many other apostates of which they’re examples, are responsible for today’s near-catastrophic political climate. Nor does he postulate a unifying theory of radical political reconstruction, instead copping to the very different circumstances and motivations that turned the six men rightward.
To his credit, he doesn’t try to stretch the facts to meet the demands of some artificial hypothesis. The flip side, though, is that “Exit Right” leaves you feeling that it has fallen just short of its full potential.
Lacking a grand theory, he frames the book instead as “a challenge, to the reader, to wrestle with the ways his or her political suit might strain at the shoulders a bit more than is comfortable to admit.” Oppenheimer’s book does that. These men didn’t navigate the surface of the daily news cycle but instead strove to understand the currents of history and to create their own ripples – and then, later, to smooth those same waters. They challenge us to think and act a little bigger.
Oppenheimer, who works in communications at the University of Texas at Austin, meets the challenges of portraying complex people in difficult circumstances and illuminating broad currents through narrow lenses. If “Exit Right” is short of fully realized, it also leaves you wanting more.
“Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.” Author: Daniel Oppenheimer (Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $28)