Switching Sides

Review: Daniel Oppenheimer, ‘Exit Right’

Whittaker Chambers, communist spy turned conservative whistleblower / AP

In his Inferno, Dante sets Brutus and Cassius—the main conspirators in the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar—alongside Judas Iscariot, traitor to Jesus, in the lowest realm of hell. The price of their betrayals is to be chewed in the mouth of Satan for eternity, constantly being ripped apart without dying.

The consequences for turning on your friends are not quite as dire in modern republics. After all, Winston Churchill changed parties twice throughout his career, later quipping that, "anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat." Churchill’s humor, which softens the hard edges of party betrayal, is characteristically democratic.

Daniel Oppenheimer considers six American stories of changing sides in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Oppenheimer reports on figures from the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, starting with Whittaker Chambers’ espionage activities in the Soviet "underground" in the 1930s and ending with Christopher Hitchens’ support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In between, Oppenheimer introduces his readers to James Burnham, originally a Trotskyite; Ronald Reagan, at one time a union man; Norman Podhoretz, who began his intellectual career on the left; and David Horowitz, at one point an advocate for the Black Panthers.

Oppenheimer is an excellent storyteller. The pace and style of his book is leisurely yet precise. He weaves together descriptions of his subjects’ lives with their writings, and has a poet’s eye for how mundane experience can be transformative, as when he imagines Ronald Reagan, sitting on a train with General Electric CEO Lemuk Boulware, conducting casual conversation about the "virtue and decency of free enterprise." In Oppenheimer’s hands, such a scene convinces as an important moment in Reagan’s developing politics. He works similar literary wonders in sections devoted to Podhoretz and Horowitz.

Oppenheimer has also paid careful attention to his work as a whole. His profiles span the twentieth century and he makes sure to gesture at overlapping concerns among the actors. For instance, Norman Podhoretz had written a long essay on race relations in the late 1960s. Oppenheimer follows his profile of Podhoretz with that of David Horowitz, whose activities with and eventually against the Black Panthers illustrate Podhoretz’s thesis. Likewise, an important moment in Reagan’s development was reading Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, a book that Oppenheimer’s readers will already be familiar with.

While Oppenheimer’s book is well crafted, it fails to deliver on the author’s promise that this book is "about how we come to believe at all." The stories that Oppenheimer profiles "are worth telling because it’s during the period of political transition, when the bones of one’s belief system are broken and poking out through the skin, that the contingency and complexity of belief become most visible." This may be true for Whittaker Chambers, who latched on to the messianic hopes of Marxism in his young days only to discover that the Bolshevik promise fell short, but it’s certainly less true of Christopher Hitchens, who claimed (plausibly) that his support for the Iraq War was consistent with his long-held and most important principles. Though his attitude to American power certainly shifted, Hitchen’s views on fascist tyrants like Saddam Hussein never did. Neither did his view of monotheistic religion, which he accused, literally until his dying day, of promoting a celestial tyrant. Oppenheimer never addresses how Chambers’ and Hitchens’ experience of the contingency of belief could be the same or similar.

Beyond the differences in experience (not to say beliefs!) between his subjects, Oppenheimer also never addresses deeper theoretical tangles that his book points toward. The good news is that his unwillingness to play the philosopher does not compromise his virtues as a storyteller. Although Oppenheimer’s readers are left to figure out the meaning of these political changes themselves, the author succeeds in presenting them with entertaining vignettes.