Eric Breindel, a charismatic neoconservative of considerable influence as the editorial page editor of the New York Post, died in 1998 at age 42. His funeral at the Park Avenue Synagogue was mobbed by socialites and pols alike. Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Norman Podhoretz, Henry Kissinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Martin Peretz eulogized him. Podhoretz called Breindel a "very good Jew," Kennedy said he was the "smartest person" those who had met him ever knew and he should have been secretary of state, and Peretz said that Breindel was "obsessive and fierce."
The official version of Breindel's death was Hodgkin's disease or liver failure. But I'd known Breindel in college, and a couple of my friends passed on the rumor that he had died of AIDS, likely from dirty needles. Breindel was the child of Holocaust survivors and had a turbulent spirit--and a history of drug abuse, including a heroin arrest in 1983. Then a month or so ago, Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair published a book on Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, that states flatly and without citing any sources that Breindel died of AIDS. Wikipedia has picked up the assertion in its listing.
One friend of mine greeted Wolff's statement with approval: It's about time that this was discussed. But it hasn't been discussed. I've seen no controversy over Wolff's assertion. I wonder where Breindel's neocon cohort is, to knock down this claim, or support it. Where are those public people who loved him, from Leon Wieseltier to Lally Weymouth? Where is the Washington Post or NEw York Post or Times? Heck, maybe Wolff knows what he's talking about; he got days with Murdoch.
This is newsworthy because Breindel is the subject of hagiography. Here's an annual $20,000 award for neoconservative journalism made in Eric Breindel's name. And $10,000 annually to a college journalist. A year or two after Breindel's death John Podhoretz, now the editorial director of Commentary, edited a book of Briendel's writings called "A Passion for Truth," filled with praise of Breindel's brilliance, and vague descriptions of the nature of his death. Peretz accurately described Breindel as a "counselor to men and women in high places... [with] a pivotal place among the opinion elites," and of course a fierce Zionist, with a "severe" worldview. Under the circumstances, a pivotal place in the elites, you'd expect more facts about the nature of his death. Journalists don't protect other public figures on this score.
Breindel was loved and despised. My wife adored him, I didn't. In fact, I tangled with him in college and so did friends of mine. I had the understanding then that he was charismatic and that his charisma arose from his demons. Part of my interest in seeing this matter discussed comes from the knowledge that Breindel was a Roy Cohn-like character, righteous in his public writings, not so righteous in his private life. The word "vicious" is sometimes used about his sharp manner-- Peretz's "severe." Wolff accurately describes Breindel as a "social figure" who cultivated the powerful and who became a "virulent anti-Arab, anti-welfare, anti-Communist voice."
There has always been a vigorous public campaign on Breindel's behalf. He had an entourage in college, and when he was arrested in 1983--a scandal; he was on Moynihan's foreign policy staff--I got a call from a Breindel friend, telling me not to talk about his private life to reporters. I declined the advice, I was a reporter myself. And what did I know? In college he'd suffered a deathly illness, colitis, as I recall, and looked green and awful and told me he'd rather die than go through that again. It was rumored that he'd gotten hooked on painkillers. (John Podhoretz says as much in that festschrift). I always found his writing repellent and found him personally attractive, angular good looks, a trenchcoat, Camel non-filters. Peretz says that Breindel wanted to be in the Warsaw ghetto, to resist the Nazis. No wonder Breindel celebrated Menachem Begin and Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Jabotinsky's "vision of Jewish men and women unburdened by the stigma of exile."
This is the central intellectual contradiction of American Zionists, which Breindel (and Peretz and Wieseltier) failed to examine: they love exile. And so do I.
I like my wife's interpretation of Breindel's story. She always said that conservatives were more loyal than lefties. When Breindel fell down in '83, the neocons forgave him at once and picked him up and gave him one job after another. Leftwingers left their wounded on the side of the road, she said. That protection continues to this day.