Originally posted in The New York Times Magazine.
After your conviction for violating campaign-finance law, you served an eight-month sentence, spending nights in a confinement center. Irving Kristol once said that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been “mugged by reality.” So what’s a conservative whose reality is being surrounded by muggers? Unlike white-collar prisons, the confinement center has the full gamut of criminals — armed robbers, rapists, murderers. I thought of myself as an anthropologist with a rare opportunity to, you might say, study the natives.
What did you learn about the natives? I couldn’t find one guy who said that he was framed. They all acknowledged their guilt but argued that they were the small fry. They believe that the real criminals are not only part of the system, they are running the system, and, in fact, that they are the system and that, at its highest level, America is a crime syndicate.
You are a criminal, literally, and you’ve also said that your own prosecution was politically motivated. It sounds as if your worldview was actually quite similar to that of your neighbors. If you put my rap sheet alongside the Clinton rap sheet, I think that would be almost a prima facie case that they have gotten away with far more than I have. My crime consisted of giving away too much money. I didn’t benefit from it in any way.
Many conservatives these days are calling for reforms of the criminal-justice system. Do you think you’ll be joining that fight anytime soon? No, but I have been somewhat shaken in certain assumptions that I used to have about America’s criminal-justice system.
Which belief was shaken the most? That you are innocent until proven guilty. I have no doubt that the majority of people who are in prison are guilty of the crimes that they were accused of. Still, there are also a whole bunch of people who are in prison as a result of plea bargains.
I’ve read that 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases end in plea bargains. Before this experience, I would probably have been fairly glib about that.
In California, where you live, ex-convicts are allowed to vote. In many states, they are not. Can we trust you and your bunkmates with the franchise? By and large, the concerns of the inmates are food, sleep, money and sex. I was initially contemptuous of that. I felt that they ignored all kinds of other issues that are important to human life. But it was clarifying, a refreshing contrast with the world I came from. Its relevance to letting these guys vote, I don’t even know.
Do you think that would be a clarifying experience for most wonks? Absolutely. I think we need to bridge the divide between the intellectual talking class and the people who actually respond to politics through raw experience.
In your book “The Enemy at Home,” you suggest that liberal attitudes about divorce and adultery helped to invite the Sept. 11 attacks. Have your own extramarital relationship and divorce changed your opinion in any way? My own marital woes and divorce and ill-fated engagement, all of that, have certainly made me more aware of how difficult it is to make marriages work. But I have not in the slightest departed from my belief in those traditional institutions. Now, my argument was that radical Muslims are able to point to the moral and cultural decay of America as displayed in Hollywood and use it as a recruiting tool. That was true when I wrote it; it’s true now.
In a recent interview, you said that a close reading of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” helped you understand Lucifer’s influence on Saul Alinsky’s organizing methods. Should we expect any more analysis of epic poetry to explain Hillary Clinton? Perhaps Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” or Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound”? Either that or Dante’s “Inferno.” When I think of a Hillary administration, I’m reminded of the sign on the outer gates of hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Read more in The New York Times Magazine.
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