Rearranging the bookshelves the other day, the Monitor came across a volume published in 1999 titled A Passion for Truth. The book is a collection of columns by the late Eric Breindel, whose death in 1998 at the shockingly young age of 42 deprived the nation of one of its most articulate conservative polemicists.
The void Breindel left behind was especially acute in New York City, where for better than a decade, as editorial-page editor and featured columnist at the New York Post, he gave forceful voice to views not often granted serious consideration by the town’s liberal establishment – or by many of its residents, for whom voting Democratic long ago replaced the religion of their forefathers.
This is, after all, the city that early in the 20th century served as an incubator for almost every strain of radicalism to infect the American body politic; a city where the screams and rants of left-wing demagogues and anti-white race-baiters have been accepted as enlightened discourse; a city where a far-left loudmouth like Bella Abzug could be elected to Congress and the Rev. Al Sharpton taken seriously as a candidate for public office.
It is also a city where in 1997 better than four in ten New York voters preferred not to reelect Republican Rudy Giuliani, who by the end of his first term had done nothing less than restore to the city a level of safety and livability undreamed of just four years earlier.
This is the daunting environment in which Breindel labored, a one-party town that in its rigid adherence to a single ideological standard brought to mind the closed systems that once thrived behind the old Iron Curtain.
In A Passion For Truth, Post columnist John Podhoretz brought together sixty-nine columns that, taken individually, highlight his late colleague’s rigorous analytical ability and graceful prose style – and that in their totality provide an overview of the some of the more contentious issues of an era.
A Passion For Truth is divided into four sections, with each of the first three representing particular areas of Breindel’s interest. The final section, an epilogue of moving eulogies, offers readers a taste of the affection and respect Breindel inspired in others, no matter how much or how little they had in common with him ideologically.
Part One, “The Anti-Communist Struggle,” focuses on a subject that consumed Breindel over the last years of his life: The never-ending campaign by many on the Left to whitewash the activities of the American Communist Party in its heyday – a campaign that has survived confirmation, from Soviet archives, of widespread espionage on the part of American Reds in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Part Two, simply titled “New York,” reminds us of how gloomy and dangerous a place the city was during the Dinkins era (and how things weren’t all that much better under Dinkins’s charismatic predecessor, Ed Koch, which at least partially explains the resentment Koch harbors toward the more successful Giuliani).
More than half the columns in this section deal with matters of race, and the reader is struck anew by the realization that, for all the vanity protests and manufactured outrage mounted by the city’s civil liberties and race-baiting contingents during Giuliani’s years in office, New York’s always-simmering racial tensions were never more acute than during the tenure of a black mayor elected as a “healer.”
Part Three, “The Fate of the Jews,” consists of 25 columns on specifically Jewish issues. As Podhoretz writes in his introduction to the columns on Israel, “Breindel believed that in the wake of the Holocaust it was a sacred duty of all Jews to defend the state of Israel…. He viewed the PLO and its chief, Yasser Arafat, as a successor to the Nazis in their determination to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the earth.”
The latter perspective, Podhoretz notes, “became increasingly rarely heard in the mainstream media in the years Breindel was writing his column.”
Chancing upon A Passion for Truth for the first time in years proved to be serendipitous in more ways than one. Rereading it provided general intellectual stimulation as well as the answer to an ongoing argument the Monitor had been having with an admirer about the 1991 Crown Heights riots.
And it served, in a literary sense, to bring Breindel vividly back to life just weeks before his ninth yahrzeit – the date of his death is March 7, which in 1998 coincided with the ninth of Adar.