David Frisk, a Resident Fellow of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), recently published a review of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century on the prominent Liberty Law website sponsored by Liberty Fund.
The new book by Daniel Oppenheimer examines the political transformation of six figures in the twentieth century: Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham (later a major force at National Review), Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens. Its purpose is to show the ways in which even seemingly firm ideological commitments can turn out to be ill-fitting and vulnerable.
In addition to his “sensitive, precise, colorful writing that flows compellingly from one year to the next,” Dr. Frisk notes, “Oppenheimer accomplishes the admirable feat of making his subjects’ earlier political selves semi-attractive even to a conservative reader. In a similar spirit, Whittaker Chambers sought to convey not just the sincerity but the plausibility of his turn to the Communist Party as a young man. Had he not succeeded in this, his landmark 1952 memoir, Witness, would have been a still considerable but lesser book. Oppenheimer’s good discussion of Chambers is no substitute for that great work, but it helps that he tends to avoid judgmental hindsight about his subjects. … The past plausibility of the now-implausible is a crucial lesson that any deep historical study teaches.”
On the other hand, Frisk remarks, Exit Right should have said more about the impact these figures eventually had as conservatives (or, in the case of Hitchens, “as a casually mislabeled conservative”). This would have improved the book “by explaining what each man’s costly break—which, in one way or another, meant a major lost investment—arguably allowed him to achieve later for his new side.”
A Resident Fellow at the AHI since 2013, Dr. Frisk teaches its popular adult education courses in history and politics, also assisting with AHI reading groups at Hamilton College. He is the author of If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement (ISI Books, 2012).