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On Thursday evening, as the news broke that conservative author Dinesh D’Souza had been indicted by the feds for allegedly making illegal campaign donations to an unnamed 2012 Senate candidate (widely presumed to be Wendy Long, a long-shot Republican who was crushed by incumbent Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in New York), liberal commentators had trouble hiding their glee—or, what I called on Twitter, Dineshenfreude. After all, for years D’Souza has been a right-wing bad boy spouting the most noxious criticism of the left and being rewarded for his exploits. More recently, he was the fellow who derived the odious theory that President Barack Obama could only be understood if viewed as the secret keeper of the flame of Kenyan anti-colonialism—a notion that Newt Gingrich giddily embraced and promoted. D’Souza’s movie, 2016: Obama’s America, contends that Obama, driven by the remnants of this anti-colonial rage inherited from his father, had a covert second-term plan to weaken and impoverish the United States of America. It depicts Obama as anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-white.
D’Souza’s extremism traces back to his college days, when he was an editor of the Dartmouth Review, the leading conservative college publication of the early 1980s. (Wendy Long was a Dartmouth student and served as a trustee of the Review in the 1990s.) In that post, D’Souza became a hero to young conservatives across the nation (and the right-wing foundations looking to fund them). While he helmed the Review, it published a “lighthearted interview with a former Klan leader”—accompanied by a staged photo of a black person hanging from a tree—and an assault on affirmative action titled, “Dis Sho Ain’t No Jive, Bro,” which was written in Ebonics. (“Now we be comin’ to Dartmut and be up over our ‘fros in studies, but we still be not graduatin’ Phi Beta Kappa.”) The “Jive” article caused Jack Kemp, a conservative icon mindful of the right’s problems with minority outreach, to resign from the Review‘s advisory board. Decades later, it’s clear that D’Souza chose the path of the foul at an early point. But he also had trouble with trustworthiness—as I discovered in an early encounter.
In 1982, I attended—that is, snuck into—a conference for conservative students journalists held at the New York Athletic Club and sponsored by foundations eager to spread the conservative gospel on college campuses. D’Souza was received at this affair as royalty. And at lunch, I had the good fortune to share a table with him. There he bragged about the Review having made use of a list of Dartmouth alumni it had somehow procured—without the university’s approval—for a mailing. (The university maintained the Review had misappropriated the list and committed a copyright violation.) He and his surrounding acolytes also gloated over an infamous Review article that had outed members of Dartmouth’s Gay Student Association and published excerpts of letters written by the group’s members. (As a result of this article, some members of the group had their sexual orientation disclosed to friends and family members.)
Nine years later, when D’Souza was being hailed upon the publication of his book, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus—the Washington Post called him “palpably smart,” “sober-minded,” and a “gentleman”—I wrote a short piece in The Nation and recalled that I had once witnessed him boasting about improperly purloining documents for the gay-naming article.
D’Souza cried foul, claiming that the Review had not used any underhanded means to gain access to information about the members of the Gay Student Association. I searched my old notes, and it seemed I had conflated two overlapping moments from that lunch, misattributing D’Souza’s boast about the alumni mailing list caper to the outing article.
I duly noted this in a subsequent correction. But here’s where it gets interesting. In his response to my original article, D’Souza had maintained that the Review had only printed the names of the officers of the Gay Student Association, and it had located this information, along with the personal letters written by gay students, in publicly available records the group had filed with the school administration. In other words, the Review had done nothing untoward to unearth the names of the gay students it outed; the paper had merely relied on public information submitted by the group itself. (Put aside, for the sake of this tale, the probity—or mean-spiritedness—of outing a fellow student whose sexual orientation might not be known beyond the campus gay community. As the New York Times reported at the time, “One gay student named by the Review, according to his friends, became severely depressed and talked repeatedly of suicide. The grandfather of another who had not found the courage to tell his family of his homosexuality learned about his grandson when he got his copy of the Review in the mail.”)
At first, I took D’Souza at this word, accepting his account that the Review had used public information for its article naming the officers of the Gay Student Association, and conveyed that in the correction. That was a mistake on my part. After D’Souza complained about the correction, I decided to investigate further. I called Dolores Johnson, director of student activities at Dartmouth. She said it was “absolutely untrue” that the documents the GSA had filed with the school were open to the public. Certainly, she explained, the GSA, like all student groups, had provided her office the names of its officers and a constitution (and perhaps letters written by students about the group). But, she said, “I would never give that information out to the public.” And there was this: She pointed out that shortly before the Review published its article naming the gay students, some documents had disappeared from the GSA’s desk in a student center. Johnson noted that these missing documents were the ones cited in the Review story.
So the evidence—at least, Johnson’s account—suggested that foul play had been involved in the outing article. And D’Souza’s self-serving cover story—we obtained the information from public records—was undercut. He had duped me. Not surprisingly, after I returned to this matter in the pages of The Nation to relate Johnson’s description of the events and partially retract the correction, D’Souza did not respond. His silence spoke loudly.
Much of what D’Souza did in college as a rising conservative star foreshadowed the career of ideological nastiness to come. But relishing the outing of gay students (and at that luncheon there was much relishing) and engaging in dirty tricks to obtain those names—well, that speaks not to ideology, but character. And it is but one reason, even if now dusty, why D’Souza warrants little sympathy for being accused of once again breaking the rules to serve his ideological aims.