A Conservative Provocateur, Using a Blowtorch as His Pen

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At 11:42 a.m. on Feb. 14, a conservative online magazine called The Washington Free Beacon posted a dispatch about a speech Chuck Hagel gave in 2007 in which it said he called the State Department "an adjunct to the Israeli foreign minister's office."

The report was based on "contemporaneous" notes an attendee posted online. An hour later on the floor of the United States Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina urgently cited that statement as another reason to delay Mr. Hagel's nomination as defense secretary.

Mr. Hagel denied saying it, and no recording has surfaced. But after a successful filibuster against the nominee, a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel effectively declared partial victory and vowed to "redouble its efforts to bring to light Mr. Hagel's complete record."

All in all, it was a very bad day for Mr. Hagel, and a smashingly good one for the conservative political operative of the moment -- Michael Goldfarb.

At 32, Mr. Goldfarb is a founder of The Free Beacon, which is gaining prominence as a conservative clarion; a onetime presidential campaign aide to Senator John McCain, who provided critical support for the filibuster; and the strategist for the Emergency Committee for Israel, an anonymously financed group that advertises against President Obama and Congressional Democrats as insufficiently supportive of Israel. On top of that, he is a partner at Orion Strategies, a consulting firm whose clients have included the national governments of Taiwan and Georgia.

An all-around anti-liberal provocateur, Mr. Goldfarb has blazed a trail in the new era of campaign finance, in which loosened restrictions have flooded the political world with cash for a whole new array of organizations that operate outside the traditional bounds of the parties.

Often working with money from major Republican donors, most of whom have preferred anonymity, Mr. Goldfarb has been in the middle of nearly every major partisan dispute of Mr. Obama's presidency -- over Iran, Israel, terrorism policy and now Mr. Hagel and guns. For a time, Mr. Goldfarb worked as a communications strategist to the leading bêtes noires of liberals, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

Mr. Goldfarb did not come up via state politics, Capitol Hill or the Republican National Committee, proving grounds that made the careers of top party operatives like Lee Atwater, Karl Rove and Matt Rhoades, the campaign manager for Mitt Romney.

His career was spawned, rather, in the conservative confines of The Weekly Standard and allied organizations, namely the Project for the New American Century, which is well known for promoting the war in Iraq. He has since gone on to thrive in the influential world of outside ideological groups. Mr. Goldfarb, known as a flamethrower on both sides of the aisle, has achieved unparalleled hybrid status in the process.

In his work at The Free Beacon, for groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel and at Orion, he has combined a relatively new form of weaponized journalism, politicking and public policy into a potent mix.

"He's at the intersection of a lot of different worlds," said William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, who has been a boss, mentor and colleague to Mr. Goldfarb. He said Mr. Goldfarb was representative of a new generation of conservatives whose emergence at a low ebb of their party's power has made them "a little more entrepreneurial, more outspoken and risk-taking -- not so worried about moving up a corporate ladder."

A wisecracking native of suburban Philadelphia, Mr. Goldfarb has described himself as a cudgel. His signature political attack can best be described as gleeful evisceration, which at times has exposed him to charges of going too far and of getting too personal.

The liberal writer Lee Fang got a taste when he wrote an article for The Nation linking work that Orion has done for Taiwan to articles in The Free Beacon voicing criticism of the Obama administration for blocking a sale to Taiwan of F-16 jets.

Mr. Goldfarb denied any connection between his work at Orion and the articles, saying he did not personally handle Taiwan's account or write the articles.

But The Free Beacon responded viscerally, with a report featuring pictures of Mr. Fang -- who formerly wrote for the anonymously financed liberal blog ThinkProgress that frequently attacks the Kochs -- shirtless and blowing a thick cloud of smoke. The headline read: "High Times at The Nation."

In an interview, Mr. Fang, 26, said the photographs were from college and could have been found only in his password-protected account with Photobucket. He said he had filed a police report to get to the bottom of it. He said he felt doubly violated because the photograph was in a file that included revealing shots of his girlfriend.

"I think he's just out to hurt people," said Mr. Fang, who first tangled with Mr. Goldfarb when he was writing for ThinkProgress about the Kochs. "I don't understand what his greater goal is; what would be the perfect solution to fix the most serious problems in America?"

Though Mr. Goldfarb would not share how The Free Beacon obtained the photographs, he said in a telephone interview that they were publicly available and were secured by legal means.

As he tells it, he is simply trying to have fun while practicing his admittedly combative brand of politics -- the humor of which, he said, his liberal critics are too self-serious to get.

For instance, he said, a Free Beacon report that the retooled liberal magazine The New Republic had "dropped at least five prominent Jewish writers from its masthead" in what "may signal the publication's continued drift away from a staunchly pro-Israel standpoint," was tongue-in-cheek. (It drew angry rebuttals that The New Republic's editor Franklin Foer is Jewish and roughly half of the writers dropped were not Jewish.)

"We're true believers, but we're also troublemakers, and if you look at the work we do, a lot of it has a sense of humor," Mr. Goldfarb said. Though he said The Beacon had made a serious investment in its journalism, nonetheless, "We get up every day and say, how do we cause trouble?"

Mr. Goldfarb and his supporters say they find the attention he has received perplexing, especially from liberal groups that, in their view, basically do the same thing he does, which is attack the opposition.

Noting that ThinkProgress, which has frequently written about the donors he works with, does not disclose its own sources of financing, Mr. Goldfarb said, "They're living in a glass house, so it's very easy to throw the stone back at them."

Mr. Goldfarb said he modeled The Free Beacon and its parent, the Center for American Freedom, on ThinkProgress and its related organization, the Center for American Progress. That group was co-founded by John Podesta, a former Clinton administration official, and has a reputation as a major policy production house for the Obama administration.

Referring to headlines in The Free Beacon like "Bootylicious Beyoncé Solicits for Obama," ThinkProgress.org sent a statement from its editor, Judd Legum, that said: "They are not an imitation of ThinkProgress. They are a parody."

Sometimes, Mr. Goldfarb said, that is the point.

His role as a hawkish magnet of liberal scorn would not have been foreshadowed by his background. His mother is a public school teacher in Philadelphia, and his father is a dean at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. His sister, Rachael Goldfarb, emerged from their household with opposite politics. She was an assistant to Mr. Podesta when he was a White House chief of staff, and she is now an official with the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a conservative whipping post.

Mr. Goldfarb, who declined to be interviewed in person, went to Princeton, where he studied war history. But even there, Mr. Goldfarb exhibited the same delight in raising the ire of his more liberal classmates, friends said. "He relished the fact that he had a viewpoint that wasn't everybody else's viewpoint -- he was not above saying things solely for being provocative," said a dorm mate and friend, Christopher Beha, a novelist and an associate editor at Harper's Magazine.

After college, Mr. Goldfarb took a job as a receptionist at The Weekly Standard and worked his way up. He gained attention when he organized a campaign to discredit an anonymous author of a New Republic article criticizing the Iraq war and alleging misdeeds by troops. He rallied other bloggers to help him dig, and his campaign prompted a military investigation, eventually leading The New Republic to say it could not stand by the claims of the writer, later identified as Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp.

Mr. Goldfarb's work caught the eye of strategists for Senator McCain, who hired him "to attack the press," as Mr. Goldfarb put it in an interview in The Columbia Journalism Review. Though he said he disagreed with the tactic, he did it with trademark flair.

He left the campaign at loggerheads with some of his colleagues, who he thought were disloyal to Mr. McCain and Sarah Palin after the election. But he also gained vital contacts with donors, party leaders and, despite his role, reporters.

"There's something to be said for stabbing people in the front in a town where everybody goes around all day stabbing each other in the back," said Ben Smith, the editor in chief of Buzzfeed.com.

Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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