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Comeback Conservatism

Bob Tyrrell is the man for whom the term "stand-up guy" was invented.

By From the May 2010 issue

After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery
By R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
(Thomas Nelson, 272 pages, $24.99)

1. Bob Tyrrell is an American icon. Ace swimmer at Indiana University, which is to swimming what Athens was to the Olympics. Founder, lo, these 40 years or so ago, of one of the leading magazines of intellectual output in the United States, this very own American Spectator you are reading right now. Exposer, one might say, of Bill Clinton as golf cheat and misguided procurer of beautiful girls through the Arkansas State Troopers, and most of all, relentless pursuer of Bill Clinton (whom I personally admire for his fiscal policy) as a liar under oath and a smearer of innocent girls.

2. It is fair to say of Bob Tyrrell, as one can say of very few human beings, that with his tenacity and fearlessness he changed the course of history by stopping Clinton dead in his tracks for a good long time. Tyrrell himself, left for dead by the jubilant left at one point as The American Spectator struggled financially, reemerged like Phoenix with his wingman, Wlady Pleszczynski, as editor of a better, stronger Spectator and that's just the beginning of the Bob Tyrrell story.

3. For all this time, he has been a prolific and gifted writer of books and essays and guest on TV, commenting trenchantly on the world political scene with a wit rarely matched except by his idols H. L. Mencken and William F. Buckley Jr. To Bob Tyrrell we owe the ideas of "the conservative crack-up," by which he meant conservatives sniping endlessly at each other instead of at the leftists; "the Kultursmog," by which he meant the left-wing, anti-American, anti-conservative vapor that has long since captured the American and world media and its hangers-on (I just took a break from writing this and watched a few minutes of a rerun of a TV show called Boston Legal, one long anti-GOP commercial masquerading as a drama, about which no one ever complains); and one of his best, the term "Boy Clinton," to describe, well, Bill Clinton: a big lovable lug who, as heir to George Washington, just happens to put a cigar in the vagina of a woman intern of college age, then lick it and smoke it in the office of Abraham Lincoln, then tries to tell the world he is holier than thou. I actually like Bill Clinton, but can you even imagine if George W. Bush did that? I mean, can you even imagine the outrage? And now Bill Clinton is worshipped, yes, WORSHIPPED, in Democrat circles. But once upon a time, Bob Tyrrell stopped him in his tracks.

4. Few and far between are there Americans with the dimensions of intelligence and articulation of Bob Tyrrell. And yet even here, we do not get to the meat of the real Bob Tyrrell, because it's not about words. It's about deeds.

5. Bob Tyrrell is the man for whom the term "stand-up guy" was invented. In a fight of any kind, verbal, physical, ideological, he is the guy you want at your back and at your side, too. He never backs down, and he's never afraid, and he plays by the rules but he keeps playing even when the other guys do not play by the rules. I have known him man and boy since Spiro Agnew was vice president, and there is no more loyal pal. "No better friend. No worse enemy," as the Marines say about themselves, and rightly so.

6. As I write this (back from that silly Boston Legal), I am in a street fight with some very bad people who are determined to wreck my life. As I lie in my bed at night with my faithful German Shorthaired Pointers, Brigid and Cleo, and think of how fast some people will dump me if this fight gets worse, I get a certain glow thinking that I can count on Bob (and Wlady) to always be there. That's saying something.

However, this is a book review. Bob can write his own autobiography. Bob Tyrrell has written a book about the political situation right now in the U.S. of A. It came about as the result of his ruminations and incandescence after the GOP losses in 2006 and 2008. Of course, the loss in 2008 was far narrower than most commentators ever noticed. Senator McCain actually won most of the white vote. Without the near total solidarity of the black voters for Obama (and who can blame them? The idea of a post-racial world is an idea with no objective correlative), we would now be seeing a brisk-looking old man named John walk around the White House instead of a balletic middle-aged man named Barack. The totals for Obama vs. McCain were not even close to the routs by Nixon in 1972 or Reagan in 1984. Still, right after the elections, the GOP was given up for permanent minority status, just a Southern, regional, racist party, or so they said. (I give credit to my young GOP attorney -- writer pal, Russ Ferguson, who jauntily said, "We'll be back," immediately after the election.)

Anyway, the gloom in the conservative world after early November 2008 was palpable. But some people see farther both backward and forward than others. So, in the aftermath of the 2008 election and with a few months yet to go before the 2010 midterms, R. Emmett Tyrrell, best-selling author and founder and editor in chief of this very journal you have before your eyes, has provided us with a timely, irreverent, and informative new book, After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery. The book gives us a rundown on the state of conservatism in America (it's not good, but it's extremely far from serious illness, let alone death), what went wrong, and how conservatism can make its comeback.

With his insider political knowledge and astonishingly broad and deep mastery of historical fact, Tyrrell proves himself to be the premier chronicler of conservatism in America. This is a book worried conservatives must have and thoughtful liberals will read if they know what's good for them. It is nothing less than the book of Genesis of postwar conservatism.

Tyrrell notes that the chattering class has been writing conservatism's obituary ever since the rise of the modern conservative movement in the early 1950s. The first round of obits came in 1964, with the crushing defeat of Goldwater, a pioneer and a truth teller, but not a great campaigner and pitted against the unbeatable combination of a unified liberal media and the most seasoned of seasoned political operators, Lyndon B. Johnson, a titan in many ways. Then conservatism was supposedly dead after the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974 -- even though, as Tyrrell rightly notes, RN was not even remotely a movement conservative except on lifestyle issues. Then when Clinton beat G.H.W. Bush, again, hardly a conservative, the movement was dead and buried, and when Barack Hussein Obama beat McCain, that was supposedly the un-qualified end of conservatism.

That was before New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts -- yes, freaking Massachusetts -- brought forth The Resurrection.

Conservatism, tyrrell explains, is the "longest dying political movement in American history. Yet the movement is still around, and oddly enough, the political center toward which Liberal political candidates claim they are running is more clearly shaped by modern American conservatism than by Liberalism." Just for me, I see conservatism as working better than whiny, bitching leftism because for most Americans, life is pretty darned good, and we want it to stay as it is for as long as we can. That's probably too simple-minded, but then I am writing this from Southern California. To be sure, conservatism is in some trouble, due in part to what Tyrrell calls the "petty competitiveness" among conservative intellectuals, the "low standards" of conservative pundits and political leaders -- you should read how he slices and dices David Brooks, David Frum, and Ross Douthat. It is a skilled moyel, the Jewish functionary who does circumcisions, about his work, but going a bit far.

But liberalism is just as badly off, if not worse, we are told. Tyrrell reminds readers that he first diagnosed Liberals' "unstable condition" in his 1984 book, The Liberal Crack-Up. "Since the Reagan presidency, Liberalism has endured more years of decline than ascendancy. Listening to the sweeping rhetoric of President Obama and witnessing the shifting emphases in his brief tenure, I think we can conclude that Liberalism is again in one of its periods of schizophrenia." He remarks on Liberalism's own shortcomings and near-death experiences, again comforting those conservatives who fear for their movement: "Liberalism has not experienced the growth that conservatism has and can boast of none of conservatism's diversity, though diversity is one of Liberalism's most harped-on values."
This part is worth quoting at some length:

What diversity liberalism has experienced is merely the identity politics of those liberal-leaning mal-contents who have cultivated through the years ever more grievances, for instance, feminists, homosexual activists, adepts of racial or ethnic politics, and of course the consumerists and environmentalists. The last two...since the 1960s...have practiced what I have called Masked Politics, opposing the Giant Corporations, land developers, and new technologies that give them endless anxieties and visits to their gastroenterologists.

Tyrrell notes, and of course it's true, that there are many kinds of conservatives. For example, there are neoconservatives who became disaffected by the radicalism of 1960s Liberals (the late Irving Kristol was their putative leader -- the phrase "neocons" is now used by extremists on both sides to really mean "Jewboys" is almost invariably salted with some serious anti-Semitism); "reformed conservatives," or RCs, who sometimes "ingratiat[e] themselves with the mainstream Liberal media by finding fault with conservatism"; our pals New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat, again; and even "mini-cons" (see bow-tied journalist Tucker Carlson).

This brings us once again to Tyrrell's pet peeve, or what he views as the biggest impediment to conservatism flourishing once again: conservatives who "snipe" at each other to get ahead. Some examples of Tyrrell's conservative snipers include:

1. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who reviewed Tyrrell's 1992 book, The Conservative Crack-Up, for the New York Times. Her review, Tyrrell writes, "was more a psychoanalysis of me than a review of my book." Tyrrell continues, "Peggy's sly disparagement validated another of my propositions about conservatives, namely: conservatives, particularly conservative writers, have remained marginalized by the political culture and left with only one expedient to stardom, which is to snipe at fellow conservatives."

2. "Reformed conservative" columnist David Brooks, who called Sarah Palin "a fatal cancer to the Republican Party." Tyrrell really does not like this man.

3. Conservative talk radio host Joe Scarborough, "an RC for the airwaves" who "has rarely manifested an interest in much beyond his own self-promotion."

Among the stories of sniping (which could have started to get depressing after a while), Tyrrell stays humorous and optimistic, never wavering in his belief that conservatism's prospects are bright. He tells a funny story about an annual dinner The American Spectator puts on for its writers and supporters, one of which took place right after the 2008 election. He wanted his fellow conservatives to be prepared for the "wilderness years," so he had his staff hand out 400 L. L. Bean catalogs to the dinner guests:

I urged my friends to settle for the offerings made available in the Bean catalog. Properly attired, we might not find the wilderness so bad. Sure, there would be poison ivy and wolves, clouds of mosquitoes and grim-faced members of the World Wildlife Federation stomping around on the mountain laurel, but there would be many instances of natural beauty. Once in the wilderness, I planned to pitch my tent close to that of the comely Governor Palin. She is very cute and can handle a shootin' iron....As it turned out, conservatism's wilderness years only lasted a few months, and I never did get an opportunity to taste Palin's sautéed elk.

In a deeply touching portion of the book we behold the great respect and admiration Tyrrell has for his close friend the late Bill Buckley, the conservative movement activist and legendary editor of National Review who died in February 2008. We also hear of the disdain Tyrrell has for Buckley's son, Christopher -- novelist, political satirist, and "reformed conservative." Tyrrell wallops Christopher for being disloyal to his father in both the flippant eulogy he gave at Buckley's heavily attended memorial service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and in his memoir. "He felt himself to be the neglected son, who, as the eulogy suggested and the book made clear, envied his father's superior talents," Tyrrell writes. Sad but apparently true.

Tyrrell's eloquent descriptions of Bill Buckley's achievements and quirky habits serve as a springboard into a discussion on the differences between the Nixon White House and the Reagan White House. While the Nixon White House shied away from the conservative movement, the Reagan White House embraced it (Reagan was a longtime National Review reader, Tyrrell points out).

Tyrrell urges conservatives to stop sniping, join forces, and become a real force for solidarity. And he's not talking about tea parties here, but rather those who travel in conservative intellectual circles:

[I]f the conservative counterculture is to vanquish the [liberal] smog, it has to start acting like a culture. There has to be intellectual activity shared among the conservative activists, personalities, and writers. The movement's members have to desist from their solipsistic leapfrogging and do what I urged upon Bill Buckley back in 1986, to wit, take an interest in each other's work -- at least when it is interesting. Moreover they have to assess each other and each other's work with a clear sense unclouded by the smog's vapors.

Tyrrell predicts that conservatism's recovery will be through "an archipelago of public policy think tanks," aided by intellectual journals like his own as well as conservative new media, such as talk radio and the Internet. I personally think conservatism's return to political power will come as Americans learn just how untrustworthy the Chicago gang they elected are.

In the book's final chapter, Tyrrell lays out his agenda for the next conservative ascendancy, including his recommendations for financial reform, health care reform, and national defense -- but not before he comments on how Liberals, especially President Obama, don't believe in American exceptionalism: "To Obama, America is a failed state, and so he has traveled the world, apologizing for the delusions that he imagines have brought so much discredit to America's brief but admirable history." So Tyrrell urges conservatives to do the opposite -- to embrace the last item on his conservative agenda: American exceptionalism. Tyrrell believes we should be proud of it and, as part of a conservative agenda, revel in our uniqueness as Americans. He concludes the book with a call "for real hope and change," again reminding us conservatives that we need to be a culture, not just a party: "With the growth of the conservative counterculture, the prospects are good for conservatism now to do what it should have done in the 1980s and act not merely like a political party but like a political culture."

And I can well imagine a genial, beaming, florid-faced Bob Tyrrell telling us all of this at one of the great Spectator dinners, and adding, "And please, dear Lord, let it start with me."

I love this guy, and long may he run.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.