The Best of The American Spectator’s The Continuing Crisis as Chronicled for Four Decades by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
Edited by Louis Hatchett
(Beaufort Books, 290 pages, $14.95)
As Joan Didion once observed, a writer is always selling someone out. That’s something that Bob Tyrrell knows all about. Eight years ago, in the Atlantic magazine, a publication once noted for its accuracy, a youngish writer—discovered, nurtured, and given a reputation by The American Spectator—wrote a long and detailed account of the death of his erstwhile magazine. The article concluded with the moving van at the door, apparently in the process of removing the Spectator and its editor-in-chief, by now a broken man, to some reservation in untamed New England.
End of story, and the writer eventually moved on to National Review, from which he’s now departed. (Memo to NR: Heed Joan Didion.) But in the meantime, mirabile dictu, just as if Sundance and Butch Cassidy had some months later strolled untouched out of their final gunfight into the sunlight, there were Bob Tyrrell and his editorial director, Wlady Pleszczynski, still standing, still publishing articles reflecting the very best of American conservative thought and writing, still running splendid features like Ben Stein’s Diary, which scholars will one day consult to understand our times, still chiding the pretentious, the ungodly, and bug-eyed boobs from all corners of the world.
In short, to paraphrase one of Tyrrell’s literary ancestors, his death and the death of TAS were greatly exaggerated, and half a decade later we’re still waiting for the Atlantic’s follow-up article, perhaps entitled “Whoops.” But in the meantime, the targets remain—aging tenured Marxist professors at Ivy League universities yearning for East Berlin and the old Bulgaria; leftists, loons, and deviates everywhere; former SDSers, Weatherpeople, and domestic terrorists whose counsel is sought out by a strange new Administration—new names, new faces, but essentially reading from the same old scripts. The Continuing Crisis rolls on, and Bob Tyrrell continues to record it, just as he’s done for nearly four decades now, with wit, humor, and the satirist’s eye.
The academy, where most of the aberrant ideas and movements of the 20th century were hatched, continues to function as a hatchery in the 21st, and this excerpt, written in the autumn of 2000, could just as easily have been written in 1970:
Fourteen million American youths departed for college. Nothing could be done to spare their lives. In this nation of 270 million souls no compassion could be plucked to shield them from such courses as “Black Lavender: A Study of Black, Gay, and Lesbian Plays and Dramatic Con struction in the American Theater” (Brown University!), “Bodies Politic: Queer Theory and Literature of the Body” (Cornell University!), and “Feminist Biblical Inter pretation” (Harvard University!).
And of course, there’s the media. This in 2007:
December witnessed the arrival on the world stage of one more unpronounceable surname, a trend that is causing alarm among those producers who have to prepare the evening news reports for…Mr. Charlie Gibson, Mr. Brian Williams, and perky, pretty Miss Katie Couric. For years, Mr. Williams has had a dreadful time pronouncing foreign words…and any word with more than three syllables has elicited beads of sweat on his gnarled brow no matter how much makeup is cemented on it…[C]onsider the challenge he faces when forced to read the name of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and in December Turkmenistan, a nation possessing a fifth of the world’s natural gas supply, replaced its deceased leader, Mr. Saparmurat Niyazov (whose forename nearly brought Katie to tears), with Mr. Gurbanguly (this is only his first name) Berdymukhammedov. It is estimated that not one of the aforementioned anchors will be able to pronounce the full name without being interrupted by a commercial break.
And this in 2006, from the ongoing political commentary:
Even when a Republican bigwig makes a gesture their way they [the Angry Left] are unappeasable. On February 11, Vice President Dick Cheney while on a quail hunt in Texas tried to ingratiate himself to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) by turning his gun from the valiant birds and peppering a hunting buddy. The stratagem availed him not, as suspicious liberals called for a congressional inquiry. Even when it was reported that Mr. Cheney’s quarry was a Republican millionaire their wrath was unsated.
There is, of course, a political and ideological point of view, a consistent conservatism running through the Continuing Crisis. But that’s to be expected. After all, as Barzini puts it in The Godfather, we are not Communists.
But what may distinguish Tyrrell from many conservatives is that he is genuinely funny, and his very special brand of satire—Juvenalian, the academics might call it—has imbued TAS with a unique tone and texture since it began as The Alternative in the late 1960s. The Tyrrell style has probably been most compared, for want of a better comparison, to Mencken’s. But the objects of Mencken’s satire are not for the most part Tyrrell’s; and Mencken, to put it mildly, was not a clubbable man.
Nevertheless, there are valid comparisons. Writing in Touchstone, a Christian magazine, James Sauer makes the relevant points: Mencken, like the great 18th-century satirists, “reminds us of the artistry that can be made from the foolishness of man,” and also reminds us of the power of language. “And it was as a self-made philologist that Mencken had his greatest success, cataloging in The American Language the fertile development of New World English. Mencken’s success came from coupling his vast vocabulary with his clear, spritely, half-cocked style. We see a similar semantic erudition in writers like William F. Buckley, Jr., while the caustic Mencken tradition is kept alive by the frolicsome R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. of the American Spectator.”
“Frolicsome” may not be quite the term of choice. But Aram Bakshian, Jr., former director of White House speechwriting for Ronald Reagan, and a widely published writer and student of the language, believes the point is well taken. “With The American Spectator,” Bakshian says, “Bob Tyrrell, much like Bill Buckley, has played a Promethean role, standing virtually alone and creating something unique. And in the Continuing Crisis, especially, Tyrrell is the master of a particular form—taking broken shards of silliness, deviance, hypocrisy, crime and treason, shaping them into Erasman examples of human folly, and doing so with style and flow. The Continuing Crisis is Tyrrell at his best, and that best is just as good today as it was in 1970.
“As for the Mencken comparison,” Bakshian continues, “it doesn’t hold. A more apt comparison might be with Mark Twain, who in his nonfiction combined satirical intent with good humor and a reverence for the language. Tyrrell is more a pure throwback to the stylists of the 19th century. And don’t forget the Irish genes, which may account in part for the lilt of the language, the skepticism, the irrreverence, and the humor.”
Several selections in the collection were signed by Wlady Pleszczynski or Andrew Ferguson, one of the finest conservative stylists writing today. But neither quite captures the Tyrrell voice. Louis Hatchett, in his fine and perceptive introduction to the collection, also gives it a good shot, and there are no doubt unseen hands at work in some of the other sections. But the Tyrrell touch is unique. Apart from style and his leading role as a conservative smiter of the liberal ungodly, Tyrrell has also played a practical role in shaping and defining the conservative movement. During the Reagan ascendancy, it seemed that the civil war, raging through the ’60s and sputtering through the ’70s, had finally been won. Conservative ranks had swelled, and Bill Buckley invited Democrat war-hawks, old Scoop Jackson supporters, former Trotskyists—all those people we now call neocons—to come on in, the water’s fine. And in they came, with both feet, bringing their sons and daughters with them.
If, as James Burnham once described it, National Review was “Miss [Priscilla] Buckley’s finishing school for young ladies and gentlemen of conservative persuasion,” TAS became the literary boot camp for neocon offspring, the place where they first made their writing debuts. Before the neocon baby boom, there were splendid writers like George Will, making his bones in TAS with his “Letter from a Whig.” But most impressive was the profusion of young neocons, and today the mastheads of the nation’s most successful conservative publications are stocked with graduates from Tyrrell’s boot camp—graduates who learned to swim at TAS and owe Tyrrell a profound debt of gratitude.
Tyrrell, like Frank Meyer, apparently believed it possible to build a movement by bringing all the strands of conservative thought and ideology together. And during the Reagan years, the idea of a conservative fusion seemed to have become reality. Then came the first Bush pause, followed by the Clinton years and what seemed to be the unraveling of the conservative coalition. True, in the mid-’90s the balance briefly tipped back. The elections of 1994 brought a new breed of young congressmen to Washington—the social and cultural heirs of the 1960s conservative counterrevolution, spearheaded by publications like The American Spectator and National Review. They blundered into an ambush disguised as a budget battle, however, allowing the Clinton administration to survive.
And in the meantime, the counterculture had taken on a life of its own, successfully moving from the campus to the White House, and in the process establishing itself in the bureaucracy, the agencies of government, and most of the major media. And when Tyrrell took on the Clintons, head-to-head, there was a massive counterattack. As he later wrote, “They [the Clintons] were holy people. They fought the Vietnam War, the imperial presidency, racism. They could do no wrong.” Tyrrell got the goods on the Clintons. But the Clintons had the backing of the media stars, many of them products of the ’60s. And when Tyrrell fired his broadsides in a TAS exposé, the White House came at Tyrrell with all they had, unloosing a propaganda barrage which, as James Warren pointed out in the Chicago Tribune, “seemed to be largely embraced by official Wash ing ton and its solicitous press corps.”
Since those days, the moving vans have come and gone, but to and from the White House, not TAS headquarters, carrying “the Groper,” as Tyrrell affectionately calls Bill Clinton, and his bride to greener, and in the case of the Groper, much more lucrative pastures. (And we’re still waiting for the post-presidential conflict of interest investigations.) The second Bush pause has come and gone, leaving in its wake a lingering sense of awe and bafflement, to be succeeded by an administration run by a strange new figure, who could have been created by a mad sociologist in a lab at Harvard, and who just may be the beau ideal of the old counterculture, the embodiment of everything Bettina Aptheker, Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, and her consort Bill Ayers (both of them now holding high positions in the Chicago educationist establishment) had ever blown up buildings for.
But maybe not. At this writing, especially in his various pronouncements on defense and foreign policy, the Chosen One sounds decidedly more like Dick Cheney than, say, Nancy Pelosi, and there’s an uneasiness rippling through leftist ranks. Could the One actually become the Other? Unlikely, no doubt. But stay tuned. If and when it begins to happen, we’ll read about it in Bob Tyrrell’s Continuing Crisis.