Many years ago — many years ago — the great Hilton Kramer, one of the last of the true New York intellectuals, was sitting with me at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station — we were at the bar, in the small room to the side — and he said, “You know, Edmund Wilson once wrote an essay, ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’” The question got me. I had gone through life without reading perhaps the most read book in the history of books, Bible included.
Observe that the reason the subject came up was that I mentioned to Hilton that he ought to read a couple of hard noses I had written about in Commentary, at the time probably the only intellectual journal to cover these two masters (even Bellow had not heard of either until I brought them up with him).
And the only reason it covered them was that at the time I was in good standing with Neal Kozodoy, the top guy at Commentary after Marion Magid, herself the top lady there and just behind Norman Podhoretz in the hierarchy of brains that was that fabulous and legendary place. Neal thought I was cool, partly because I was good at sports and led an adventurous personal life, but also because I followed his instructions when trying to write for his magazine. He was a stickler for instructions, boy, and he was strict as one of those guys who used to teach in yeshivot. Rap you on the fingers with his ruler and all that.
In fact, Neal, I doubt he ever again commissioned a piece on either Elmore Leonard or Ross Thomas, the two cats in question. And I do not think Hilton ever followed up on his ambiguous nod of the head when I suggested he read them. He just said that line about Edmund Wilson and Agatha Christie, which was, frankly, not germane. You can learn more about Washington by reading Thomas — you can read Charles McCarry too, if you prefer his style — than the Washington Post or the verbiage put out by such elite places as the Brookings Institution or the American Enterprise Institute, where they do not write very well, either.
It was a good line, though. Hilton never had a bad line. And it came to me again when perusing some of the recent arguments about Trump vs. Never-Trump. I read where Sam Tanenhaus — a good man, even if Mr. R. Emmett Tyrrell disapproved of his death-of-conservatism book, unless it was a high-toned essay — reported on the banishment of David Frum to the outer precincts of the Swamp, in a recent RealClearPolitics post they lifted from Esquire, once the magazine of such real (and clear) writers as Gay Talese. It is hilarious.
But it is the kind of inside-hilarity that makes you say, “Who Cares Who Banished David Frum?” I felt like a real grouch reading that essay, a Scrooge if you want to know. Poor little rich kid crap, I kept muttering. Sam himself is well-paid New York Times man and Frum is a scion. He is Canadian scion, a Tory. He complained to Tanenhaus, who is a working stiff, that the AEI, American Enterprise Institute, took away his masthead job and the hundred grand that came with it. A real pity. Frum lives in a ten-bathroom indoor tennis courts spread on Foxhall, most fancy street in Washington, if I read Tanenhaus correctly. Real writers do not live there. But scions do. The hundred grand simply means he has to cut back a bit on his wife and kids’ allowances.
Note that so far, I have only mentioned neoconservatives. You can argue Tanenhaus is not a neo, nor even a con. I am a reporter and a writer, he would say, not a militant. That is so. But the historians of ideas, men of the academe of the future, will recognize his belonging to the neoconservative current, or sensibility, or school, or however they say. It will be up to them to say.
David Frum, though born with a silver spoon in his mouth and is therefore not a neocon stricto-sensu, but maybe because of that, he evidently hates Donald Trump. Rival scions, they can be catty. Trump leveled some criticism at David’s former boss, G. W. Bush, who was also a scion and who, in the eyes of David and many others of his Never-Trump team, was the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln. You have to respect their feelings, but why cannot they understand that Trump was running for president and, given the political sociology of the moment, he wanted to tell the voters that he heard them when they muttered about our lousy foreign policy leadership since the days of Ronald Reagan.
By the end of the campaign — which Donald Trump won, by the way, though it appears conservatives like the ones Tanenhaus writes about in this story have not registered and digested the news yet — the sense of outrage at what the Republican candidate said about their heroes and employers (the Republican establishment) had turned to obsessive hate. And though a good reporter, Tanenhaus does not suggest, let alone say, whence comes this uncharitable sentiment. One of the intriguing aspects of this essay — a fine piece of reporting if you want to know about how Arthur C. Brooks feels for David Frum, compared with what he feels for how his bread is buttered — is that the McGuffin is never found.
In a well plotted mystery, you need a McGuffin: What is driving these characters, what is the matter with them, what do they fear or desire? You would think if the whole story is about how some neos came to hate one another because some blanched before Donald Trump, you want to know what is this? What is this force that is driving them nuts and hate-filled? What is their grail? What motivates their repulsion?
Does Sam Tanenhaus know?
I wish Hilton were here. We could have a drink at the bar at Grand Central. He was partial to that place because he took the train to Westport or some fancy Connecticut place. Maybe it was Mystic. Though a city man, a New York intellectual, he liked the country. He liked the sea, the greenery, the commute. In his oxford button downs, his bow ties, his tweeds, he was a Jimmy Stewart sort of guy, cerebral. The Jimmy Stewart of Rear Window, not The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Anyway, he would explain this animus they have. He would figure out the McGuffin.
Note in passing that it is difficult to see just why it matters, in the grand scheme of things. Back in the days of Partisan Review, and the Southern Review and the Kenyon Review and Hound & Horn and Commentary and Encounter, these types of fights mattered. They mattered because as someone said, I forget who but Tanenhaus knows all this history inside out and in fact he refers to this line, it was probably either Koestler or Silone, or someone who knew them both, the line: “The final battle will be between the communists and the anti-communists.” This was a clever line, not meant to be taken literally, but cold, dude, cold. Because in a larger sense, it was — and this I am sure comes from Sidney Hook — a matter of what the world would be: tyrannical, or free? That was the size of it. It was not who would have Alsace and Lorraine — a big issue, to be sure, but not on the same scoreboard.
At this altitude, who killed Roger Ackroyd does not seem terribly important. But it does seem important what kind of country we have and how resilient, in comparison to the forces, within and without Western civilization. And to be honest, you have to admit that a civilization that cannot produce such gems as Agatha Christie’s novels and the kinds of people who enjoy reading them may be losing the larger fight. For if it is true that the novels of Ross Thomas are about reality in a way parlor-game mysteries are not, still the latter say something — ask Sam what, he is the brain guy — about the kind of people we are, and it is to our credit.
But I think the reason I finally figured I might as well find out who murdered the old boy is that what we have been treated to this past year is a political parlor game instead of whatever we ought to have by way of deep think on politics and the destiny of freedom. Excuse me, Hilton, I quietly said to myself as I glanced at the opening page, a bit furtively I admit, and under the covers though my beloved wife was sound asleep, dear thing, she had taken a beating on the tennis court a few hours earlier (and from me, I admit) and was quite simply exhausted and in considerable pain.
I am sure he would understand. He even might do the same, maybe without telling anyone.
Well, I shall not give it away. Many people know. But does David Frum know? Does Sam Tanenhaus? What about their opponents, such as Mr. Tyrrell and Mr. Pleszczynski, of this paper, and our friends Jeff Lord and Frank Buckley? What about Bill McGurn, who rose to the challenge every time his colleague on the austere and authoritative Wall Street Journal went on a Never-T. rant, did he — child of a fighting lawman — finally crack Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? And are they on speaking terms now? I hope so.
Out there in the real world, it is Christmas — a sublime true story about a Jewish mother, her devoted husband, and their beautiful child. There is a good picture by a French painter, Champaigne, in a London museum. I would have learned much had I discussed it with Hilton, a superior art critic. It is focused on the father and brings to mind the only film version of the event I like, Pasolini’s. But there is so much I should have talked to him about while waiting for his train. Politics are secondary here, but for what it is worth, it is a story that should unite us against the enemies of our civilization. We know who they are. And we should be sensible enough to know they are not us.
Merry Christmas, David, Sam.