Serious and Funny - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Serious and Funny
Byron York at The American Spectator’s 54th Annual Robert L. Bartley Gala (The American Spectator)

I recently received The American Spectator’s Barbara Olson Award. It was a great honor, particularly because I knew Barbara, the lawyer, congressional investigator, and conservative force of nature who was killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon. She was something else — lively, funny, and, in her work, sharp, focused, and relentless. It’s a great thing that The American Spectator created an award in her name.

The moment was even more meaningful because it was Bob Tyrrell and Wlady Pleszczynski who gave me the opportunity to write for publication, to change my career. That was a very, very big deal in my life.

Prior to joining The American Spectator in 1996, I had been a television producer in Washington, producing the 11 p.m. news on a local station. It was a grinding job, and I was getting tired of it. Truth be told, I was really tired of the anonymity of producing newscasts with other people’s faces on camera. I wanted a change.

So I started writing freelance pieces in my free time. But the question was: who would publish them? Given my conservative perspective, a lot of places were off the table. And the conservative media world was pretty small. There was The American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Washington Times, and — well, that was about it. (The Weekly Standard would start a little later.)

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I wrote a story and sent it to Wlady. He accepted it. And then he accepted the next one. And the next one. And then he and Bob hired me.

It was, from today’s perspective, a strange, prehistoric time in journalism. I wrote one story a month for a magazine that was printed on paper and mailed to subscribers. Imagine that! During that time, although I wrote on a variety of topics, at the root of everything, my only real story — by choice — was the cluster of scandals surrounding President Bill Clinton and the woman Bob sometimes referred to as “his lovely wife Bruno.”

As it turned out, I joined at a tumultuous time for The American Spectator. There’s no need to go into the weeds on it, but the Clinton investigations, which had made the magazine famous with David Brock’s stories on Travelgate and then Troopergate, were causing conflict in The American Spectator’s world, as well as the rest of the conservative universe. The Clinton administration even struck back — for a while, The American Spectator was the only magazine in history that had its own independent counsel. People were unhappy. The magazine was sold. It took a long time to get back on track.

In 2001, after I had left, I wrote an article about it for the Atlantic. I had not seen the story for many years, but I read it again for the awards dinner. The first part of the article was about the history of The American Spectator, and the second part was about all the Clinton-era successes and then troubles. Here’s the thing: I got a little bored by the second part — I actually skipped over a lot of it — but I loved the first part, the story of The American Spectator, how it began, and how it became what it became.

Researching the story, I talked to all the people who had been there when Bob created The American Spectator in 1967, when he was a student at Indiana University. He originally named it The Alternative but later decided that the word “alternative” had such hippie connotations — an “esoteric fragrance,” as he called it — that it was better to move on. Thus, The American Spectator was born.

Bob had serious ambitions. He wrote letters to intellectual eminences such as Bill Buckley and the National Review crowd, to Milton Friedman, Nathan Glazer, Edward Banfield, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and many others. He sought contributions and advice. He held events. It was all well and good, but in the early years the magazine wasn’t getting noticed, not in the way that an ambitious young editor wanted.

Cut to 1969 and what in retrospect was a pivotal moment in the magazine’s history. Bob organized what he called a “conservative teach-in” on campus. He invited Bill Rusher and Frank Meyer, of National Review, to debate two liberal Indiana University professors. Then Bob arranged for himself to debate one Dr. Rudolph Montag, a distinguished professor from Columbia University. The subject of the debate would be one of those vague, gaseous topics in vogue at the time — “The Social Problem.”

No one in the audience knew it, but Dr. Rudolph Montag, the distinguished Columbia professor with the impressive résumé, was entirely the creation of … Bob Tyrrell, who had recruited a fellow student to play the professor. On stage, the two went back and forth. Montag mouthed one liberal platitude after another until a member of the audience stood up, called Montag “a goddamned Communist,” and threw a pie in his face. The guy in the audience was, of course, another setup — he was a member of the IU wrestling team put up to it by Bob. With pie on his face, Montag stayed in character and gave a speech earnestly lamenting the tensions on campus that led to such acts of violence.

It was a beautiful send-up, a perfect prank. But here is the remarkable thing about it: the school newspaper took it quite seriously. It got lots of coverage. Many years later, Bob told me, “We had had events for a couple of years and never got any attention at all, so we decided to have this bogus pie throwing, and overnight we got a huge amount of attention.”

The lesson was clear: You needed to be serious to win respect. But you needed to be funny to attract attention. Serious and funny. You can argue with your adversaries, but mock them, too. Do a lot of mocking of all the nonsense on the left. Call them and their ideas funny names — lots of funny names — to suggest that they’re just not worth taking seriously.


Bob’s style got under their skin. In 1984, Hendrik Hertzberg, a former Jimmy Carter speechwriter who went on to become a major voice in the world of liberal journalism, wrote a review of one of Bob’s books. Bob’s far-ranging and heavily anglicized vocabulary seemed to really irritate Hertzberg, who tried to come up with a formula to write like Bob. “First, select a person to attack,” he wrote. “If possible, refer to him or her as the Hon. insert surname, the Rev. insert surname, or Dr. insert surname. Second, call the person a nasty name, either a heavily sarcastic one (esteemed eminento, sonorous pontificator, distinguished scholar) or simply a jeering one — bellyacher, buffoon, dolt, dunderhead, galoot, gasbag, greenhorn, half-wit, idiot, imbecile, jackass, loony, moron, nincompoop, pinhead, poltroon, popinjay, quack, rube, sap, simpleton, snot, windbag, wretch, yahoo, yoke, or zealot. Third, add an adjective … brazen, fuliginous, gaseous, gimcrack, maudlin, meretricious, piffling, portentous, sophomoric, peurile [sic] — any of these will do. Fourth, accuse the person of engaging in bibble-babble, claptrap, flapdoodle, flumdiddle, hokum, moonshine, pishposh, rumble-bumble, pronunciamentos, or tosh … ”

Do you think that was just a bit oversensitive? Bob knew, of course, that it would not please liberal writers if one referred to their writings as unpersuasive or poorly reasoned. But it would really drive them nuts to call their work “flapdoodle,” or “pishposh,” or “bibble-babble.” That would suggest, without explicitly saying so, that the work in question was not only unpersuasive or poorly reasoned, but ridiculous, too. Bob became a master of the style, as evidenced in his book Public Nuisances.

That was the heart of The American Spectator. It is The American Spectator’s DNA. It began with Bob’s style and worked through Wlady Pleszczynski’s beautiful editing, which turned each issue into a pleasure. (My favorite Wlady-ism? It’s hard to pick just one, but he once gave an article on the very loud and not terribly insightful ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson the brief and lovely headline “Dim Sam.”)

The wonderful thing is that now, all these years later, The American Spectator is still doing it. It’s a great pleasure to receive an award, but the real honor — and thanks for their work — goes to Bob and Wlady.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner and a Fox News contributor.

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