A week or so before the annual Robert L. Bartley dinner, which The American Spectator again will be hosting tonight in Washington, Bob Tyrrell got to a restaurant he favors a few minutes before me; it was one of the periodical sit-downs at which we bat ideas around and assess the general situation, which we find, as regular conservatives and straight-ticket Republicans, by turns hilarious and appalling. I hate late; I always assume everyone else, and with good cause, feels the same way, and — this is righteous conservative dogma — you pay for your sins. I know Bob Tyrrell pretty well, but dogma prevailed over knowledge, and I expected he’d be mad and I’d be sorry.
But Bob was genial and affable as ever as I sat down and the thought crossed my mind there were few people in his position, which is after all the position of a major force in journalism, not conservative journalism whatever that is, but journalism, American current affairs, who would not, one way or another, let an impolite sonofabitch of a writer know he is out of line for making the boss wait five minutes. Bob never was that way.
Bob Tyrrell takes too much pleasure in people to play penny-ante big-shot games, nor does he have the emptiness in the soul that describes too many of his peers and that gives them a constitutional need to throw their weight around, since they have nothing else to throw. He would rather throw some wit and banter and expend the mental and moral energy getting something good out of whoever he is with, so instead of saying something sour, he opts for the polite and gentlemanly touch, only got here two minutes ago and haven’t even ordered a drink yet; what’s yours tonight?
And it is the same with work. Bob does not snap at copy boys or secretaries — not that, these days, The American Spectator is overflowing with them; and he listens to writers. You would be amazed how many big time editors think they are Samuel Goldwyn or Jack Warner and cannot imagine a meeting where their writers do not come out thinking they are hacks or mice. Well, you cannot typecast editors; but you know what I mean, Tyrrell trusts his writers.
Bob as boss? I never worked on the staff of The American Spectator; I contributed to its pages as long as I have been writing about our times, our country, our travails and triumphs in the long unending fight for freedom that, Bob showed me, is an honorable mission, even in as dishonorable a profession as the one we practice.
In fact, I ought to mention something since this is the season during which we remember Bob Bartley, lament his premature passing while taking comfort in all he gave us. Back in the late Ford administration, I was still working my way out of the left. I was, I used to say, not-on-the-left, cleverly avoiding on-the-right. It can take a lot of work. In fact, it should take a lot of work. My Kronstadt was the bitter shameful way the war in Vietnam ended. Since the McGovern coup against the Truman Democracy, I had been reading a lot on Vietnam, because I thought there might be something to Mr. Nixon’s strategy, which he called Vietnamization. I read books recommended by my father, a hard line cold warrior who was much involved in our efforts in Indochina, and these included the work of Sir Robert Thompson, the brains behind the British success in Malaysia and an advisor to General Abrams. There was also whatever I could find of Bernard Fall, whom my father knew and whose writings he recommended whenever the subject of the war came up. There were others too, and the net effect was that it hit me that the left’s position on the war was baloney, stale and foul, and there was no dishonor in helping the Vietnamese keep their freedoms, not to mention their country.
In the depressing aftermath of that terrible month, I branched out into a complete re-thinking of the historical situation. That was when my mother, not only because she was a teacher but because she was a mother and knew her children, sent me two subscriptions, to The Alternative, as TAS was called then, and the Wall Street Journal.
Not to get sentimental, but my mom was one smart cookie.
Soon I was deeply engrossed in Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, and a long list of “to reads” that I was going at systematically, and the biggest intellectual moments of the day and the month were when I sat down, not on a comfortable chair, mind, this was work, and read Bartley’s pages and Tyrrell’s magazine.
But I did not mean to go on about me, except for one reason: over time, I found that changing one’s mind, and digging in for the duration to understand this change and put it on sturdy foundations, is not something a lot of people do after 20, or before 20, for that matter.
I thought every one who claimed to live by their wits would be open, would be eager, to re-examine prejudices and positions, evidence and events. We were in the truth and reality business, were we not?
I think Bartley and Tyrrell thought this way too. They were young men who loved to argue, loved to write, loved to pay attention to current affairs and had a lifelong love affair with America. No, it was not a love affair, it was an unconditional love, a passion such as only sons can have for the mother — or father, or parents, as the case may be (hell, this is 2015) — who they know gave them life and love of life and tenacity and eagerness and faith.
Bob and Bob did not think they knew the Truth. They did not even have any such arrogant pretension of having the ability do get down on the page a “first rough draft of history.” To say that, you already must think you know better than everyone else. That, to a journalist, to almost any writer, really, is deadly. It will kill your prose, kill your thinking.
However, they shared a belief, a belief gained from experience in their trade, that you could find out about events by examining the evidence, however limited, that was available, and you could draw conclusions with help from Kipling’s six honest serving men, whose names are what and why and when, and how and where and who, and they were especially interested in the one named why, they were after all writers with opinions. Bartley’s were of a firmness that surprised you when you encountered his old-fashioned manner, courteous to a fault, almost shy. But it should not be imagined he did not know how to evolve, and Tyrrell is the same, in the light of evidence.
Including the evidence brought them by their reporters. They were generous with their writers, spiritually if not always financially, because they trusted them, and they trusted them because they damn well knew they had recruited them. They were well served, too. I need only mention such giants, in Bartley’s case, as his deputies George Melloan and Tom Bray, and in Tyrrell’s, Adam Meyerson early on and Wlady Pleszczynski through fat and lean; you do not get the loyalty of the likes of these when you are a weight-throwing sort of fellow.
Valuing principle and prejudice as moral and intellectual inheritance, not symptoms of personal vanity, they both thought that presenting their findings, in clear clean prose and with the force of honest argument, would have consequences upon their intellectual and political adversaries. The consequences would be that their intellectual and political adversaries would welcome the challenge and, perchance, do some re-thinking of their own.
Did they hold fast to this optimistic view of the battle of ideas? The answer to that lies in the vigor and the confidence with which their words keep resonating, the excitement with which their wingmen and wide receivers throw themselves into the task and the pleasure of writing for the institutions, I know the word is pretentious, they gave, and keep on giving, to what William Blake called “the mental fight,” for what we believe.