THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
The Right's Happy Warrior
"I'm optimistic," says R. Emmett Tyrrell, "but it's sort of like being optimistic in 1939 and saying, I think we can beat the Germans."
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, May 1, 2010
Over lunch in midtown Manhattan, Bob Tyrrell explains his political philosophy: "I define conservatism, stealing heavily from the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, [as] a temperament to delight in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
This may or may not accurately describe the average American conservative's temperament, but it certainly captures that of the man who writes under the portentous byline R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. I've known Mr. Tyrrell for years and have yet to see him in an angry or foul mood.
His jaunty spirit has seen him through personal and professional adversity, most famously a Clinton Justice Department investigation of the magazine he edits, The American Spectator, which in the 1990s published a series of investigative pieces about Bill Clinton. (Disclosure: I have been a regular contributor to the Spectator since 2006.) The investigation, which concerned claims of witness tampering in the Whitewater independent counsel probe, produced not a single indictment.
More recently the adversity has been political, and this is the topic of his latest book, "After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery." As the 2006 election was approaching, Mr. Tyrrell recalls, "I started to notice that the elected Republicans in Washington all looked a little wobbly on their feet, and [had] runny eyes. They looked in absolute ruin. And I said, 'These guys have all been on a terrible bender. They're all suffering a terrific hangover.' . . . I mean no insult to sailors, but they were spending like drunken sailors, and things kept getting worse and worse."
The reason for their dissolute state? "They were veering far from conservative principle," Mr. Tyrrell says. "People started dabbling with 'compassionate conservatism' and 'heroic conservatism,' and they kept trying to qualify conservatism. Why didn't they just say 'libertarian conservatism' and move on?"
The GOP seemed to hit bottom in the fall of 2006--until 2008, when Barack Obama took the White House and Democrats expanded their majorities in Congress. This prompted liberal commentators to pen a spate of triumphant obituaries for conservatism. Typical was an essay by Sam Tanenhaus in The New Republic's Feb. 18, 2009, issue. Mr. Tanenhaus, the New York Times's book review editor and author of a well-regarded biography of the storied anticommunist Whittaker Chambers, declared: "Movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead."
Mr. Tyrrell didn't believe it. "This writing obituaries for conservatism has been going on a long time," he says. "Conservatism has been dying, to listen to liberals, ever since it was born in the early '50s. Conservatism, I suspect, is the longest-dying political movement in the history of American politics."
Last September, Mr. Tanenhaus's essay was published in book form as "The Death of Conservatism." By that time it was already clear that Mr. Obama's pursuit of a sweeping liberal agenda had shocked the movement very much back to life. "You didn't see Obama running for high office claiming he was going to raise your taxes and expand the government like you've never seen before," Mr. Tyrrell says. "Much the contrary, he talked like he was a moderate."
Mr. Tyrrell finds liberals' attitudes to be as vexing as their policies: "There is only one political value that they have stood by through three generations, and that is the political value of disturbing your neighbor." If conservatism is a temperament, he adds, "liberalism is an anxiety--an anxiety about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which explains their eagerness to coerce, to tax, to social-engineer."
Conservatives, by contrast, "react against coercion." Mr. Tyrrell agrees with activist Grover Norquist's "wonderful" description of the conservative movement as the "leave-us-alone coalition." "That doesn't mean we just want to be left alone to live in some sort of onanistic trance," he says. "We want to be left alone so that we can take delight in culture, take delight in our farms, take delight in our families, our churches, our lack of churches--whatever."
A disinterested observer might note that many people who lean leftward politically also delight in culture, family and even church. And although I've encountered enough exasperating liberals to see more than a grain of truth in Mr. Tyrrell's characterization, it is also doubtless the case that one is more apt to perceive the disagreeable qualities of people with whom one disagrees.
To be sure, Mr. Tyrrell makes no pretense of impartiality. He is very much a movement conservative and has been since his days at Indiana University, where he founded the Spectator (originally called The Alternative) in 1967. The original headquarters was "a rambling old farmhouse that had just been vacated by a former Playboy model, who left an ungodly mound of empty prescription bottles."
Mr. Tyrrell describes how the conservative coalition has grown over the years: "Conservatism started with three branch groups--the limited government [group], who were eventually called libertarians; the traditionalists, like Russell Kirk, who believed in traditional views of Western values; and the anticommunists. . . . As life has gone on, we picked up other constituencies, completely--not completely different from us, or we wouldn't have picked them up, but quite startlingly different from us," he says.
In the 1960s and '70s, neoconservatives, "which is to say, liberals who had become impatient with liberalism," joined the fold. Then came the Reagan Democrats and the religious right.
"The evangelicals were people that hadn't been in politics," Mr. Tyrrell says. "These were people who had thought there were settled customs in this country: Prayer in public schools was going to be allowed; abortion was going to be outlawed; pornography was not going to be available at the corner drugstore. And lo and behold, the liberals foisted all of these things on the evangelicals, who became political--not aggressively political, but defensively political."
One may counter that some liberal policies appeal to leave-us-alone sentiments as well. When proponents of legal abortion insist on being described as "pro-choice," for instance, it is not only to veil the unattractive choice they defend, but also to cloak themselves in the mantle of individual freedom.
Another example: At one point during our conversation, Mr. Tyrrell--whose magazine was the first to report that a former governor of Arkansas had allegedly made swinish advances on a state employee named Paula--says he considers sexual-harassment law "an abomination. . . . I don't think that some person working in a cafe, suddenly feeling harassment, sensing hostility, should be going off to the government with a lawsuit. I think they ought to just either tell the person to have proper courtesy or get a different job. . . . I don't approve of it. I don't even approve of it applying to Bill Clinton." But there's another way of looking at the question: What is a meritorious claim of sexual harassment other than a plea to be left alone?
These objections, however, reinforce Mr. Tyrrell's broader argument. If most of the right and center and even some of the left consist of people who want, in one way or another, to be left alone, that doesn't leave much of a constituency for higher taxes and increasingly intrusive government. That explains why ObamaCare is overwhelmingly unpopular, why Mr. Obama himself is increasingly so, and why conservatism has enjoyed a revival sooner than just about anyone thought possible.
Mr. Tyrrell also takes heart in the dissipation of what he terms the Kultursmog--his own Germanic coinage, which he defines as "the complete domination of mainstream political culture for so many years by one point of view: the liberal point of view. They've polluted the political discourse in our country." Today's mainstream liberal culture has absorbed the counterculture of the 1960s, but "there is a conservative counterculture that's developing," he says, pointing out the success of Fox News, the Journal, talk radio and conservative websites. "The Kultursmog is losing its influence because of the rise of our counterculture."
The conservative counterculture, like that of the 1960s, includes a protest movement. Mr. Tyrrell calls the tea parties "a civic upheaval of people . . . who, without any particular indoctrination, have come forward with an understanding of the American Constitution . . . a high regard for individual liberty, a deeper understanding of the essence of America than some professor of romance languages at Rutgers."
Or, for that matter, than what Mr. Tyrrell calls "reformed conservatives." These "opportunists," as he characterizes them, "who advance themselves in the media by slighting and sniping [at] conservatives and conservatism. . . . They're 'reformed,' they're 'enlightened,' and the reason liberals treat them well is because all of their recommendations are recommendations about how conservatism should move from its conservative foundations, its libertarian foundations, and become good liberals."
Has the Republican Party--staggering and bleary-eyed in 2006, left for dead in 2009--sobered up enough to lead effectively if the voters give it the opportunity? "I think people like Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Mitch Daniels"--respectively, representatives from Wisconsin and Indiana and the Hoosier State's governor--"are people of ideas. . . . If they gain influence in the Republican Party, as I hope they will, I think the future's going to be good for the Republican Party. . . .
"This country is facing two grave threats. The one is the ongoing threat from Islamofascism, terrorism, and the other is this enormous budgetary overhang." Can the GOP, which in the ObamaCare debate positioned itself as Medicare's resolute defender, credibly take on the entitlement-fueled budget crisis?
"I remain an optimist," Mr. Tyrrell says. "I think things really have gone so far, have gotten so bad, that if the Republicans get in, they'll have to do something." He reflects for a moment, then qualifies his assessment: "I'm optimistic, but it's sort of like being optimistic in 1939 and saying, 'James, I think we can beat the Germans.' "
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