The Rag of the Right | Essay | Chicago Reader

The Rag of the Right 

Bob Tyrrell's American Spectator has always looked upon liberal politicians with smug contempt. Now the rest of the country has caught up with it.

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Aside from Newt Gingrich and the recruiters for the Michigan Militia, few people have done better by Bill Clinton's presidency than R. Emmett ("Bob") Tyrrell Jr., the combative and curmudgeonly editor of the American Spectator, an eccentrically individualistic journal of conservative thought and political scandalmongering. The Spectator adorns its covers with caricatures of Hillary as a witch and fills its pages with more details about Whitewater, Paula Jones, and the "real" Anita Hill than anyone would reasonably care to know. Managing to blend irreverence with seriousness, it exudes a kind of frat-boy arrogance and an almost startling indifference to traditional forms of political propriety. The Spectator is to print what Rush Limbaugh is to radio, wooing converts with brashly conservative politics and a nasty, sneering sense of humor.

And it's been winning a fair share of converts. The magazine's circulation has grown tenfold over the last three years, from 30,000 at the time of Clinton's election to some 300,000 today. It certainly doesn't hurt that Limbaugh recommends the magazine from time to time to his millions of fans. Nevertheless, in the world of publishing this kind of growth is almost unparalleled for an established magazine. And while a circulation of this size doesn't make the American Spectator much of a threat to, say, TV Guide or People, it's an enormous number for an explicitly ideological publication--more than the circulation of the New Republic, the Nation, the Progressive, and Washington Monthly combined.

At first glance, the American Spectator would seem an odd candidate for such instant success. It's not a new magazine, after all--it was founded in 1977--nor has it undergone a dramatic renovation in recent years. It's the same old Spectator it's always been; it's only the world that's changed. The Spectator has always looked upon politicians--at least upon liberal politicians--with a certain smug contempt, and now that American politics has taken a pronounced turn toward nastiness it's found a home at last.

Throughout most of its existence, the American Spectator seemed almost deliberately marginal, giving off a strong odor of personal eccentricity, of carefully cultivated anachronism. Years ago, as a college student, I would occasionally pick up the magazine in the school library. Reading it then--an almost extravagantly ugly tabloid-sized rag printed on newsprint--one felt something less than cutting edge.

Of course, Bob Tyrrell wasn't interested in being hip: his ambitions were unfashionably retro. More than anything, he wanted to be a kind of late-20th-century H.L. Mencken, a modern-day incarnation of the acerbic (and erratically reactionary) Baltimore newspaperman known for his skewering of just about everyone and everything in the 1920s and '30s. Insofar as it resembles Mencken at all, Tyrrell's impersonation evokes a Mencken well past his prime. He sometimes gets no further than copying Mencken's vocabulary. Mencken wrote with a grouchy grace; Tyrrell's writing, by contrast, often seems gassy and pretentious, stuffed full of baroquely structured syntax, failed witticisms, and archaic terminology. (He's toned it down from his earlier days, but in one recent column I found a "perforce," a "sedulous," an "entoiled," and a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek reference to "we moderns.")

Like a precocious college freshman discovering the joys of language, Tyrrell has a passion for archly convoluted prose. Why say something in 5 words when you can use 10, or 20, or 30? "While addressing this singular orator in comparative terms," Tyrrell begins one recent column on Clinton, "I can think of no other American president possessed of such a low opinion of the American people as to think he can manipulate them by associating the millions of Americans in the talk radio audience with hate."

So he may not have Mencken's style, but at least he recognizes that style is an issue. For all too many of his counterparts on the left, style is nothing: information is all. The "progressive journalist" rarely asks the question with which every serious writer begins his day--how can I make it new?--but rather sets down all he knows and follows his recitation of facts with a few convenient catch-phrases of political sloganeering. Typical lefty writing is a dreary collection of shoulds and oughts, filled with more moral imperatives than a sermon. It's off-putting to most readers, who generally only tolerate this kind of hectoring if they are promised eternal salvation at the end of the road. While I wouldn't go so far as to call the American Spectator sophisticated, it does intersperse its "investigative" pieces with some passably diverting prose from writers highbrow (New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer) to low (humorist P.J. O'Rourke). Tyrrell may not be Mencken, but at least he picked a good person to imitate.

Still, no amount of style--real or simulated--can disguise the magazine's deeply rooted eccentricity. Over the last decade, besides a slight improvement in design--it's no longer a tabloid--the magazine hasn't changed much. Full-page ads on the inside cover warn of the dangers of "Gold Confiscation," and bumper stickers on sale in the classifieds angrily (if a bit incoherently) proclaim that "'Democracy' is SOCIALISM! We are a REPUBLIC!" But ever since Clinton's election, as Jennet Conant noted in the pages of Esquire, the American Spectator has transformed itself from something "the Washington establishment had always regarded as marginalia, a poor man's right-wing National Lampoon, into necessary reading for any serious political observer."

That's as much due to Bill Clinton as Bob Tyrrell. For years the self-proclaimed bad boys of the American right--from Pat Buchanan to Rush Limbaugh--have cultivated the pose of radical outsiders, challengers to the so-called "liberal elites." With Ronald Reagan (and even with George Bush) in the White House, such a pose strained credibility. But with the election of Clinton--not only a liberal, but a liberal particularly ill-equipped to deal with opposition--the conservative rebels came into their own at last.

As Rush Limbaugh and Bob Tyrrell sharpened their knives, their counterparts on the other end of the political spectrum abdicated their critical role almost entirely. In the first triumphant flush of the liberal victory, even the most guarded among them declared a tacit moratorium on Clinton bashing. From the sycophantic ramblings of Sidney Blumenthal in the New Yorker to the formerly feisty columns of Molly Ivins in the Progressive, the message was the same: one of our guys is in. Keep quiet and no one will notice he's making a mess of it.

A well-meaning gesture, I suppose, but it didn't do Clinton much good. He quickly defined himself as the consummate people pleaser, with no more devotion to his positions than a used car salesman has to his current stock. Yet, in his efforts to satisfy, he's succeeded in pleasing very few people. Clinton's failings--particularly a tendency to crumble under the slightest bit of pressure--were painfully obvious from the moment he stepped into office. And those on the right were hardly shy about pointing this out.

Unobstructed by any sense of propriety, the Spectator's young "investigative reporter" and attack journalist David Brock was penning his scandalous reports on the president's personal conduct. He first attracted attention before the election with his notorious March 1992 article (later a book) "The Real Anita Hill," a sustained though erratically documented attempt to vilify Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's former accuser. Brock unearthed strange rumors about Hill's propensity to hand back papers with pubic hairs attached to them and referred to her, in a throwaway comment, as "a bit nutty and a bit slutty."

Brock attacked again in January 1994, reporting with relish on the on-again, off-again relationship of the president with his pants. Traveling among Clinton's former bodyguards in the Arkansas state troopers, Brock relayed in a detailed article all the vaguely corroborated stories of Clinton's extramarital perfidy he could find. Several months later Paula Jones emerged from the shadows with her charges of sexual harassment at the hands of the former Arkansas governor. (Brock's piece had mentioned the incident in passing--he didn't have any details--and this reportedly pushed Jones to take her story to conservative activist Cliff Jackson, who in turn took it to anyone who would listen.)

It might seem odd for the Spectator to rush so eagerly to support a woman's charges of sexual harassment when it spent much of the two previous years trying to disprove similar charges made by a woman generally respected by most Americans. Well, when it comes to dirty politics, there are few who worry too much about consistency. Thus, last summer we witnessed the strange spectacle of self-professed feminists retaliating and devoting a great deal of energy toward denouncing Paula Jones, a possible victim of sexual harassment, as a trollop. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder said the allegation "just makes me want to throw up." It wasn't exactly a convincing act.

Liberals are as interested in uncovering sleaze as David Brock. But they tend to report on the latest corporate or political scandal with a tone of dour indignation. Liberals honestly sound shocked to discover evidence of evil in the world, while lefties sigh and add the latest outrage to their stack of evidence on the crimes of capitalism.

The American Spectator, by contrast, reports on scandal with all the enthusiasm of a gossip columnist with a hot tip. It's not so much outraged as delighted to find its political enemies with their hands in the cookie jar. Because of Brock--and several other scandal sniffers on the staff--the Spectator's sometimes described as a kind of right-wing National Enquirer, the place to turn for all the gory details of the latest Clinton administration scandal. And it has raked a lot of real muck: many of its charges (ranging from the Paula Jones accusations to the various perfidies of Ron Brown) have yet to be convincingly answered by the current residents of the White House.

But scandal is only part of the Spectator package. The magazine also peddles an ideology that's not only reactionary, but at times surrealistically so. A recent essay on welfare reform by George Gilder, for example, argues in all seriousness that the "workfare" reforms at the heart of the Contract With America are not the conservative proposals they seem to be, but rather a sly attempt by "welfare feminists" to impose a matriarchal socialism on the American people. As one might expect in an article based upon such a peculiar premise, the piece is filled with dire-sounding psychosexual fantasies that reveal more about Gilder's own inner workings than they do about welfare moms and dads. "As night falls on an urban culture without marriages, the ghetto games of musical beds account for a large share of inner city violence," Gilder writes in a typically overheated passage. "All programs addressed to relieve the condition or upgrade the employability of welfare mothers will only ensconce more fully these welfare 'queens' on their leisured thrones and render the men still more optional, desperate, feral, and single. . . . On the whole, white or black, [welfare mothers] are slovenly, incompetent, and sexually promiscuous."

This is the kind of rhetorical excess only believable to those who haven't ever had to struggle to pay the bills--those so far away from welfare that they truly imagine living on the dole to be something fit for a queen. Ironically, the obvious disconnection of the Spectator from the real lives of most Americans is almost certainly a major part of its appeal. Like many of its white, middle-class, conservative audience, the American Spectator is profoundly detached from the popular culture. Most people are a little apologetic about such failings. Not the Spectator writers: they actually take pride in their disconnection, writing about American life like anthropologists sent forward in time from a golden age to investigate a strange futuristic land.

"The teenager's baggy clothes look clownish, yet the teens do not have much humor," Tyrrell reported in a recent column, apparently having wandered inadvertently into the wrong neighborhood with a notebook in hand. "They listen to that angry music shouted by the skinny young men." And in a column from last December, Washington correspondent Tom Bethell came back from a similar foray very confused indeed. After reading with surprise in Time magazine about a new Black Renaissance in the arts, he headed off to a local music store in an attempt to corroborate the report.

"I asked the shop assistant, a young black woman, if she could help me find one or two of the best black popular groups, something current, something that everyone was listening to, admiring, talking about," he writes. "She gave me an odd look--something about my request didn't quite 'compute,' evidently." Evidently. Perhaps inspired by a perverse sense of humor herself, she suggested Public Enemy and Boyz II Men. Bethell, unsurprisingly, didn't like either of them. "Boyz II Men turned out to be a not very interesting male quartet," he writes, in a rare moment of insight. Public Enemy he found more interesting, though not in a good way. "I am not sure it counts as music," he reports. "It's Bedlam, or worse." So much for the Black Renaissance.

Ideological magazines have always tended to attract their share of crackpots, many of whom have no other way to get attention than through the odd self-published book or classified ad (hence the advertisements in the Nation for spanking fantasies and proof of the nonexistence of Jesus). But the American Spectator has them all beat.

I can't even pretend to understand much of what passes for humor in the classifieds pages of the Spectator, nor can I even quite imagine anyone who could. The typical issue offers up a vast array of "humorous" T-shirts and bumper stickers, with slogans ranging from "Impeach Hillary" to "Big Bubba Is Watching You." But the products get much more specialized than this. You can purchase a bar of soap in the shape of Clinton's head, "Hillbillarious GolfBalls," Slick Willy Doormats, a record album lampooning "Hippies in the White House," or a packet of "Irreverent Clinton Satire" in verse ("Cures Billemia in two days," the ad promises).

It's hard to know, exactly, if the Spectator classifieds represent an authentic renaissance of grassroots right-wing humor; they may simply suggest that a few savvy entrepreneurs have found a large and gullible market. ("Common sense can now be taught!" one ad proclaims. "Send $10 for the report and details.") Or at least a lonely one. "ATTRACTIVE ORIENTAL LADIES seeking correspondence, marriage," one typical ad in the "personals" section reads. "Dignified presentations since 1984."

It's a testimony to America's hunger for sincerity that a magazine so interminably peculiar could gain any kind of following at all. But it would be foolish to dismiss it all as just a bad joke, a kind of college prank on a national scale. The American Spectator's writers are as serious about their politics as, say, Noam Chomsky is about his. They just have a different--and, in many ways, much more effective and appealing--style. Chomsky delivers his dour leftist bromides with all of the stern unflinching certainty of a Puritan preacher (and with even less of a sense of humor). Tyrrell, almost refreshingly human by contrast, wears his vanity--and his fanaticism--on his sleeve. He's not afraid to gloat when he's scored a political hit; in fact, he freely admits that scoring hits is the whole point of his endeavor.

While right-wingers may talk a lot about the virtues of virtue, their spokesmen--from Newt Gingrich to Rush Limbaugh, from John McLaughlin to Bob Tyrrell--tend increasingly to be bad boys with big mouths, in good capitalist fashion devoted more to self-advancement than to the improvement of the world. Even William Bennett, the huffy author of the best-selling Book of Virtues, exudes a certain bad-boy appeal--he may be a Virtuecrat, but he did once date Janis Joplin. And you know he has as much trouble with the virtue of self-restraint as Rush Limbaugh does with the virtue of modesty. It's likely, in fact, that these faults just serve to endear them to their audience all the more--it makes them all the more human, all the more real.

Tyrrell may be a jerk, and most of the ideas his magazine presents are more loopily reactionary than anything dreamed up by Ronald Reagan or the Heritage Foundation. But even if the Spectator's 300,000 readers take some of it with a grain of salt, they admire it for putting itself on the line. Tyrrell's one great advantage over the political opportunists and hacks he so effectively skewers is that he is undoubtedly sincere. He's someone who makes as many enemies deliberately as Clinton makes by accident. You almost have to like the guy for being so unlikable. He's a man who loves his work--and it shows.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Victor Thompson.

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