“A Conservative is only a Tory who is ashamed of himself.”
—J. Hookham Frere
On page 62 of this book, the author recalls with irritation having once been accused by Murray Kempton of dishonoring the “legacy” of His Master’s Voice, H. L. Mencken, by “conformism.” How, Tyrrell demanded incredulously, was it possible for him to be the conformist in a debate in which all the other participants and an audience of “upper-crust” Manhattanites were in “superlative dudgeon over my every expressed thought?” Perhaps the answer to his question is that Mencken deliberately avoided meeting most of the politicians of his own day in order that he might not like them, while Emmett Tyrrell has sedulously cultivated those of his time in order that they might like him.
Although Tyrrell deplores the creature Peter Brimelow has dubbed “The Stupid Conservative,” he himself is the epitome of The Career Conservative, a subspecies of the breed when it is not actually one and the same thing, “hi the rough-and-tumble times of the movement’s early days,” he writes, “no Stupid Conservative could survive. But by the time of the Reagan-Bush ascendancy, rhetoric came easy. One could be a parrot and pass for a conservative. Bright fellows were still around, but they were being overwhelmed by the Stupid Conservatives and it was usually the Stupid Conservative whom the Kultursmog would cite on those rare occasions when citing a conservative was useful.” (Is this the explanation for the blurb by Norman Mailer that appears on the dust jacket of The Conservative Crack-Up?)
In reality, the Stupid or Career Conservative is not usually as stupid as he sounds. Like the member of a street gang in Los Angeles, he tirelessly patrols his turf—that immense elongated slum stretching southward along the Eastern Seaboard from Boston to Washington, D. C.—making all the appropriate tribal sounds and mugging, beating, and robbing imprudent interlopers or simply people who have the temerity to establish eye contact with him. hi common with the Crips or the Bloods, the Stupid Conservative has street smarts and a keen animal shrewdness sufficient to raise him to high positions at the foundations, the Department of Education, and even the White House. As with all gangsters and careerists, the Stupid Conservative values power, money, and prestige, to which he is happy to sacrifice truth, honor, and personal integrity. Like them, finally, he has inordinate vanity, and he will readily expend an arsenal of ICBMs in the defense not only of his political and bureaucratic turf, but of his tender ego.
As observers of the so-called conservative movement for the past quarter-century know, Mr. Tyrrell’s vanity is as tremendous as his literary abilities are negligible. The Conservative Crack-Up adds hitherto unsuspected dimensions to the concept of the self-made man; for its gall, vulgarity, and sheer effrontery, it must be compared with Norman Podhoretz’s Making It—a comparison its author would no doubt find flattering. In his book, Tyrrell manages to patronize and exploit everyone from Ronald Reagan, William Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Malcolm Muggeridge to his own ex-wife. My first reaction to The Conservative Crack-Up was to wonder how such an inveterate ego-stroker and influence-peddler could have brought himself to squander the social and political capital so carefully accumulated over twenty-five years. But reading further, I understood. R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is filled with a smoldering resentment at not finding himself the acknowledged conservative leader for the 1990’s that Buckley was for the 50’s and 60’s, a crushing disappointment for which the present volume is his sweet revenge. (For confirmation of this judgment see page 239, where the author upbraids an older generation of American conservatives for their unwillingness “to confer authority on a new generation of forty-year-old leaders. . . . “)
What Tyrrell solemnly refers to as “my art” is to the work of his model Henry Mencken what Florence Foster Jenkins’ “singing” was to the art of Maria Callas. The Conservative Crack-Up is not a book; it is an exercise in imitation of writing a book, aping the sound and fury of literature but signifying nothing. Reading it, I was reminded of what Raymond Chandler said of literary imitators: “They can’t steal your style, if you have one. They can as a rule only steal your faults.” But even if the writing were competent, Tyrrell’s appalling self-importance would overwhelm it. In a book that is literally filled with preposterous passages, surely this one is among the most pathetic:
The maturing of The American Spectator towards adulthood [during the Reagan presidency] had transformed us from the college magazine we were when Nixon- Agnew had us on the White House Rolodex. Images of Arthur Schlesinger’s fate during the Kennedy years made an unwelcome appearance in my mind’s eye. Would I become the Reaganites’ Schlesinger, resorted to for felicitous quotations, for learned anecdotes lifted from scholarly histories, for liaisons with the intelligentsia? Would I have to go all the way, my every reference to Reagan becoming a servile panegyric, my every visit to a Reagan party placing me in imminent peril of a dunking in every pool? That was the sort of treatment that Camelot accorded poor Schlesinger.
Well—not to worry, as they say in New York.
The Conservative Crack-Up portrays Emmett Tyrrell and The American Spectator as the Vital Center of American conservatism, which they rescued in the late 1960’s from the waning conservative alliance of traditionalists, libertarians, and anticommunists that had dominated the 1950’s. At General Tyrrell’s trumpet call, “Irving Kristol’s crowd came to the rescue”: the neoconservatives, who were “more given to the pursuit of ideas than to the pursuit of power” and who possessed moreover a temperament conducive to public engagement and activism that the “fuddyduddy” paleoconservatives lacked along with “imagination.” The glory years of neoconservatism, which were the late 70’s, culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan (“among the first neoconservatives”) to the presidency, but the movement went into decline almost immediately afterward, as the academically minded neos (apparently fuddyduddy and unimaginative in their own right) lost out at the White House to Betsy Bloomingdale and Oscar de la Renta. Meanwhile, the paleos—bored already by the noble art of politics— were taking their cue from the great neoconservative statesman. Dr. William Bennett, and retiring in droves back to their vines and fig trees after having declared the counterrevolution victorious. Unfortunately, however, the neos and paleos had failed together to create a “political culture” analogous to that fabricated by the New Dealers, which succeeded in preserving the leftist mainstream culture throughout a succession of Republican administrations. The result of this failure is what Tyrrell means by “The Conservative Crack-Up,” which he believes is “not likely to end until the Liberals’ political libido is brought to conservatism.” And how might that be accomplished? Tyrrell’s answer is that George Bush, though “a politician built in conformity with Oakeshott’s formulae,” is still not the bogey for the liberals that Reagan was: therefore, the prospect for reconciliation exists. “Let the Liberals take the path once trod by the neoconservatives”—through the pages of The American Spectator, I suppose.
Perhaps because he confesses to having given American culture short shrift in his years as a magazine editor, Tyrrell pays the subject extended attention in his book. “There is something sickly,” he says, “about American social and cultural life—both are shapeless and close to meaningless.” One cause of the sickness is the left-liberal cultural hegemony he calls the Kultursmog; the other is the philistinism of American conservatives, the majority of them self-made businessmen whose favorite author is not T. S. Eliot but Ayn Rand. Intellectuals and artists are a minority within conservatism, as they are not within liberalism; that minority, furthermore, is susceptible to antipolitical and defeatist ideas. The activists have no culture, while the cultured have no activism. The result is the lack in America of “a conservative counter-culture” that permits the radical pseudoculture to reign unchallenged, while stunting the development of conservative politics which is forced to grow from shallow and undernourished soil. The conservatives, Tyrrell complains, fail to recognize “the importance of ideas and art to politics,” while the liberals have always understood how to exploit the connection. In the context of Tyrrell’s criticism, I find it interesting to recall certain remarks published by his mentor, Irving Kristol, in a recent number of National Review (16 March 1992).”Pat Buchanan,” Mr. Kristol wrote,
is not a conservative, he is a reactionary. Now, I am fond of cultural reactionaries, because the reactionary impulse can be so creative and fruitful in its cultural dimensions. After all, the three greatest poets in the English language in this century—W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Philip Larkin—have been reactionaries. So have been some of our finest novelists (e.g., Evelyn Waugh). But in a dynamic, capitalist society, being a political reactionary is a ticket to oblivion. We have seen this happen with some of our Southern novelists, poets, and critics—among our finest—who tried, back in the 1920’s, to translate literary nostalgia into a sort of pseudo-agrarian social program. This was, and remains, little more than a cultural oddity. Similarly, Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors ought to be studied by all liberals, who would benefit from the challenge to their basic beliefs. But political conservatives who take it too seriously are doomed to irrelevance. . . . [T]he basic thrust of [the paleoconservatives] is, in a profound sense, radical and antipolitical.
As I understand this passage, Kristol is advocating a “wall of separation” between the cultural and the political life of the nation. Curiously, he seems not to understand that yoking pragmatic neoconservative politics with what he calls “reactionary” and Tyrrell “fuddyduddy” ideas is the prescription for a movement of schizophrenics—not of realists and activists. Honest and courageous men, who take their own ideas and those of other people seriously, do not (because they cannot) acknowledge the truth of these ideas to be only relatively or selectively applicable among the various activities of mankind. You cannot, if you have the intellect and integrity of Eliot, be an elitist in art, a social democrat in politics, and a Wesleyan Methodist in religion—not, anyway, and maintain your sanity; and it is the height of folly to think that the artistic preoccupations of Allen Tate could have allowed him to be enthusiastic about federal troops enforcing racial equality in the South, while worshiping with the Unitarian Church.
Culture shapes politics, not politics culture; which is to say, if you wish to reform the political life of a society, you must transform its cultural one first. In the words of George Ade, “In uplifting, get underneath.” Tyrrell appears to believe that every sincere, intelligent, and above all responsible conservative owes it to his country to become a political activist, and to eschew all those futile and embarrassing ideas that the majoritarian sentiment of his time rejects. If the prophets of old had thought similarly, Judaism would most likely have collapsed from moral dry rot centuries before Christ; had the apostles agreed with him, the most rapid and complete transformation of world culture known to history could not have taken place. There has always been a role in the world for politicians, as for prophets; but why denigrate Russell Kirk because he is not Jeane Kirkpatrick? In the long run, the prophetic voice prevails over the political one. Christianity triumphed not by imperial proclamation, but by simple word of mouth. What America needs today is fewer Stupid Conservatives—careerists, bureaucrats, trimmers, and that specially dangerous sort of establishmentarian known as the activist—and more prophets willing to speak what they know to be the truth. But their reward, as Emmett Tyrell well knows, will not be to have the President of the United States lowered by helicopter onto the sunken floor of a comfortable upper-middle-class residence in Arlington, Virginia. The prophet, as Flannery O’Connor once remarked, can expect only the worst.
[The Conservative Crack-Up, by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. (New York: Simon & Schuster) 319 pp., $23.00]