THE SHIFTING VISTAS OF POLITICAL JOURNALISM
The American Spectator and The New Republic
By Steven Hayward
Let us agree at the outset: It is nice to have R. Emmett Tyrrell on your side. The Editor-in-Chief and founder of the monthly American Spectator pulls no punches; the feisty fulminations of his latest tome, The Liberal Crack-Up, consistently appeal to one's visceral revulsion at the "piffling infantilism" of liberalism gone lunatic. Does not Tyrrell voice the pent-up contempt for Jimmy (the "Wonderboy") Carter when he describes him as "a scamp mountebank from jerkwater America whose knowledge of government and of history was somewhere between that of the washroom attendant at '21' and a modestly educated welfare queen"?
There is no one comparable to Tyrrell writing today, which is why Tom Wolfe, who certainly ought to know, can call Tyrrell "the funniest political essayist to come along in years." In fact-this next obligatory sentence is supposed to read-he is the funniest political essayist to come along since H. L. Mencken, of whose style Tyrrell's prose is a self-conscious imitation. Sharing Mencken's belief that ''one good horselaugh is worth 10,000 syllogisms," Tyrrell is skilled at minting eminently quotable phrases that deftly prick the ridiculous pretensions of liberals. The central observation of The Liberal Crack-Up, that "New Age Liberalism was in essence nothing more complicated or noble than a running argument with life as it was led by normal Americans," is closely reminiscent of the typically Menckenian aphorism that a Puritan is someone who worries that somebody, somewhere, might be having a good time. Indeed, even the current cover design of The American Spectator is a self-conscious copy of Mencken's American Mercury.
But despite the wonderful congruence of style, Tyrrell is not Mencken reincarnate. Besides being the bombastic stylist, Mencken was also arguably the preeminent critic of his day. Although it is perhaps true that the bulk of his writings are period pieces, it remains to be said that much of his literary criticism was of such exemplary quality as to be truly enduring; one can today read with profit his strictures about Theodore Dreiser, or "The National Letters," or any number of other subjects. Yet even as Mencken is being reprinted today, one cannot confidently expect that Tyrrell will be reprinted-or widely reread-fifty years from now.
This is not to say that one must write serious tomes like George F. Will (Statecraft As Soulcraft) or Walter Lippmann (The Public Philosophy, among others) to be useful. It is only to say that Tyrrell's works lack the critical and substantive depth of Mencken's and that, unlike Mencken, he seldom ventures beyond the stylistic into the substantive. In this respect he is more of a right-wing Oscar Wilde than another Mencken. On the other hand, such free-wheeling cleverness is a welcome change from the staid tablets of the Joseph Krafts, James Restons, and David Broders who turned America's op-ed pages into snore zones. By highlighting the ludicrous aspects of liberalism, Tyrrell is a useful complement to serious conservative writers such as Will or Irving Kristol. In short, if Tyrrell's is not a fully sufficient expression of conservative journalism, it is at least a necessary component, and his column remains a great morale booster in the midst of the ideological trench warfare.
Yet there is one very definite parallel between Tyrrell and Mencken: The enormous popularity Mencken enjoyed in the 1920s ebbed rapidly in the 1930s, and by the 1940s he was passé. It was said Mencken lost the temper of the times, probably because he opposed the New Deal and disliked Franklin Roosevelt. Just as Mencken seems to have been a creature belonging to the "Roaring '20s," so too it is beginning to seem that both Tyrrell and his American Spectator are creatures belonging to the "New Age '70s."
* * *
The conservative intellectual counterrevolution in America may be said to have begun with the founding of National Review in 1954 and to have reached its culmination with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. During most of those "wilderness years," National Review stood alone as the single serious journal of conservative thought, yet even as conservatism gained momentum, it never gained respect. Not long after the first issue of National Review appeared, Dwight MacDonald wrote (in Commentary no less) that "We have long needed a good conservative magazine. This is not it." And as recently as 1974 Joseph Epstein called National Review "the Siberia of intellectual journalism."
It would strain credulity to say the same today about the magazine heartily endorsed and read by the man who has won consecutive overwhelming mandates to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But the conservative electoral triumph does not belong solely to Reagan and the National Review set. If an Oscar were given for "Best Supporting Role in a Political Drama," the winner would be that eclectic group known as the "neoconservatives." The entire "neo-conservative" business, to be sure, is a bit odd. In an ordinary sense, the distinction between "conservatives" and "neoconservatives" is silly; either you are "conservative" relative to the issues of the moment, or you are not. "Neo"- conservative makes about as much sense as "neosocialist" or "neocommunist."
Unless by "neo" you really mean "semi." In this respect, neoconservatism represents a halfway-house for those repentant liberals and moderates who aren't comfortable with the full-throated conservatism of Russell Kirk or William F. Buckley, Jr., much like the Catholic convert who is reluctant to go into the confessional for the first time. Some of the leading lights of neoconservatism, such as Norman Podhoretz, can claim with some plausibility that they have not changed very much at all, but rather that the extremism and imbecility of the New Left in the 1960s and the resulting shift in the political landscape placed them in a new spot on the spectrum without their having to move at all. If you move the left fielder into the cheap seats, the center fielder appears pretty far over to the right.
Even so, the evolution of Commentary into a major conservative (or "neoconservative") beacon was one of the salutary events of the 1970s. Another salutary development was the rise of The Alternative, a student publication later to be rechristened The American Spectator. From the start, The American Spectator was, to be sure, a fully conservative journal, but it was different in character from National Review.
I first subscribed to the Spectator while still an ignorant undergraduate during those dark days under the regime of Billy's brother. Not only did I find sustenance and delight in "The Continuing Crisis" and other iconoclastic features, I was also introduced to a corps of writers and set of ideas seldom seen in National Review, many of which I learned later were referred to as "neoconservative." One learned of the "new class" and the "adversary culture" from Irving Kristol, the virtues of "democratic capitalism" from Michael Novak, and the empirical failings of the welfare state from Edward Banfield and his students. The Spectator was largely written by bright young writers such as Roger Kaplan, William Kristol, Elliot Abrams, Tom Bethell, Stephen Miller, and Robert Asahina. One fetched the Spectator from the mailbox with a certain anticipation of a stimulating and enjoyable reading experience.
In recent months, however, the consensus of many I have spoken with, has been: "What's wrong with The American Spectator?" It has grown listless; it has seemingly published few notable "must-read" articles; Tom Bethell's column, though usually right about everything, seems stale and repetitive; and Tyrrell, of course, is Tyrrell. "The Spectator," goes the word on the street, "is going downhill."
Yet a strict review of the Spectator over the last ten years shows that recent issues have not noticeably deteriorated either in the prestige of writers or the quality of articles. In the past year the Spectator published several first-rate reviews and essays, including a chapter of Edith Efron's book on deceptive cancer research, a marvelous demolition of The Big Chill by Yale and Rita Kramer, as well as contributions from Richard Grenier, Gregory Fossedal, Vladimir Bukovsky, Charles Murray, Paul Johnson, and Lew Lehrman. But they have also published some bizarre stuff, such as Ben Stein's "Love Between the Ages," about a middle-aged lawyer's sixteen-year-old girlfriend, written in the cost-effective prose of a securities analyst, "almost as if," a friend cracked to me, "Lolita had been rewritten by Milton Friedman." And this is not even to mention the frequent contributions by Taki, the bohemian Greek tycoon whose self-glorified decadence climaxed with his conviction on cocaine charges last year in England. Still, if one compares an issue from 1984 with one from 1977, one can come up with no fundamental differences, except perhaps the format improvements of the recent issues.
But perhaps this continuity is precisely the problem. Intellectual journals, like consumer products, are subject to the "product life-cycle" phenomenon, and if they fail to adapt to changing circumstances, they perish. This can certainly be said to be part of the cause of the decline of Partisan Review (how many times can you read Lionel Trilling or Clement Greenberg on "Art and Neurosis"?), Harper's, the Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review, and any number of other journals now resigned to the boneyard or close to death's door.
And circumstances today are certainly different from when the Spectator was cutting its teeth in the mid-1970s. "Neoconservatism" is no longer a new and fresh perspective but, more than that, the Spectator is no longer the only place one finds its point of view. Indeed, though the Spectator is still among the best of journals, the proliferation of conservative journals since 1980 has left the Spectator just one of the pack. Besides the Dartmouth Review-Badger-Herald clones, there is This World, The Yale Literary Magazine, Policy Review, the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Cogitations, Benchmark, and Catholicism in Crisis, to name a few, all competing with the Spectator, National Review, and Commentary for the attention of readers. The market, as an adman might say, has reached saturation.
A great deal of the credit for this boom in conservative journalism belongs to Tyrrell and his Spectator, for many of the new journals, most notably the Dartmouth Review, have modeled themselves after Tyrrell. In this respect, the Spectator is a victim of its own success and can be proud of its many imitators. Yet there are other variables at work that explain its seeming senescence. There is a sense in which journals like National Review and the Spectator are most interesting in opposition to the ruling regime, as they indeed were for so long. The Spectator's popularity grew fastest during the Carter years, such that Tyrrell probably sometimes wishes he still had the Wonderboy to kick around.
But the drastic change of regimes under Reagan has rendered the task of conservative journals somewhat ambiguous. While the conservative agenda is more or less regnant on the political scene at present, it nevertheless remains true that the media, the academy, and the cultural elites of the nation are dominated by liberals, so conservative journals must still be very much "in opposition" to the Zeitgeist. Conservative journals must, therefore, confront the present moment with a certain ambivalence; they still need to bash liberals, but the prerogatives of ruling require that they shift their focus to sharpening the agenda of the Reagan Administration.
To be fair, it should be noted that the Spectator is not the only journal adversely affected by these circumstances. National Review also seems less "indispensable" than it once did, though it has tried to address these journalistic ambiguities through its "Ideology" features, wherein conservatives discuss "where we go from here." National Review has also opened its pages to the running economic debate between the orthodox monetarists and the insurgent supply-siders, a debate that holds great importance for national policy. Still, National Review is frequently boring these days.
Ruined by success? Only interesting in opposition? Both explanations are partly true, but perhaps less important than another variable less understood by most journalists: the question of political "realignment." Most discussion about "realignment" consists of a numbers game: "Realignment" is said to have occurred when all the prisoners are taken and bodies counted, and a clear-cut numerical majority of seats in Congress exists. The mixed results of the 1984 election below the presidential level obscure the fact that a "philosophical" realignment of the electorate has begun to take place. Even though Republicans do not have a numerical majority in the House, the Republican Party is behaving as the de facto majority party at present, insofar as the national political agenda is concerned. The liberal-conservative debate of the 1970s is over, and the liberals have lost. What is not clear is whether the conservatives won outright, or whether they won by default, because of "the liberal crack-up."
This is not clear because "realignments" turn not on electoral numbers simply, but on decisive changes in the sentiments of the people, changes which fundamentally alter the ground of political consensus-or "change the boundaries of the republic," so to speak-as was achieved by the realignment of F.D.R.'s New Deal. The New Deal moved the ground of political consensus such that for years the Republican Party, no matter how "conservative," could not seriously challenge the essential prerogatives of the social welfare state, and thus became a "me too" party.
But the realignment that is currently in its embryonic stages-in other words, the incomplete realignment that could still be aborted-has shifted the ground again, such that liberals must recognize that the welfare state has exceeded prudent limits and must retreat, that civil rights must return to sound legal principles, that U.S. defenses must be strengthened and U.S. statecraft asserted throughout the world. This realignment is embryonic, because Reagan has not made, and did not make in the campaign, a compelling case as to why the Republican Party should be the leading expositor and guardian of the principles of the republic.
Thus the most important debate today is not between liberals and conservatives or even between Democrats and Republicans. The important debate is among Republicans, about the future character of the Party and the contours of the agenda it should pursue if it is to become the true, enduring majority party for the next generation. The debate on the level of personalities is simple: Does the future of the Party-and the country-lie with Bush/Baker/Dole or with Kemp/Gingrich/Lehrman?
It was ever so in American politics that the most important debate was intraparty, and it is just this reality that is only vaguely understood by conservative journalists. Tom Bethell understands it, which is why he is always hammering away at Republican apostasies in his "Capitol Ideas" column, and which is also why his column seems repetitive and boring. But the seeming tedium of Bethell's column typifies the difficult position of conservative journals, for this internecine argument must necessarily turn on fine distinctions, thus making for less pyrotechnic reading than the former liberal-bashing mode.
It would be fair to conclude, then, that The American Spectator and National Review haven't gone downhill so much as their changing tasks have necessarily made them less "lively." Just as the chase is often more fun than the kill, so too the battle with regnant liberalism makes for more fun reading than the squabbling about regnant conservatism. In short, the Spectator and its allies are no less important reading than before, but we no longer reach for them first in our mailboxes.
* * *
We no longer reach for the Spectator or NR first because, suddenly, The New Republic has become the most interesting reading on the political scene. How is it that after seventy years of ups and downs TNR has become indispensable for thoughtful readers? That it is "in opposition" does not suffice to explain its success. Nor may its success be attributed to its having become conservative: The editors of TNR are aware that the political landscape has changed-that liberalism has "cracked up" and needs to be reconstructed-but they have not, in any sense, become an organ of the right.
Much of the interest in TNR, of course, comes from its sheer unpredictability, the oscillation from week to week-and even from article to article within a single issue-between what might be called "neoconservative realism" and old-fashioned "liberal idealism." Part of the reason for TNR's occasional bursts of flinty realism probably derives from the ironclad commitment to Israel it has had since it was taken over by Martin Peretz; for it has become clear in the last decade and a half that the cause of Israel is not unrelated to the cause of freedom and democracy everywhere, and that the cause of freedom today depends on a strong America and on forceful American leadership in the world. Thus, the pages of TNR are remarkably free of liberal guilt.
So, understandably, The New Republic was less than enthusiastic about the last crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls, for whom pacifism and isolationism seemed the litmus test of viability for the nomination. TNR was also keenly aware of the damage done to the Democrats by Jesse Jackson's fractiousness: An expressive April cover showed a dejected-looking Jackson clutching a carelessly folded flag with the headline "The end of the rainbow."
Still, even though TNR endorsed Walter Mondale, there is no denying that its political odyssey has caused it to cast its eyes to the right. Executive editor Morton Kondracke (who has departed for Newsweek) even committed the ultimate heresy of admitting (in The Wall Street Journal) that he might vote for Reagan, but he almost surely spoke for others on TNR's staff as well. When TNR draws public praise from National Review and George F. Will, you know something is going on. And such praise has proved too much for editor Hendrik Hertzberg, who came to TNR after serving as the Wonderboy's chief speechwriter. Hertzberg's resignation essay (TNR, January 21, 1985) is revealing:
My reasons for leaving are complicated. In the current (fiftieth anniversary) issue of Partisan Review, Daniel Bell writes that he finally left The Public Interest, which he had co-founded with Irving Kristol, because he believes that "friendship is more important than ideology." I believe that too . . . I've learned here that I can be friends, good friends, with people who have serious politics of which I deeply disapprove. This is something I wouldn't have thought possible
before. (Emphasis added.)
Notice the ambiguity of that last sentence: Hertzberg is clearly saying that he didn't know that political disagreement and friendship could coexist; but the implication is also there that he didn't expect such disagreement ever to arise at The New Republic.
The source of TNR's unpredictability, then, is its ambivalence about liberalism. But while "unpredictability" makes for curious reading, the dark side of ambivalent unpredictability is inconsistency, and TNR is nothing if not inconsistent these days. Two consecutive issues illustrate the tendency. The last issue of 1984 carried essays by Charles Murray and Glenn Loury blasting away at the logic of affirmative action quotas and the lack of racial progress from the liberal agenda, plus an editorial sharply critical of Caspar Weinberger for being dovish and near-sighted in his ideas on the use of U.S. forces.
But the next issue carried a rambling editorial on the South Africa controversy that culminated in the following obiter dictum: "The South African question is excruciatingly simple. Indeed, there probably has not been an evil so simple since the fall of Berlin." Kondracke must have been out of town when this editorial went through the pipeline. And the issue also contained Leon Wieseltier's complaints about the conservative criticism of the bishops' letter on the economy-conservative criticism that differed little from Charles Krauthammer's own dissection of the bishops' missive that appeared-you guessed it-in a previous issue of TNR. Thus, to read TNR today is to read a journal often at war with itself; Michael Harrington is published along with Charles Murray, while Kondracke praises Reagan's abilities even as Carl Bernstein, in the same issue, belittles the President.
Despite these departures from consistency and sense, it would take more space than I have already used to enumerate the top-quality articles that have appeared in TNR in the last year. It should be observed, finally, that what now makes The New Republic interesting is exactly that ecumenism that made National Review interesting for so many years, that willingness to open its pages to diverse voices clamoring to draw into focus those principles from which a sensible conservatism or liberalism might take its bearings.
But this very ecumenism could ultimately become the weakness of The New Republic if it sacrifices principle for variety; indeed, it is the lack of discernible serious principle at the heart of The American Spectator that accounts for much of its diminished appeal. At present, however, The New Republic seems to recognize that if liberalism is to be transformed into a viable political force, its transformation may have to take place within
the bounds conservatives are staking out. The battle of political journalism today depends on whether the boundaries of political consensus about the fundamental principles of the American regime are effectively defined by The American Spectator and other conservative journals, or whether conservative journals allow themselves to be outflanked by The New Republic. Whether the Humpty-Dumpty of liberalism can be put
back together again is a tall question, but if it is to be answered, it will be answered in the
pages of The New Republic, even as onlookers note floating above the establishment heights from which liberalism fell, the Cheshire cat grin of The American Spectator.