The editor of the American Spectator, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., was once having dinner with Robert Bartley, the longtime editor of the Wall Street Journal; me, and my partner in the New York Sun, Seth Lipsky, when Seth remarked on how phenomenally well-read Tyrrell is.
Bartley remarked in the most constructive and encouraging way possible that this wasn't always clear from reading Mr. Tyrrell's column, which we carried in the Sun.
Alas, Bartley did not live to see the appearance of Mr. Tyrrell's new book, After The Hangover: The Conservative' Road to Recovery. If he had, though, I think he'd have read it and come away marveling at Mr. Tyrrell's feat in pulling off, in the course of a relatively slim book, an impressive feat, a thoughtful, learned, and accessible extended essay that is part memoir, part intellectual history, part political philosophy and part prescription of policy and practice.
For conservatives – a group that for Mr. Tyrell includes those with "shared enthusiasm for constitutionally limited government, the rule of law, and free markets that spread prosperity and preserve freedom," those who stand "for liberty, the Bill of Rights, and the mild tug of traditions" – times today are both worse than is commonly thought and not as bad as is commonly thought.
Mr. Tyrell makes both cases simultaneously. That is a bit of a logical trick, but he is a smooth enough writer to accomplish it.
Start with the downside. Mr. Tyrrell quotes Eric Hoffer's The True Believer: "Every great cause begins as a movement becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket."
This, Mr. Tyrrell says, is what has happened to conservatism. "Whereas in the past conservatism's most prominent voices had been intellectuals, by the 1990s the intellectuals had been replaced by personalities, that is to say outstanding controversialists, often astoundingly vulgar."
Or, to get personal about it, as Mr. Tyrrell does, William F. Buckley Jr., who wrote more than 50 books and whose papers at Yale cover 550 linear feet of filing cabinets, has been replaced by Ann Coulter. (Mr. Tyrrell is perhaps too dismissive of Ms. Coulter, who has written 7 books herself, and is a graduate of Cornell and of the University of Michigan Law School, where she was an editor of the law review and then clerked for a federal appellate judge, but you get the point.)
A lot of the conservative brain trust has died: William F. Buckley Jr., Milton Friedman, Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, and Robert Bartley.
And Mr. Tyrell isn't all that impressed by what remains, calling George W. Bush "a grave disappointment." That is of the few points on which Mr. Tyrrell would find common ground with a lot of left-wingers.
"Only a troubled person would aspire to political leadership today," he writes. The campaign schedule is "the kind of commitment that could only be made by a narcissist, an egomaniac, or some other variant of a social misfit."
Conservatives have to fight against what Mr. Tyrrell calls the Kultursmog, which he defines, following James Piereson, as "the Liberal understanding of events ratified as a matter of morals and etiquette within the media and academe." This is a force to the point where President Reagan is given short shrift even in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, whose editor, Justin Kaplan, conceded in an interview, "I'm not going to disguise the fact that I despise Ronald Reagan."
The Kultursmog also includes carelessness about facts. As an example, Mr. Tyrell mentions two books, including one by a historian who has taught at Oxford and Yale, that claim Mr. Tyrrell went to Georgetown with Bill Clinton. In fact, Mr. Tyrrell went to Indiana University.
As Mr. Tyrrell sees it, though, the biggest problem facing conservatives is not liberals or mortality. "The most serious problem facing the conservative movement," he writes, is "its difficulty in pulling together."
"Conservative intellectuals are more susceptible to petty competitiveness than Liberals," mentioning what he calls "debilitating rivalries."
On to the upside. This, he writes, is "the fourth round of obituaries for conservatism, which make it the longest dying political movement in American history." The first round came in 1964 with Barry Goldwater's loss; then in 1974 after Nixon; then in 1992, when Mr. Tyrrell published The Conservative Crack-Up. If the earlier obituaries were premature, so this one may be.
Mr. Tyrrell says that not even the left's leaders will openly argue for bigger government any more, citing President Obama, in a speech to Congress on February 24, 2009, calling for spending "not because I believe in bigger government – I don't."
He also cites a Gallup poll at the end of 2009 indicating that "conservatism was twice as popular among Americans as Liberalism."
Still, it's clear that Mr. Tyrrell thinks that there is room for conservatism to advance further, and he has some ideas for making it happen.
The comeback will begin, he says, at the "archipelago of public policy think tanks," among them the American Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute, Heritage, Hoover, Hudson, and Cato. It will be amplified by what he calls New Media: talk radio, Fox News, and the Internet.
Toward the end of the book, he endorses some policy ideas himself, including a cap on federal spending at 20% of GDP, a flat tax, personal retirement accounts as part of Social Security, tort reform, a mix of charter schools and school vouchers, and tax credits to encourage the use of natural gas. On national defense, he proposes a Tyrrell Doctrine that "recognizes that it is too costly and difficult to plant democracy on the unwelcoming soil of countries that have no sympathy for it, for instance, Iraq or Afghanistan." That's another point on which Mr. Tyrrell would find common ground with a lot of left-wingers.
Mr. Tyrrell cites one effort of conservative collaboration that he finds hopeful, a "Conservative Action Project" that meets every Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. in Washington and is "led by the likes of President Reagan's attorney general Ed Meese and a veteran of the Contract with America-era Congress, ex-congressman David McIntosh." Mr. Meese, at 78 a few months younger than Rupert Murdoch's 79, seems an unlikely leader of a Republican resurgence, and Mr. Tyrrell's description of Mr. McIntosh omits the fact that the ex-congressman stayed in Washington after leaving office and has since made a living lobbying his former colleagues from an office on K St. on behalf of clients like Merrill Lynch, Pfizer, and ATT.
Mr. Tyrrell's value is almost not so much his tactical suggestions but his example, and his conviction that ideas matter in politics. "Hayek's insights in the 1940s, based on the ideas of classical liberals, led years later to the political triumphs of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan," he writes.
"There can be no lasting political change without cultural change," he says. So, conservatives should "take an interest in each other's work" – review each other's books, analyze each other's ideas, act as "colleagues in a cause."
Mr. Tyrrell has been doing this, with rhetorical flair – this book includes the words rastaquouère and scortatory – and humor, for quite some time now.
The humor is one of Mr. Tyrrell's signal contributions to his side's cause in the battle of ideas. Figuring conservatives were facing a period in "the wilderness" after the 2008 election, Mr. Tyrrell ordered 400 copies of the L.L. Bean catalog for distribution at the American Spectator's annual dinner: "Properly attired, we might not find the wilderness so bad."
This book is worth the price simply for the laughs in the two paragraphs dealing with Senator Biden, as a vice presidential candidate, insisting his ticket's priority was "a three-letter word, jobs. J-O-B-S, jobs," and also giving an interview to Katie Couric in which he claimed Roosevelt was president during the 1929 crash and that afterward FDR immediately "got on television" to address the American people.
Less funny are Mr. Tyrrell's running references to the Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, as "pulchritudinous," "comely," "beauteous," and "very cute." Though they are kinder than the description of Governor Palin by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who Mr. Tyrrell refers to as part, with David Frum, of "the Davidian Branch of Reformed Conservatism." Mr. Brooks, Mr. Tyrrell recalls, called Ms. Palin "a cancer to the Republican Party." And not just any cancer: "a fatal cancer."
As for getting conservatives to pull together, Mr. Tyrrell doesn't mention it in the book, but he has done his own part by hosting for the American Spectator a long-running series of weekday dinners in New York and Washington under the rubric of the "Saturday Evening Club." If the dinners alone haven't mitigated the "petty competitiveness" or "debilitating rivalries" on the right, well, perhaps the prospect of a second term for President Obama with a Democratic majority in Congress will.