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Review: R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.'s 'After the Hangover'

afterthehangover.jpgBy the second paragraph of R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.'s latest book, he is advertising another one. Pundits use the phrase "the conservative crack-up" without attribution, he moans.

"I say this without attribution because I coined the term in an American Spectator symposium devoted to the troubled condition of conservatism during President Ronald Reagan's second term," he writes. Next paragraph: "In 1992, I published a book titled The Conservative Crack-Up in which I pondered the conservative movement's troubles during the Reagan administration's last years." Next paragraph: "In the New York Times Book Review, the book received a page-2 review, the Review's silver medal for the week's literary competition."

These are not the final instances of Tyrrell assuring the reader that his work is very, very important. The editor of the American Spectator since its founding as a college paper in 1967 (with a minor hiatus in the early part of the 2000s), Tyrrell has walked with every giant of modern conservatism without quite becoming one himself. His last book, "The Clinton Crack-Up," was a work of original journalism that, according to Tyrrell, was ripped off in chunks by Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum. It said something about the media's esteem for Tyrrell -- and something about the unease reporters feel about admitting he might be a useful source -- that no one picked up on the claim.


If you doubt that Tyrrell holds a grudge about this, dip into "After the Hangover." It's the first history of modern conservatism (excepting, in a comparison Tyrrell wouldn't appreciate, David Brock's "Blinded by the Right") in which the editor of the American Spectator is a clutch player. When William F. Buckley visited Tyrrell's Indiana University, the icon "insisted on seeing the varsity pool, where I had trained with the fabled Olympians and world record holders of Doc Counsilman's legendary swim teams." Tyrrell was "one of the first movement conservatives to welcome" the first neoconservatives into the fold. He introduced the young Bill Kristol to Buckley, an anecdote he tells twice in these pages, for some reason.

Tyrrell knew early on about the infirmities that plagued Buckley at the end of the National Review founder's life, but unlike Buckley's son Christopher, he didn't blab about them -- a very long and strange section here deals with that contrast, set at the funeral of conservatism's elder statesman. Here, however, finally, Tyrrell arrives at his point. Conservatives fail when they don't "take an interest in each other's work," and they fail when they become "mini-cons" and "Reformed Conservatives" who think they can succeed by trashing their fellow travelers. Tyrrell argues (no surprise) that this is the exact wrong approach, and that in a center-right country, any liberal success is going to be short-lived, doomed by design and by voters.

What's different here from what you'll hear on Rush Limbaugh's or Sean Hannity's or Mark Levin's talk shows? Nothing, really. We could have used a clearer picture of how the movement works -- the chapter here about the think tanks and donors to watch out for really doesn't bespeak Tyrrell's close connection to these people. (Why does Tyrrell still despise Bill Clinton while Chris Ruddy and Richard Mellon Scaife work with the former president? It might have been interesting to find out.) Tyrrell's need to make himself the Mary Sue of the story deprives us of a chance to see, in great detail, what he's observed as a much-liked, modestly influential conservative.

By David Weigel  |  June 4, 2010; 5:01 PM ET
Categories:  Reviews  
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