R. Emmett Tyrell Jr., founder of The American Spectator and author of Public Nuisances and The Liberal Crack-up, dates the conservative crack-up as beginning July 1, 1987, with the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
"Conservatism's time of greatest strength preceeded that date, and it has been a rocky road ever since," Mr. Tyrrell writes in his new book's prologue.
"What is more, all the conservatives' imperfections could be detected in their futile maneuvers during the Bork hearing."
He continues: "The hearings typified battles that conservatives are now increasingly losing to Liberals. Despite vast support from the electorate, conservatives have few redoubts within the culture from which they can shape public discourse."
This is the gist of the Conservative Crack-Up (Simon & Schuster, 319 pages, $23), a masterful study of the rise of conservatism roughly from the ashes of the 1964 Goldwater campaign. He covers events well before Goldwater, and makes some suggestions for the future, but he has been on the scene and does his best with the past 30 years. Arguably, nobody understands, or has done more for modern conservatism, than Bob Tyrrell. He has been through the wars, and he has made a difference.
I write this as one who has enjoyed his friendship, and, indeed, his journalistic patronage.
When it counted, Tyrell published my youthful scrawls, and made introductions, and I remain on the masthead of his magazine to this day.
He did all of it for no return other than the satisfaction of giving a young man a chance. And, I assure you, I have not been his only beneficiary.
The Conservative Crack-Up is an extremely detailed documentary work, and its relevance to the ongoing political debate cannot be discounted. Anyone who doubt this can just look to the events of the past few weeks.
Unsinkable Murphy Brown
Consider the Los Angeles riots. Current wisdom stipulates that "rage" produced the riot. Only The Wall Street Journal's editorial page called this "rage" dodge a cheap liberal rationalization for law-breaking.
When Vice President Dan Quayle made a passing remark to the television show "Murphy Brown" at the end of an otherwise remarkably cogent speech about the riot, those who shape public discourse--I think here of Byrant Gumbel of the "Today" show, for one--saw fit to heap scorn and derision on Quayle. He essentially sacrificed an entire speech on traditional family values to a television sound bite on "Murphy Brown."
And so on. At the end of almost 12 years in control of the White House, conservatives are no more a part of American intellectual life than when Ronald Regan won in 1980. Radio, television, newspaper, the arts: With few exceptions, conservatives are nowhere to be seen.
As Mr. Tyrrell writes, "In modern democratic politics one has to represent more than just one policy or one interest to be an enduring political force. One has to promote a political culture."
This, he says, conservatives do not do, and that is because of the conservative temperament. "The true conservative is private...Bill Buckley has lived his entire life on-stage, beginning at the age of six when he addressed a peremptory missive to the King of England demanding that the British Empire repay its World War I debt to us.
"Most conservatives are not like him. They may be roused to public deeds by some policy deemed necessary for their way of life or, in time of national danger, by their innate patriotism. Otherwise they stay close to the hearth," Mr. Tyrrell writes.
Liberals, on the other hand, writes Mr.Tyrrell, like to ham it up; they relish public life.
The precise nature of the conservative crack-up is that conservatives haven't fought back. If anything, even many young conservatives who should have the sap rising have decided to retreat, writing self-indulgent memoirs and fussy fictions, and scrambling around for grant money, instead of getting out into the world and engaging the liberalism pervasive in American culture. They have the ideas, but they refuse to turn on the power.
"Someone is going to have to apply the proven ideas of modern conservatism to those areas of America in need of improvement," according to the author, and he frankly asks those same liberals who relish public life to part from "the utopia and unreason of the New Age and march back to the Founding Fathers' love of liberty and Republican Virtue. Let the sober Liberal join with the conservatives in the preservations of our founding principles."
Along the way to this conclusion, Mr. Tyrrell turns out a very entertaining and illuminating book, full of his personal experiences, all related in his zesty, Menckenesque style.
He writes of the founding of his magazine in 1967, the real Nixon and Kissinger, the rise of Reagan, and characters as diverse as Spiro Agnew, Malcolm Muggeridge, the Neoconservatives, and patron saint of all American conservative, William F. Buckley Jr.
Mr.Tyrrell has been right in the middle of things. The Conservative Crack-Up will enlighten conservatives, and drive liberals, who he says "haven't had an idea since the Ice Age," crazy.