A Wall Street Journal Review of the Book by R. Emmett Tyrrell Titled “How Do We Get Out of Here? Half a Century of Laughter and Mayhem at The American Spectator—From Bobby Kennedy to Donald Trump”

From a Wall Street Journal book review by Barton Swaim headlined “‘How Do We Get Out of Here?’ Review: An Alternative Viewpoint”:

‘Of all the virtues, humility is the one that I have never quite gotten the hang of.” So writes R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., founder and longtime editor of the American Spectator magazine, in his memoir, “How Do We Get Out of Here?” He’s right. No one has ever accused him of modesty, and no one ever will. The book is irreverent, discursive, intermittently hilarious, gossipy, spiteful, penetrating on political topics, and zealous in its admiration of R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.

Even Mr. Tyrrell’s enemies will have to admit that his achievements are considerable. William F. Buckley Jr. rightfully gets the credit for the rise of conservative journalism. But from the 1970s to the ’90s Mr. Tyrrell’s magazine—first known as the Alternative, based in Bloomington, Ind., renamed the American Spectator in 1977, and relocated to Washington in 1985—turned out legions of gifted writers and editors. Three of them work for this newspaper’s editorial page. When I worked at the Weekly Standard of blessed memory, nearly every writer older than 40 had worked or at least written for AmSpec, as it’s known. Its roster of first-rate contributors in those years is unsurpassed: Paul Johnson, Irving Kristol, Malcolm Muggeridge, George F. Will, James Q. Wilson and many others. (The magazine hosts an annual dinner in honor of the Journal’s former editor, Robert L. Bartley.)

Mr. Tyrrell was among the first to understand that the radicals of the 1960s were on their way to becoming, if they weren’t already, the establishment. He founded the Alternative as a student newspaper and made its headquarters a shabby farmhouse outside Bloomington, ironically called The Establishment. In 1969 he and the Alternative staff staged a debate between himself and Rudolph Montag, a professor of urban studies at Columbia University. The latter, addressing a crowd of 250 or so, spoke in strings of platitudes so stupid and vacuous that a student wrestler bounded on the stage and smashed a pie in his face. The professor only said, “Ah, I deserved that.”

The spectacle was reported, Mr. Tyrrell tells us, in the Chicago Tribune and Indianapolis Star. There was in fact no such professor at Columbia or anywhere else named Rudolph Montag. It was a stunt, meant as a send-up of jargon-spouting academics. The university was not pleased.

If you’re fond, as I am, of name-dropping anecdotage about the journalism industry, the book has its pleasures. Mr. Tyrrell dwells at some length—and why not?—on the rain-soaked night in 1988 when President Reagan visited his home in McLean, Va., for dinner. An AmSpec intern named Greg Gutfeld wasn’t allowed anywhere near the gathering that night, but he ate Reagan’s leftovers so he could tell friends that he “shared a dinner” with the president. Mr. Tyrrell is still irritated, though, that in a write-up about National Review editor John O’Sullivan, an attendee at the McLean dinner, Sidney Blumenthal wrote in the Washington Post that “in the evening he [that is, O’Sullivan] dined with President Reagan in Washington” but doesn’t mention the specific location. “Where did he dine, Sidney?” Mr. Tyrrell writes. “McDonald’s?”

Mr. Tyrrell’s admiration for Reagan is boundless, but he gently faults the Gipper for appointing too many “assistant presidents”—aides who felt it their prerogative to push policies that the president ought, in their opinion, to favor rather than the ones he directed them to pursue. He’s thinking of Dick Darman, Mike Deaver, David Gergen and others. Mr. Tyrrell overstates the case, in my view, by blaming these assistant presidents for the GOP’s failure to create a “conservative counterculture.” His belief was, and is, “that if the media was to change and the left-wing tilt of the universities was to be challenged, we had to start at the top.” I wish that were true.

The American Spectator reached the peak of its fame in the 1990s with several devastating investigative pieces by David Brock, particularly “The Real Anita Hill,” later expanded into a book about Clarence Thomas’s accuser, and “His Cheatin’ Heart,” about a string of sexual liaisons facilitated by Arkansas state troopers for Gov. Bill Clinton. The latter essay—largely corroborated by the Los Angeles Times—sent AmSpec’s circulation higher than 300,000, unheard-of for an intellectual magazine.

The conventional view of the American Spectator in the ’90s holds that Mr. Tyrrell succumbed to anti-Clinton mania. The magazine launched what it called the Arkansas Project, financed by conservative donor Richard Mellon Scaife, and generally blew its budgets in the effort to destroy the president. Matters weren’t helped when the Clinton Justice Department, in what can fairly be described as an attempt to intimidate the magazine, threatened prosecution on the grounds that the magazine’s associates had tried to have a key witness in the Whitewater investigation change his testimony. Mr. Tyrrell ridicules the allegation.

My late friend Terry Eastland—oddly unmentioned in the book—labored mightily to right the magazine’s finances and solve legal problems occasioned by the Justice Department bullying, but to no avail. The magazine had to be bought by the investor George Gilder, who gave it back to Mr. Tyrrell in 2002.

Whatever one thinks of Mr. Tyrrell or the rise-and-near-demise of AmSpec, he is indisputably right to claim that later revelations of Bill Clinton’s behavior vindicated the magazine and to blame the mainstream press for ignoring the president’s sleazy past. Had Mr. Brock’s “Troopergate” story been seized on by the media in the way it would have been in a Republican administration, we all might have been spared the sordid impeachment saga of 1998-99 and Mrs. Clinton’s failed presidential runs of 2008 and 2016. Reporters now pretending to know nothing about Joe and Hunter Biden’s misdeeds, take note.

Barton Swaim is an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal.

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