Despite reign, conservatives don't pervade culture

August 02, 1992|By Ann Egerton

THE CONSERVATIVE CRACK-UP.

R. Emmett Tyrell Jr. Simon & Schuster. 297 pages. $23. Perhaps the most important cause of the conservative crack-up -- if there has been one -- is that the conservatives, after nearly 12 years in the White House, never became an integral part of American culture. R. Emmett Tyrell Jr., a columnist for the Washington Times and the New York Post, and founder and editor of the magazine the American Spectator, laments this failure in "The Conservative Crack-Up," and contrasts it to the pervasion of New Deal liberalism in journalism, literature, theater and culture in general in the '30s and '40s, and right through the Kennedy years.

Not even such conservative culturati as William F. Buckley or Tom Clancy became actively involved in the Reagan and Bush years as so many artists -- Robert E. Sherwood, Archibald MacLeish and Virgil Thomson, for instance -- did during liberal regimes. Mr. Tyrell bemoans the dearth of a conservative point of view today in the Wall Street Journal's cultural affairs articles.

nTC One reason for the conservatives' failure to permeate the culture is their temperament; the conservative, whom Mr. Tyrell calls "freedom's most reliable defender," is private, a family man, often a businessman who may have the means to promote ideas but doesn't choose to do so. Unlike the more public and activist liberal, he wants to be left alone.

He adds that conservatives seldom write well. Mr. Buckley, always in the limelight and a dazzling writer, is the exception to both rules. Mr. Tyrell dismisses Pat Buchanan, saying the former presidential candidate gave himself over to an "erratic grumpiness, taking on causes that have long been obsolete and frivolous, like American First."

0$ Mr. Tyrell outlines a history of

contemporary liberal and conservative reigns, and describes his own participation in the conservative movement as founder and editor of the American Spectator since his student days at the University of Indiana 25 years ago. Here he is witty and instructive, and self-congratulatory.

He chronicles the history of the conservatives since World War II, describing their three main factions: libertarians, traditionalists and anti-communists, and says Mr. Buckley's National Review united them. He paints vivid profiles of colleagues and influential characters in his life, such as his swimming coach and Irving Kristol.

He makes cracks at many liberals' expense: Jimmy Carter is a "clever and vacuous Snopes"; Susan Sontag is a "perpetual graduate student"; writer and TV political host Michael Kinsley is a "nuisance" who "served as an Eleanor Roosevelt for the 1980's." Mr. Tyrell's smug and weary jibes against the opposition are in a tone comparable to what Gore Vidal uses against conservatives.

He also delivers a compelling argument on the similarities between FDR and Ronald Reagan, claiming that both had a rare sense of timing and that both "rerouted the course of American government in domestic policy and foreign affairs without losing the support of the electorate."

But when Mr. Tyrell addresses the "crack-up" he becomes sullen, blaming not only the bashful conservative disposition but the engulfing liberal media, which he calls "Kultursmog." He querulously defends

the Reagan administration, even the "bold" use of American strength in Angola and Grenada -- yes, Grenada.

He admits that Mr. Reagan slipped somewhat in his last two years in office and fantasizes about what it might have been like with a younger President Reagan as well as younger, vigorous conservative intellectuals to replace the fatigued Mr. Kristol and Mr. Buckley. He ignores the national debt, shrugs off the sleaze factor, is fuzzy about Iran-contra but devotes six fatuous pages to having Mr. Reagan for dinner. He says almost nothing about George Bush's administration, leaving one to wonder about his own projected Kultursmog.

Mr. Tyrell doesn't get around to explaining the crack-up until page 200 of this 297-page book, so the title, written as a companion to his 1984 book, "The Liberal Crack-Up," is slightly misleading. Still, it should be titillating this election year, as is his shrewd observation that the liberals and conservatives have reversed positions on such issues as protectionism and balanced budgets.

He notes that the rise of entrepreneurship is one of the best results of the conservative era. Clearly, he wants to participate in making the booty; enclosed in the book is a coupon for a free issue of his magazine.

Ms. Egerton is a writer living in Baltimore.

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