In his conservative way, Tyrrell chronicles the follies of the human race

SPEAKING OF MENCKEN...

September 09, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

MCLEAN, VA. — McLean, Va.--There's usually a twinkle in his eye when Bob Tyrrell speaks, which is good since he says so many nasty things. In that way, he's not unlike one of his models, H. L. Mencken, a writer who could be as outrageous as he could be charming.

That's why Mr. Tyrrell is an appropriate choice to speak at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's annual Mencken Day festivities, which will take place Saturday at the Central Branch.

When Mr. Tyrrell speaks, liberals get the most flak, as one might suspect about this fiercely conservative writer and editor of the American Spectator, but here's an observation about the current president, who happens to be a Republican (like Mr. Tyrrell) and who, in fact, is happily posed with him in two pictures prominently displayed in the Tyrrell household:

"I do think this is the most meaningless presidential campaign ever," Mr. Tyrrell, 48, says, leaning back in a chair in the study of his spacious suburban Washington home. "The use of words has been as useless and superficial as any in American history. George Bush's double-talk is astonishing, and Clinton -- Slick Willie, or Boy Clinton, as we call him -- is just as unserious and hypocritical as Bush."

Mr. Tyrrell leans forward and rubs his hands together; he seems to love not only speaking the outrageous but also phrasing words in the way that will draw the most blood. "George Bush is going to cut spending, reduce the size of government and, oh, give us a $10 billion jobs program that isn't going to cost us $10 billion. Fantastic!" Mr. Tyrrell sprawls back in his chair and gives his interviewer an amused look.

There is much to appreciate in the Human Comedy, and if R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. has his way, his American Spectator will be there to chronicle all the follies, foolishness and frivolity the human race can dream up. That has been its aim since he founded it as a conservative magazine called the Alternative in 1967, while a graduate student at Indiana University (where he became friendly with Dan Quayle). The magazine was renamed the American Spectator in 1977.

Throughout, Mr. Tyrrell has sought out the most provocative and outrageous writers -- George Will, Tom Wolfe, P. J. O'Rourke -- with the idea being, as he says with a touch of braggadocio, "I'm not supposed to go through life kissing a and inflating egos and hewing to some party line."

If that attitude seems familiar with fans of H. L. Mencken, it's not entirely coincidence: Mr. Tyrrell happens to be a longtime admirer of the Sage of Baltimore and has patterned the contents of the American Spectator after such Mencken-led magazines as the American Mercury. "I think that we consciously attempt to keep Mencken and [editor George Jean] Nathan -- that whole era -- somewhat echoing through our pages," he says.

Although he admires Mencken deeply, Mr. Tyrrell is not an uncritical fan. "I think he's one of the great writers of English prose, certainly in this century," he says, "and he had a tremendous eye for hypocrisy, paradox, irony -- all things that are quite foreign to modern American intellectuals. But he was not a systematic thinker, and I think that was a failing. And his anger in the last years -- I find it typical of the fatuous conservative."

In a twist that Mencken surely would have loved, a featured speaker after Mr. Tyrrell Saturday happens to be Hilton Kramer, editor of the conservative arts journal the New Criterion. One might think Mr. Kramer and Mr. Tyrrell are comrades-in-arms, but a passage from "The Conservative Crack-Up" suggests otherwise: "The most ferocious example of a bilious neoconservative was, of course, the legendary Hilton Kramer, problem child. Hilton was another of those A students who can never quite get over his superior mind or transcend his bad manners. Kramer was the embodiment of the homicidal intellectual, and frankly, I wish he had remained on the left."

Mr. Tyrrell grins when asked about a potentially awkward social situation if he and Mr. Kramer should meet Saturday.

"Let me tell you something," he says, waving an arm dismissively. "I'm different from a lot of people. That never bothers me. What's that term -- 'So-and-so cut me'? Well, I couldn't care less . . .

"I don't feel public anger toward somebody I disagree with. I mean, rarely have I been a room in which 5 percent of the people agreed with me."

Much like Mencken, it's suggested.

Mr. Tyrrell nods. "He was one of the funniest people ever to write in this country, and I frankly felt that one of his great gifts was hilaritas," he continues. "He is funny. And as I say in 'The Conservative Crack-Up,' I really feel that there is a real hatred of humor and laughter out there. It's the intellectuals I mean: The American intellectuals comprise the most timid, conformist, saturnine collection in the entire world."

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