Editor R. Emmett Tyrrell treats politics like a 'Spectator' sport

January 02, 1994|By James Warren | James Warren,Chicago Tribune

"Ah, he'll be a picnic," R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. had said just a few weeks before the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, during a brief trek back to his native Chicago.

Well, last week it was as if Mr. Tyrrell, a proud raconteur and provocateur, was having a picnic in which the wieners were exploding on the grill, ketchup bottles were flying and furious guests were racing for cover.

Mr. Tyrrell is founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator, an acerbic, nervy, at times all-too brazen, political monthly of conservative bent whose circulation is soaring and is assured of going even higher after inspiring the biggest bimbo eruption to engulf Bill Clinton.

It's the publication that unveiled an 11,000-word tale, "His Cheatin' Heart," alleging extramarital liaisons and possible government misconduct by Mr. Clinton. It actually took precedence over the week's other big news; the four-minute videotape that raised the question, "Just what is Michael Jackson doing with his skin?" and which gave us the rich coincidence of the president and the pop star declaring their innocence on the same day.

"It's a moment we're proud of. We think we've struck a blow for freedom, and against the vast corruption of American public life and discourse," says Mr. Tyrrell, the son of a Pabst Brewing worker, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs of River Forest and Oak Park and started the publication 26 years ago, when he was a student at Indiana University.

Mr. Tyrrell, who moved his headquarters to Arlington, Va., from Bloomington, Ind., in 1985, scoffs at the fervent White House denials of impropriety ("Clinton's latest act of dissembling"), which seemed to be largely embraced by official Washington and its solicitous press corps. The American Spectator and, in particular, the story's author, David Brock, were treated as if they were among those poor souls injected with plutonium in those wayward, belatedly revealed government experiments of long ago.

They're seen as members of a radioactive right, to be kept at a distance. One Washington Post pundit even called them "pathological" in their disdain for Mr. Clinton.

There was never any doubt about proceeding with the story, says Mr. Tyrrell, who is writing a book on Mr. Clinton. The only real decision was whether to abide by the wishes of the Arkansas troopers' lawyer, a Clinton foe, who desired that the Los Angeles Times, which labored on the tale simultaneously, run it first.

The Times got cold feet, Mr. Tyrrell got tired of waiting, and so the American Spectator let loose the opus.

The monthly's circulation has risen to 200,000 from 40,000 just two years ago, in no small measure due to adroit, heavy advertising on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Mr. Tyrrell has ordered the printing of 100,000 extra copies of the hot issue and, at $2.95 apiece, they'll surely be snapped up.

Meanwhile, he plugs along with his Clinton book, which may not necessarily be blanket condemnation. "In going back over his life, I have a sense of sadness and sympathy. He went to the greatest schools, had access to some of the world's best minds. There's something touching about him. I've read letters from his youth and they are quite touching."

Mr. Tyrrell, no stranger to self-promotion, swears that he's not RTC cheerily overwhelmed by the week's events and the spotlight it's brought.

"Whom the gods destroy, they first make famous," he says.

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