President Carter or “Wonderboy,” writes Robert Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor of the neoconservative journal the American Spectator, grows “in puniness with every passing day.” Hamilton Jordan is “a slob in trouble.” Vice-President Mondale is guilty of “stupefying goody-goodyism.” The competition? “Culturally, Teddy [Kennedy] is a blank when not within shouting distance of a bartender.” Jerry Brown is an “impenetrable miasma of Zen-Romanism and California bizarrerie.”
Nor are the Republicans spared. Kissinger was Washington’s “most warmly esteemed artist of flimflam.” Nixon? “A rather ordinary man, distinguished only by his gigantic will to escape ordinariness.” John Connally is “a kind of gringo Somoza,” and Ronald Reagan, while “quite possibly the nicest man to run for the Presidency since Al Smith,” is “a very depressing prospect.”
Holy misanthrope! Doesn’t the man like anybody? To judge by Bob Tyrrell’s recent columns and volume of essays, Public Nuisances (Basic Books, $11.95), the answer would have to be no. Yet the impeccably pin-striped and paisleyed Tyrrell, 35, does have his heroes. Busts of Schubert, Groucho Marx, W. C. Fields and Old Grand-Dad (the bourbon patriarch) adorn the study of his 11-room ranch house in Bloomington, Ind. He does most of his writing there—electric portable on his lap, black wingtips propped neatly on the desk. First and foremost, RET (as he signs his column) admires, and models himself on, the late H. L. Mencken, the coruscating commentator of the old American Mercury. Tyrrell sets the Spectator in Garamond (the Mercury’s typeface) and he vacations with his wife, Judy, 30, and their two children at Kitty Hawk, N.C., the home of Mencken anthologist Huntington Cairns.
Among the 22,000 subscribers to Tyrrell’s lively, 40-page monthly are such diverse notables as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (for whom Tyrrell’s 5-year-old, Patrick Daniel, is named in reverse), Malcolm Muggeridge, Leonard Garment, Woody Allen, Joseph Coors and Larry Flynt. Other copies go to Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet and the White House. The contributors are pretty impressive themselves: Daniel Bell, James Q. Wilson and Nathan Glazer of Harvard as well as conservatives Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley, among others.
Wrinkling his nose at labels, Tyrrell defines “neoconservative” as “an old liberal for whom the center has moved left.” That, he says, is what happened to him in 1967. He was a graduate student in American diplomatic history at Indiana University when a member of the radical SDS was elected student body head. Tyrrell’s response was to found the Alternative (changed to the American Spectator in 1977). Tyrrell wrote most of the early issues himself, under pen names like George Washington Plunkett, and distributed copies with the help of campus friends, two of whom, John “Baron” Von Kannon and Ronald Burr, stayed on as publisher and general manager. In the red from day one, the Spectator now loses $250,000 a year, yet the staff is well paid (Tyrrell, about $40,000), and the aim, he says, is to be “read intensively, not extensively.”
Tyrrell’s great-grandfather was the secret service agent who foiled the 1876 plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln’s body. His grandfather was a wealthy manufacturer of gas ranges and his father, “a salesman of various things but the thing I’m proudest of is Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.” Tyrrell grew up in suburban Chicago where Coach James “Doc” Counsilman recruited him for the Indiana swimming team in 1961. After the scholarly Counsilman suggested Tyrrell do some serious reading between workouts, the boy gave up the breaststroke. “Bob always loved words,” Doc recalls. “Now he’s learning to use them.”
Indeed, this fall Tyrrell will begin firing salvos weekly from the op-ed page of the Washington Post. Syndication is another possibility—”once the libel lawyers are standing by.” Rumors fly that Tyrrell may relocate in Manhattan or Washington, but he scoffs. “Here my life is more manageable,” he says. “I don’t want to be darlingized.” Wonder-boy should feel relieved.