It’s easy enough to find editors these days who say they saw Donald Trump coming, hard to find ones who are telling the truth about that. By my estimation perhaps the only one who really did is R. Emmett Tyrrell, the venerable founder and editor of the American Spectator, and perhaps the only man to get marginalized in the right-wing journalism of the 1990s for being too hard on the Clintons.
Tyrrell is a charismatic, spry, and unaccountably handsome 73-year-old whose mainstream political influence peaked during Ronald Reagan’s first term. He’s still got a pair of letters from Reagan hanging above the stairs, next to a photograph of his old friend and Spectator contributor Tom Wolfe. His roots in journalism are, he likes to say, “athletic” — he was inspired by the coach of his Indiana University swim team to found a conservative magazine, and moved it from Bloomington to Washington in 1985.
Tyrrell’s Spectator was a hipster National Review, his generation’s Jacobin: It was where you’d read everyone from George Will to Bill Kristol back when nobody had heard of either. Tyrrell says he introduced the two. He has a gracious manner and a scabrous prose style that is the only thing about him that reminds you of Donald Trump: He just always goes there. (In his latest book, The Death of Liberalism, he refers to Monica Lewinsky as the “fat intern.”) He was the first of the old-line conservatives to make common cause with the Jewish ex-Marxists who became the neocons. And he brought a new, mocking tone to a conservative movement that had relied more on sheer outrage: “His greatest scoop was the discovery that liberalism had become laughable,” recalled Seth Lipsky, who worked on the Wall Street Journal's opinion pages in the 1980s.
But Tyrrell was ready for 2016 most of all because Tyrrell’s career has been defined by the Clintons. His magazine broke one of the biggest stories of the 1990s, the allegations that Arkansas state troopers had arranged liaisons for Gov. Bill Clinton. A young reporter named David Brock broke the news under the headline “His Cheatin' Heart” in December of 1993, and that story was a key part of the investigations of Clinton’s personal Arkansas world that eventually led to his impeachment. But even as he drove the spirit of 1990s anti-Clintonism, Tyrrell reached what seemed like the end of the political line. He allowed rich conservatives to funnel money for the “Arkansas Project” fishing expedition through the Spectator, and gave space in his pages to the fantastical gun- and drug-running yarns of a former trooper named L.D. Brown, over skepticism even of anti-Clinton allies at places like the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Tyrrell wound up under investigation for interfering with a federal investigation by paying sources (no charges were brought), and losing control of the magazine.
Byron York wrote the publication’s obituary in The Atlantic in 2001, under the headline, “The Life and Death of The American Spectator.”
At the heart of the story, York wrote, was that Tyrrell and his allies had been “possessed by a self-destructive brand of opposition to Bill Clinton, and in their desire to knock the president out of office they ended up hurting themselves more than him.” This was the story of “the downfall of Tyrrell, a talented polemicist who craved acceptance in the world of Washington but allowed his obsession with Clinton to ensure that he would become increasingly alienated from that world.”
But the obituary was premature. Tyrrell would get his magazine back, but it never regained its centrality, and while he retained allies in the media and political class — incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he says, is his best friend on Capitol Hill — he was not the sort of player during the Bush years he had been during the Reagan administration. In David Frum's 2012 roman à clef about the conservative movement, Patriots, he appears as the cynical, dandyish journalist in the service of an empty ideology. But he never went away, and his galas continued to draw the conservative elite. And he never stopped being obsessed with the Clintons.
So why was Bob Tyrrell the one who got it right? What about his strain of conservatism, and his roots in the dark conspiratorial anti-Clinton politics of the 1990s, let him see something hundreds of other conservative writers and thinkers missed? I visited him at his gracious Old Town Alexandria home to ask him that question as he sat under a portrait of Lincoln (“I brought him to this confederate community”), a Make America Great Again hat, but no computer, on the secretaire.
Tyrrell placed his bet on Trump way back in 2013, after Trump spoke at the Spectator’s annual Robert L. Bartley Gala. Trump was there to receive the T. Boone Pickens Award for Entrepreneurship.
“He was not the main speaker that night. You know who the main speaker was? Cruz,” Tyrrell laughed. “Cruz.”
Trump’s speech could have been given yesterday: warnings that America is being “scoffed at by the world” and incredulous mockery of Obamacare. Also, the familiar tics: praise for the old Reagan hand Jeffrey Lord, who introduced him, who wrote some articles that were “so nice” Trump had called him; a shout-out to the guy from the New York Post; stories about Ed Koch.
Tyrrell found him charming and witty. And while most of the small-government warriors scoffed, he found him conservative.
“I looked at Donald and I didn’t see an enemy,” he recalled. “When I look at Hillary Clinton, I duck. I mean — where’s the grenade going to come from? She actually tried to put me in jail. She and her lovely husband.
“I thought Donald Trump was a part of America,” Tyrrell continued. “You can’t imagine a guy like that coming out of France. I can’t even picture him as coming out of Great Britain. He’s really a part of America.”
The Spectator’s admiration for Trump began in June 2013: Tyrrell published a column by Lord, one of Tyrrell’s closest friends, who had moved back to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to care for his aging mother. The column responded to a sneering Wall Street Journal piece on Trump, and warned conservatives never to ignore him.
“Donald Trump, like Ronald Reagan, is an American Original,” Lord wrote. “Let Donald Trump be Donald Trump. Which is to say, not only don’t ignore Donald Trump but rather pay attention to him. Pay attention to someone who spends 24/7 making the American dream the American reality.”
Trump called Lord to thank him, and they began to talk occasionally. He introduced Trump at the magazine’s gala, and Trump took to Tyrrell as well.
In 2014, the Donald J. Trump Foundation (best known now for spending the money of people other than Donald Trump) gave the Spectator’s foundation $25,000, a “generous thing to do,” says Tyrrell, but “you’ve got give me a lot more than $25,000 to get me to admire you.”
Despite Tyrrell’s Old Town home and his deep roots on the right, both he and Lord say the Spectator saw Trump coming because Tyrrell’s an outsider.
“It would not have been impossible for people other than Bob to do this but they were so caught up in the Beltway way of doing things,” speculated Lord.
“There’s something that makes, I think, people in power, or who think they’re in power — it makes their brain atrophy,” said Tyrrell of his conservative former friends. (They are now “keeping their distance — and at this point in my life I don’t give a damn.”) “I mean look at the number of stupid things that have been said about Donald Trump,” he said.
Tyrrell did not come up, like Trump’s further-out supporters, on the nationalist wing of his party. Nor are his origins, like Sessions’, in the racialized politics of the white South. Tyrrell is, notionally, a mainstream conservative — worried that the Democratic Party was slipping toward “friendly fascism,” skeptical about government power. What he shares with Trump most of all is his fascination with dark, sometimes sexual, secrets. “The Death of Liberalism” misses no chance to pass on sexual comments about Democratic Reprobates: Clinton and Eliot Spitzer and the late Teddy Kennedy, sure. But the speculation on whether Eleanor Roosevelt masturbated sounds a bit like a 1940s Trump.
And of his candidate’s personal life?
“Well, I mean, it’s nothing compared to actually raping women,” he said. “I think [Trump and Clinton] are not comparable. It’s what some men do. He didn’t break the law on any occasion.”
In fact, he said, “Donald strikes me as pretty much a gentleman. I mean, he doesn’t drink. That probably keeps him out of a lot of trouble.”
Way back in the early 2000s, Bill Clinton paid a visit to the New York Post. He’d hated the paper’s cartoon depictions of him as a boxer-clad lecher. But he’d been courting Rupert Murdoch — his wife’s constituent — and after the visit, the cartoonist laid off that caricature.
Tyrrell never did, and perhaps the thing that Tyrrell had, the thing nobody else in Washington had, was a dark view of the Clintons that never went away, never even mitigated. While Republican senators were being charmed by Hillary Clinton, while old haters like Chris Ruddy and Richard Mellon Scaife were coming around to Bill, Tyrrell stayed in the fever swamps. In 2007, he published a scathing attack on Bill Clinton, The Clinton Crack-Up, full both of the 1990s sex scandals and of a theme of post-presidential influence peddling that surfaced last year. He still grumbles that not even the conservative press bothered reviewing it. But it turns out he was onto something. One of the great lessons of 2016 was how deep the suspicion and hatred of the Clintons in the 1990s ran, how little it took to revive it. Tyrrell says he was surprised, and pleased, to see Trump bring Clinton’s 1990s accusers to a press conference in St. Louis. Among them was Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Clinton of raping her (he denies it and was never charged with any form of sexual assault); Broaddrick told me she considers Tyrrell "a hero of the truth."
“It was a little weird to find it all over again, but it needed to be raised up all over again,” Tyrrell said. “Donald thought it needed to be raised up and he’s right. I mean Bill never paid the price.”
Maybe Clinton has paid it now. Tyrrell spent October, in part, on Trump’s jet for campaign stops in Florida and Texas, apparently unrecognized and unremarked by a generation of Trump watchers for whom “Troopergate” sounds like a particularly dank meme and for whom its author, David Brock, is a liberal lion.
The Trump campaign stops, with Trump ordering his plane to circle to give the crowd a show, sent Tyrrell back to April 1968, when Bobby Kennedy appeared at Indiana University.
“I’ve never seen such a great campaigner — him and that campaign,” Tyrrell said. “He was the greatest campaigner I’ve ever seen until I flew with Donald.” ●
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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