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Right Night

The foremost Clinton-hater relives the glory days

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is a god among Clinton-haters, and Monday night he was surrounded by them. Tyrrell, founder of the conservative magazine The American Spectator--known to his friends as Bob--was soaking up the adulation at a book party for his new tome, The Clinton Crack-Up: The Boy President's Life After the White House, at Morton's Steakhouse. Mary Lou Forbes, commentary pages editor for The Washington Times, gives Tyrrell a shout and a wink. Spectator alum and chief presidential speechwriter Bill McGurn chats with longtime editorial director Wlady Pleszczynski. Fox News commentator Angela McGlowan talks up her own new book. A youngish cluster whispers that "Grover" has stopped by. Former solicitor general Ted Olson, the evening's host, steps forward to give the author's introduction: "It's about time we had this kind of reunion," Olson says, and the circle of blue suits laughs wistfully. "Now," he continues, "some people call Bob a 'Clinton-hater.' That's a terrible thing to say--Bob Tyrrell is a Clinton-enjoyer."

There isn't much else for conservatives to enjoy these days. Their man in the Oval Office has let them down; they've lost their congressional majority (after being labeled big spenders by Democrats, of all people!). Perhaps some yearn for a time when life in Washington was simpler: Republicans had Congress, and the president had sex. So, in a way, The Clinton Crack-Up provides a brief respite--a reminder of those easier days. "We've had so much else to occupy our minds for the past few years," sighs guest David Hogberg, a senior analyst at the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research who has written for the Spectator. "Perversely enough, I have some nostalgia for the scandals. Clinton's scandals were fun. Bush's scandals are not fun."

Tyrrell founded the Spectator in the late 1960s as a conservative alternative to the new lefties on campus at the University of Indiana-Bloomington. With backing from an heiress, the magazine grew into a national force within the conservative movement. "[F]or years it was one of the few outlets for first-rate conservative writers, and almost every prominent conservative writer today contributed to it at some time or another," Byron York wrote in The Atlantic in 2001. Tyrrell saw himself as a cultural critic like in the same vein as H.L. Mencken (Rick Hertzberg called Tyrrell "Chicken McMencken" in these pages two decades ago). But it was Bill Clinton who brought the Spectator its greatest successes. The magazine broke Troopergate, in which then-Governor Clinton allegedly used Arkansas state troopers to facilitate his philandering. Rush Limbaugh hawked the magazine on his radio show, and subscriptions skyrocketed. "Tyrrell did well with Carter way back when," says Jim Lucier, a stock market analyst in attendance, "but it was really with the Clintons that he hit his stride."

But it didn't last. The magazine's budget grew too quickly while subscription rates began to fall. It became Exhibit A in the vast right-wing conspiracy for its association with the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded Arkansas Project, a group created to dig up dirt on Clinton (it turned up only goose eggs) that paid the Spectator to publish its "investigations." Its star muckraker, David Brock, recanted. The Spectator was bought, remade as a tech magazine, discontinued, and eventually handed back to Tyrrell, under whom it's now back in print, though in a more humble, less glossy format. Thankfully, this fall from grace (writ small in the magazine, writ large in the movement) has not occasioned a period of sober reflection for Tyrrell and his crew. Instead, they appeared Monday night to have reverted into 12-year-old boys.

So, oh yes, Olson is right--Tyrrell does indeed enjoy Bill Clinton. Guests were treated to customized Crack-Up cigars. (Get it? Cigars?) Though his book follows the post-presidential life of Bill Clinton and alleges some new "skirt-chasing," it also rehashes the old business deals and the kinkiest footnotes of the Starr report. When it comes time for Tyrrell to address the crowd, he tells the story of crashing Clinton's sixtieth birthday party in Toronto. "Bill Clinton's aged a little," Tyrrell informs his fans. "You know, recreational sex can be as dangerous as tobacco--even worse." (Ha ha ha, says the crowd.) Tyrrell continues to reflect on the president's physical condition: "A thought came to me after reading Yeats," he says. "Yeats, you might recall, had a monkey's organ implanted into his body to help him with ... certain activities. ... Bill's never had to have a monkey's organ implanted in his body!" (The crowd offers a few uncomfortable sympathy laughs.) "He's ruled by a single organ. It's possible he will have a larger place in high schools' sex education courses than in their history class!"

Though Pleszczynski does concede that Republicans can't win on Clinton-hating alone ("That's so played out"), the show hasn't really gotten old for the attendees. "Bob Tyrrell is the Keith Richards of the Clinton antagonists," says Lucier, an avid Spectator reader since third grade. "He's got those three or four chords, and he's made a living out of it. ... It'd be a shame not to play it till it gets worn out." Late in the evening, a young conservative writer takes me aside and confides (off the record!), "I carved out Bill Clinton's brain"--the cake's icing had a photo of the president--"and gave it to Tyrrell. And he ate it!"

Tyrrell is the first one to concede how closely his career has been tied to the former president's. "The Clintons are part of the family," he tells the crowd--"admittedly, the black sheep of the family." Afterward, I ask Tyrrell if he thinks Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy will give him some new material. "I never had so much fun in my life as when writing about the Clintons," Tyrrell tells me as he grabs the copy of his book out of my hand and begins signing it. The inscription reads, "Gentlemen prefer blondes!"

By Elspeth Reeve