THE CONSERVATIVE CRACK-UP. By R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $23
ON March 27, 1987, the Wall Street Journal published R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.'s editorial "A Conservative Crack-Up?" - thus announcing a theme that has been debated heatedly in the intervening years. In the latter half of the Bush presidency, Tyrrell's hypothesis has become an accepted statement of fact: America's conservative intellectuals, who only a decade ago seemed ready to dominate our political reveries through the turn of the century, are sunk in disarray, divided on a range of issues, and deeply su spicious of one another. From that hypothesis sprang "The Conservative Crack-Up."
Tyrrell's diagnosis carries particular authority: As the editor of the American Spectator, Tyrrell has been one of the most influential conservatives of the past decade. Although he was a conservative point guard in the Age of Reagan, Tyrrell now laments the absence of team play on the right. Ronald Reagan's "big-tent" politics, which sheltered the neo-conservatives, fundamentalists, libertarians, and "Country Club" republicans who formed the 1980s coalition, failed to create an authentic and lasting "co nservative counterculture."
Tyrrell articulately defends Reagan's triumphs - the president "radically reshaped domestic politics and the West's relations with the Soviet Union." But the president also chose to ignore, rather than resolve, his movement's internal rifts, chiefly between traditional conservatives, who value community and family, and market-oriented conservatives, who celebrate America's material culture. Moreover, Reagan surrounded himself with pragmatists who were indifferent to conservative ideals.
Tyrrell - still the political insider, at least until November - diplomatically avoids blaming the recent acceleration of the crackup on deficits in George Bush's political persona, nor does he touch upon the divisions opened by Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign, which so alienated Israel's supporters on the right. But in any case, he insists the conservative disarray set in well before Reagan left office, and can be traced to questions of temperament: Conservatives, Tyrrell argues, prefer the pleasur e of the manor or the boardroom to the low-paying and egocentric sport of politics.
To regain lost momentum, Tyrrell urges conservatives to recruit disillusioned liberal activists who can mix right-wing principles with left-wing energy. This accommodating stance clearly stems from Tyrrell's recognition that the right's ascendancy was launched circa 1970 by the fortuitous defection of the neo-conservatives - Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Jean Kirkpatrick, among others - from leftist ranks. Tyrrell's open-arms policy is a realistic acknowledgment that electoral power in this count ry invariably flows toward whichever faction can dominate the center of the political spectrum. To do that, conservatives will need the support (and at least some of the policies) of wayward liberals.
Tyrrell has a reputation for being cantankerous, but here, for the most part, his comments on his liberal opponents are no more intemperate than his comments on his right-wing allies, whom he readily admits are in many cases lazy, dense, and brutish. Occasionally, however, his invective does betray his judgment. For example, after quoting Susan Sontag's outrageous 1966 remark that "the white race is the cancer of human history," Tyrrell denounces her as an "insufferable pinhead." He should have reported
that a decade later Sontag was attacking Cuban and Eastern European communist regimes with a vigor that made her numerous enemies on the left.
Unfortunately, toward the end of the book Tyrrell is unchivalrous and satirical at the expense of his ex-wife. These gratuitous swipes at Ms. Sontag and the former Mrs. Tyrrell are indicative of the mental disturbances that feminism has caused in the conservative ranks. The Old Boys of the Right will need to show more sophistication when dealing with the New Girls of the Left, who are even now laying siege to the US Senate.
All in all, however, Tyrrell deports himself in a classy and intelligent fashion. What more could one want from a commentator than reasonable analysis and good anecdotes? One finishes "The Conservative Crack-Up" feeling that the right, and the republic as a whole, needs more citizens with Tyrrell's engaged high spirits.