The Life and Death of The American Spectator

The conservative magazine survived and prospered for twenty-five years before Bill Clinton came into its sights. Now the former President is rich and smiling, and the Spectator is dead
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One Friday afternoon last July, Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, the No. 2 man at The American Spectator for twenty years, from its time as a small-circulation conservative intellectual review through its run as the shouting voice of anti-Clintonism, rummaged through the magazine's shut-down office in Arlington, Virginia, cleaning out his desk before movers arrived, on Monday, to cart everything away. The Spectator had been sold nearly a year earlier to the high-tech guru George Gilder, who, in changing the magazine to a journal of the New Economy, decided to fire the staff and move the operation to his headquarters, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Now it was time for the old office to be shut down, and Pleszczynski was getting ready to go. Dressed in shorts and sandals, he stopped every now and then to answer the phone; friends wanted to know if Wlady, as everyone called him, was okay. (I was a writer for the magazine from 1996 to 2000, and had dropped by that day for the same reason.) Never much of an optimist even in good times, Pleszczynski answered that he was fine, considering the circumstances.

In the hallway outside his office rows and rows of tiny nails were sticking in the wall where dozens of photos from long-ago Spectator parties had hung. Most of the pictures on the wall facing Pleszczynski's office were from the magazine's tenth-anniversary celebration, in 1977, at the St. Regis Hotel, in New York. At that time it was still possible to gather nearly every conservative writer in America in one room (actually, it still is, although one would need a slightly larger room), and the Spectator had drawn an impressive crowd. Around the candlelit tables were William F. Buckley and Tom Wolfe and Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol and William Safire and, of course, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the man who founded the Spectator as an anti-radical rag on the campus of Indiana University in 1967.

Tyrrell would be coming in that Friday night to clean out his stuff. Just outside his office was a Royal typewriter from the 1920s. Ever since the Indiana days the typewriter had sat on a table in front of a life-size black-suited papier-mâché dummy of H. L. Mencken, Tyrrell's idol, made by the artist Tim Moynihan, son of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another Tyrrell hero. Stacks of files and office trash sat around the typewriter on that Friday. Lying haphazardly on top of a throwaway pile was a copy of the Spectator's January, 1994, issue, with the British artist John Springs's caricature of Bill Clinton tiptoeing away from a house after a late-night romantic tryst. The headline was "HIS CHEATIN' HEART: DAVID BROCK IN LITTLE ROCK." This was the Troopergate story, the piece that exposed Clinton's extramarital dalliances while he was the governor of Arkansas. It had caused the President much embarrassment when it was published and had started a chain of events that eventually led to the Paula Jones lawsuit and Clinton's impeachment. In the process it made the magazine famous, increasing its circulation and income more than anyone could ever have imagined. And it did one other thing: it destroyed The American Spectator.

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"Citizen Scaife" (Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1981)
Press-shy publisher Richard Mellon Scaife has used his immense wealth to shape today's political climate. A close look at the prime funder of the media-savvy New Right. By Karen Rothmyer

How that happened is the story of a magazine that was very, very good for most of its life—for 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—but that in the 1990s lost touch with what had made it so good. A few conservatives—Tyrrell was prominent among them—became 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. What at first appeared to be an enormous success—after Troopergate the Spectator was a very hot magazine—led to unexpected and calamitous consequences. There was the "Arkansas Project," a $2.4 million effort, financed by the right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, to uncover wrongdoing in Clinton's past, which ultimately led to the investigation of the Spectator itself. There was financial ruin, brought about by the magazine's almost naive inability to handle its new wealth. And there was 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. For a moment the men who ran The American Spectator believed that it could transcend the limits—small circulation, small budget, an influence limited to elite readers—that define magazines of its type. But in the end the mistakes they made in the flush of success proved that it could not.

The Anti-Radical Radical

Bob Tyrrell (R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. was his by-line, never how he was known to friends) came from a Chicago family, attended Catholic school in the suburb of Oak Park, and went to college at Indiana University. At first attracted to the school for its athletic program (he was a promising swimmer), Tyrrell later shifted his focus to academics, graduating in 1965 with a degree in history and staying on in Bloomington to attend graduate school.

Unlike many other conservatives, Tyrrell never went through a left-wing period in his youth. He was always a conservative, but his was a libertarian, latitudinarian, literary kind of conservatism. He wanted to have a smart, dandyish style; he particularly admired the writing and style of Mencken and of magazines from the 1920s and 1930s such as The American Mercury, The Smart Set, and the original American Spectator. When Tyrrell looked around in the 1960s for the kind of fools, frauds, and deluded idealists whom Mencken would have debunked, he found them on the left.

Tyrrell believed that the student left in Bloomington had overwhelmed the right; conservatives on campus, he felt, could not begin to counter the left's political power. "Indiana University was the first major campus to become dominated by an SDS student government," he recalls, referring to the radical Students for a Democratic Society. "They were new left, hard left. We opposed them. They had their magazine—oddly enough, it was called The Spectator—and we needed a magazine." So Tyrrell created one, which he called The Alternative. The first cover, in September of 1967, featured the fuselage and wings of a B-52 bomber inside a circle to form the shape of a peace sign; the cover said simply, "DROP IT." The magazine's twelve pages were filled with reprints of pieces by Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman, plus writings by Tyrrell, who gave himself the grand title of editor in chief. Later issues offered more of the same. Tyrrell would denounce campus leftists—"a second-rate intellectual and a full-time sissy," he called one, in characteristic style—and throw jabs at the idols of youth culture. "The Insects have interrupted a trend of lyrical tommyrot and recorded several acceptable yodelings," he wrote in a review of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "but for the most part the civilized ear will remain wondering if the album's grooves circle in the right way."

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