R. Emmett Tyrell Jr. is one of the most luminous young gadflies now singing in the American wilderness, and I can only describe an afternoon spent with him as joyful and zany.
From his moist home of Bloomington, Ind., he rises on middle or right wing to sting the poseurs of the republic, and as William Simon, the sometime Nixon Cabinet member has said, it is bound to do them a world of good.
He edits a monthly opinion paper, The American Spectator, where you will not, perhaps, find anything so gentle as Addison and Steele, but will find at least short sentences, literate vocabulary and a monthly ration of vitriol.
My chintzy office declined to let me visit him in his home meadow so we settled for the Hay-Adams Hotel right here in pea and nut country where he said:
"Can't see the White House from here."
He could have if he'd stuck his head out the window and craned to the right.
"It's just as well," he said. "Believe me, sir, we are sitting across from a house of fools."
"Perhaps you don't admire President Carter," I ventured, knowing he calls Carter the Wonderboy, "and you didn't care much for Nixon or Kennedy or Ford. Whom would you like to see in the White House? Reagan of the beautiful hair?"
"Lincoln," he said. "Or even Theodore Roosevelt."
But what if those adequate servants should decline the next nomination, who then?
Well, sir, the fellow never said. Never did.
He can charm the birds down off the trees, something to keep in mind if you ever run into him, and although he is only 35 he reminded me strangly of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass). He is well-vitamined and caloried and looks Irish. Possibly neither man would care for the comparison, though.
The Kennedys in general distress him to think of, and if Tyrrell ever fainted and needed to get the old blood pressure, up, the whisper of "Camelot" in his ear would do it.
Of the late president ("a presidency of singular mediocrity and a life of stunning sham") he has had little good to say. So far as my own researches go, he has said nothing beastly about Rose Kennedy, but the others seem to him somehow lacking in one virtue or another:
"One could see him (the senator) taking his rightful place in presidential annals as a genial and goatish Grant . . . he shares the same worm's eye view of the world."
Tyrrell does not go in for lengthly expostulations and meditations and harangues, nor does he weary the intellect with subtle refinements of thought or careful distinctions of motive:
That his first ambition was not politics is certain," he once wrote of the same Sen. Kennedy. "In his early years he had been jovially devoted to the hooch and the harp, both of which along with fast driving and cuties remain his only known cultural interests."
The language (though some might nit-pick at the ultimate conclusion) sounds like Gibbon on an early pope.
Whack of the Ax
Everybody knows the comedy is rarer than documentaries on television and rightly costs more, being worth more, and most of us will settle for a good laugh where we find it, on or off the screen, on or off the printed page.
But you do notice in Tyrrell not only the exuberance of relative youth, but the common vice of those under 54; namely, a detectable lack of humility, largeness, sweetness. Of course nobody's perfect, or at least very few of us.
And we ought to be ashamed to require of this well-read young man the virtues of Rabelais, Shakespeare and Cervantes.
Still, he does rather sieze the ruby of truth and give it a smart whack of the ax. The resultant shrapnel does indeed call attention to the precious jewel, though it is somewhat transformed by that time.
But as Tyrrell sees it, there is so much drivel and bombast and sniveling self-serving going on in the nation that the best thing is to let fly with epigrams or worse. Reasoned rebuttal, he reckons, is almost sure to be lost.
The basic sin, or one basic sin, that he keeps seeing amongst us is the failure to discriminate. Words have sonorities and echoes but not specific meanings. People now, he notices, will say anything and therefore believe anything or do anything.
Tyrrell is a sort of book addict. He never says he reads a lot, but he has a central and astonishing faith that if you read all there is to read you will know all there is to know.
He said for example, "What happened to all those bright activists of the '60s? The ones that were on television sounding off instead of staying at home reading and learning."
Any Cretin Won't Do
There is such a thing as being educated far beyond one's intelligence, and this is no doubt urged against Tyrrell by those who admire, say, the ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young.
Tyrrell has reservations about Young:
"He (the ambassador) studied the Christian occult at the famed Hartford Theological Seminary . . . those were bookish years, and he emerged from them with an unshakeable grasp of what appears to be liberal Christianity's key tenet; namely, Christ was a half-wit."
Tyrrell goes on, not to split hairs:
"He is a popinjay of nigh unto constant fluency" and observes moderately that "within six months of Young's U.N appointment every washroom attendant in New York knew that Andy was a lightweight.
"But if they were to read the encomiums pouring in from the liberal brethren, large numbers of them would be growing sideburns, reading French menus and otherwise preparing for careers in high public office."
Indeed, one of his underlying themes is that people look around and see cretins in high places and therefore suppose any cretin will do, and since that happens to be a liberal tenet, Tyrrell rejects it.
His sketch on Andrew Young, in fact, illustrates his distance from prevailing liberal thought. Many a liberal believes that even if Young is not perfect, still he's as good as his predecessor. Besides (the liberal argument goes) why shouldn't there be black jackasses as well as white? And (their unarguable conclusion) at least he's at United Nations where it doesn't make much difference. Not at Health, Education and Welfare.
But Tyrrell often misses the mercy of the liberal view.
It goes without saying that similar amusing sketches could be devised about Buckley, and Buckley, Carl Curtis or (if shamelessness knew no bounds at all) Bess Truman.
Tyrrell can hardly be expected to use his weapons against the fools on the conservative side, any more than the Germans should have been expected to blow up Berlin.
But once the machinery of sass gets going, it can get out of hand, some would say, and there is some tastelessness in complaining that there's a shortage of assassins or that the ones that killed the Kennedys were not very brainy.
The Island Shrinks
Tyrrell's collection of pieces, titled "Public Nuisances" and culled from his Spectator, were never orginally meant to be read bang-bang-bang, but one a month over several years.
They pale a bit when read all in an evening, since there is a similarity amongst them.
Still there are funny things there. Of Lillian Hellman he observes she is "often ambushed by the uncontrollable thumpings of her very big heart" and is "fain to admit her dominant role in saving us from the totalitarian night."
Surely these are good enough to be remembered and used against the neanderthal fascists?
Nothing, after all, is easier than changing a name.
Tyrrell believes that virtually every high-minded liberal notion results in a shrinking of the island of liberty, and invariably costs a lot of money. And in 20 out of 21 cases, nothing is changed. All that happens is a lot of gush and the enrichment of yet another batch of liberals.
But the liberals, as I kept hammering at him all afternoon, see nothing wrong in that, and really this Tyrrell fellow ought to become more tolerant and broad-minded.
He was a sub-Olympic swimmer, I found out. He did not swim Olympically, but was international-competition material.
He also confessed a fondness for New York.
"Nobody likes New Yokr," I pointed out.
"Yes, I really like New York," he said.
Then who not move The American Spectator there?
He suspects he might be "darlingized" and become an alcoholic. You know, taken up by all the beautiful people and wined and dined for his wit, only to lose perspective and fall into some slough and be burned out at 40.
I thought that an interesting observation. The man has some modesty, after all, and is not like those who cannot conceive the great world's ever being able to do without them.
Gift for Words
His smile is easy, his eyes are bright and his voice is normal. He dresses neatly, in good suits, good striped shirts, and good polished brown shoes. He was educated at Indiana University, but I would have guessed Williams or Virginia.
His wife reviews books sometimes but is not a fire-eater or sky-painter, and they have two young kids, one of them named Patrick Daniel, a sort of homage it is believed, to Sen. Moynihan, only backwards.
The bright editor smokes cigars, clearly chosen for the amount of fumes they emit, and this is comforting to sinners.
His journal of opinion has 20,000 subscribers, some of them eminent and all of them amused.
He loves the liberal concern for the poor, especially the rich Kennedys, the rich Galbraith, the rich Califano, and so on, and rarely misses a chance to point to their probable incomes.
On the other hand, he is quite fair. Ralph Nader, who lives in a shipping crate or something and who eats nothing and rarely sleeps, and can therefore hardly be reproached for Diocletian living, gets at least as many arrows as any Kennedy.
The true secret to Tyrrell's success thus far is, of course, his language. A gift for words really can make a difference, on rare occasions, to the success of a writer.
Of sometime Secretary of State Henry Kissinger:
"Surely he has seen many marvels: stormtroopers in the old Furth, crest-fallen stormtroopers in Allied Occupied Germany; Harvard; the Council on Foreign Relations; and, in the fullness of time the White House - in whose mess he fattened so prodigiously that he became a hazard to revolving doors and a challenge to Air Force One."
A lie, of course. Dr. Kissinger lost so much weight that his evening clothes no longer fit and his pants slid down in the great ballroom of the Organization of American States before the assembled ambassadors of the place. But then you can't expect Bloomington to know all that Washington knows.
Few things annoy him more than the women's liberation movement. Their point, he says, is that millions of witches were burnt in the Middle Ages and here we are with no inquest till yet.
He believes that men in general snore and trust the pestilence will pass, and he assumes it will in time, having added considerably to American confusion and having exposed many sensible men to malevolent old bags they would otherwise not have met along life's highway.
His youth might, however, some day lead him into error. In his opinion journal there is a note that Tyrrell is on leave of absence working on his book about Nicaraguan restaurants.
But that is not true. He is taking a vacation.
Likewise, if an investigative reporter may speak, his law firm is not (as his masthead reports) called Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish and Short. And this "Baron" Von Kannon, his publisher, is not a baron at all but a good old guy named John. But so much for muckraking.
Even if here and here one cannot go along with Tyrrell's conclusions, at least he has never said "genre" or "bottom line" or "enhance" in his life.
And even if a stern God should somewhere find a sin in the fellow, surely it would be forgiven him. For he has sassed much. CAPTION: Illustrations 1 through 4, left from top, drawings by Elliott Banfield from Tyrrell's book "Public Nuisances," of Henry Kissinger, Edward Kennedy, Lillian Hellman and Jimmy Carter. Picture, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., right, by Vanessa R. Barnes;