August 4, 2002

The Frat Boys Are Back: The American Spectator Returns

By: Clay Waters

Ah, 1993–heady days, when conservatives were out of power in Washington but
still felt like history was going our way. When we had a low-polling, tax-raising,
womanizing, pot-smoking president to pummel. And when we had delicious exposes
like “His Cheatin’ Heart–David Brock In Little Rock” from The American
to keep us entertained.

Before that, during my college political awakening, back copies of the Spectator
(the oversized ones that couldn’t fit on magazine racks) were my main source
of political intelligence. I’d read them ravenously, soaking up past rhetorical
and policy triumphs over feckless Jimmy Carter, contemptible Ted Kennedy,
cowardly Communist appeasers.

The political Spectator took a break
recently, marginalized by a scandal-weary public and weakened by a partisan
political investigation undertaken by Clinton‘s Justice Department.
Economist-futurist George Gilder “rescued” the magazine in 2000, firing the
staff and relocating from the D.C. suburbs to Great Barrington, Mass. Now,
after a period of misguided techno-futurism and boring issues, the partisan
political magazine that broke the news on Clinton’s sexcapades (and led indirectly
to his impeachment) is back, free to be its old “irresponsible” self again.

The author of the 1980 classic supply-side apologia “Wealth and Poverty”
tried to mold the magazine in his own futurist image, analyzing analog chips
instead of asinine liberalism. But Gilder’s effort to make a responsible periodical
out of the Spectator failed. As of the July-August issue, Gilder has
given Tyrrell & Co. their magazine back. It’s hoped that the old soul of the
Spectator has returned as well.

For sure, the world around it has changed. David Brock has seen the light
and is dishing hard-to-believe tales about his erstwhile colleagues on the
right. Bill Clinton is fat, rich and unindicted. Hillary is a U.S. Senator.
The country’s at war. Politics isn’t as much fun anymore.

But the Spectator is trying. As if making up for lost time, the July-August
issue features oldie-but-goodies, like photos of Clinton’s dog Buddy giving
his master what looks like an incredibly friendly greeting that could delicately
be termed “Lewinsky-ish.”

The cover sports a group photo of the Supreme Court touched-up to make fun
of the liberal ones (6 of 9, by the Spectator‘s count). Yes, “the frat-boy
right,” as one left-libertarian called the magazine, is back to raise hell.

Brock’s 1991 expose, “The Real Anita Hill,” was featured extensively on Rush
Limbaugh’s radio show, and got things going for the magazine. Clinton’s corruption
and incompetence continued to fuel the magazine’s rise, with circulation leaping
from 30,000 in 1992 to 300,000 in 1995, according to Byron York, who wrote
“The Life and Death of The American Spectator” for the November issue
of The Atlantic.

And then things began to sour. An overreaching
article that accused Clinton of international drug-running resulted in editor
Christopher Caldwell’s resignation from the magazine. In his New York Press
column Caldwell called it “a loony piece of Scaife-engineered fantasy purporting
to link Bill Clinton to both CIA black-ops in Central America and the international
narcotics trade.” The “Mena” scandal, named for the Arkansas airport from which the
alleged drug flights took off, tanked. Not even the conservative press got
interested–in fact The Weekly Standard mocked the Spectator‘s fixation
on Mena on its parody page. This was late 1995, and the falloff in circulation
had begun.

Clinton was reelected, and the appetite for scandal waned further. Not even
Monica Lewinsky could pump up the magazine’s flagging circulation. Clinton’s
Attorney General Janet Reno sicced the Justice Department on the magazine
for alleged misdeeds of the “Arkansas Project,” funded by publisher and philanthropist
Richard Mellon Scaife. The party was over.

To be fair, The American Spectator never swallowed the Kool-Aid on
right-wing conspiracy-mongering. In his columns Bob Tyrrell cast doubt on
the idea that Vince Foster had been murdered, and the magazine ran a scathing
review of Christopher Ruddy’s book “The Strange Death of Vincent Foster,”
which cost the magazine its Scaife funding. Then the Spectator ran
an article making fun of the conspiracy-mongers who claimed Commerce Secretary
Ron Brown had been murdered.

Tyrrell’s often-strained Menckenism is the
weakest part of his magazine. Yet he promises “the old gang of editorial ruffians
is glad to be back and to be free to remark on the passing scene.” Note the
back-handed swipe at the magazine’s “Gilder Age.” If Tyrrell keeps his promise,
the Spectator will again be a vital political read. For my taste, the
latest issue still contained too many third-wave econometric articles, but
that could be just backlog. We’ll know more about the direction of the new
Spectator come fall, when official Washington is back in session
and the race for the House and Senate hit high gear.

In 2002, Tyrrell and Co. seem strangely alone, out of sync with a post-9/11
age demanding sober-sided analysis and responsibility. The Spectator
was always better as a rollicking opposition read than one standing behind
the president. It’s the right place to be, of course. It’s just not as much
fun to read.

Either the Spectator will become more “responsible,” or a successful
war on terror will make the world a less deadly serious place. Here’s for
the latter. In the meantime, Mr. Tyrrell, bring on the Daschle exposés!