Jr. Tyrell, R. Emmett

The Liberal Crackup

VTR Date: March 23, 1985

Guest: Tyrell, R. Emmett, Jr.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr.
Title: “The Liberal Crackup”
VTR: 3/23/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I don’t really know today’s guest all that well, though I am familiar with his conservative monthly, The American Spectator. He has been a guest editor on my other weekly television series, FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK, and I have just read R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr.’s new book, The Liberal Crackup, which publisher Simon & Schuster claims “Exposes the cheap thoughts and affronts to common sense that have caused American liberalism to disintegrate into a riot of outlandish enthusiasm during the past two decades”. Well, actually Mr. Tyrell fusses and fulminates so vitriolically and quite so outrageously about what he calls liberalism that I’m not really sure that he’s not just putting us all on, particularly, when he begins his book by quoting Jonathan Swift, “Whoever hath an ambition to be heard in a crowd must press and squeeze and thrust and climb with indefatigable pains ‘til he has exalted himself to a certain degree of altitude above them”.

Now, Mr. Tyrell, have you worked this hard to establish yourself with loud voice and very interesting attacks on liberals to gain our attention?

TYRELL: No. I’m surprised. The point of that quote, of course, is that that’s in part what happened to American liberalism. It thrusted, climbed to the top, and it exposed its arse for all the world to see.

HEFFNER: It seemed to me that’s what you were doing in your attack upon liberalism.

TYRELL: Well, I don’t…I’m surprised in a way that you would say that I say that I’m outrageous in this book, and vitriolic. Are you sure you weren’t reading some of the almost 300 quotes that I have in this book, quotations from extravagant liberal statements made over the last 15 or 20 years? Andy Young referring to the Ayatollah Khomeini as “some kind of saint”. Jane Fonda referring to our POWs as they came back from Vietnam as “hypocrites and cowards”. Or, as I say, as I point out in the book time and again, I quote these people’s bogus prophecies. I’m reminded of Edwin Newman saying in 1970 that by 1980 the rivers of our country would be boiling, the riverbeds would be drying up, and Life magazine saying that by 1980 the air in our city would be so fretted that you couldn’t breathe, the citizens of New York City would be wearing gas masks. I mean, those are things that liberals have said over the last 15 or 20 years. And I’ve just quoted them.

HEFFNER: But you know, you quote them, and you bring them all together in The Liberal Crackup.


HEFFNER: …as if this were a function not of the foibles and failures of human nature, conservative and liberal and in the middle all, but rather of the liberal community. Do you think it’s really, truly that you haven’t just taken an easy target?

TYRELL: Well, I actually, look, Richard, your background’s in history; so is mine. I think I’ve written as a historian with maybe a little more sense of fun than some historians. But Tacitus or Thucidides. But I think I wrote as a historian here. I’ve reported. And what I’ve reported and the thesis of the book is I’ve reported the steady radicalization of American liberalism from a body of good intentions and good ideas. I have no quarrel with the New Frontier, and I have no quarrel with the New Deal. But it moved form the good intentions and in large part the good ideas of those two administrations to the radicalism of the 1970s.

HEFFNER: But you know, when I was teaching American history, I’ll admit that when we’d come to the 30s I’d always use that cartoon in The New Yorker, the fat cats in some fancy club saying, “Let’s go down to the Translux and hiss Roosevelt”. Now, I didn’t think of that as conservatism personified and write conservatism off in terms of the kooks. Yet you seem determined to write off liberalism in terms of its way-out members.

TYRELL: But the way-out members have come to dominate the movement. The way-out members are the people that in convention assembled every four years with the Democrats make it impossible to bring, to get through the Democratic convention a man who can in turn become elected by the American people. They have, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who was unique to American politics and almost any politics in the history of the West; with the exception of Jimmy Carter they have freighted every candidate that’s come through one of their conventions since ’64 with all kinds of idiotic ideological baggage. Poor Walter Mondale traveled the country thinking that the American people were in large part in sympathy with the kinds of kooks that he had lined up at the San Francisco convention, concerned about homosexual rights, interested in raising taxes, concerned about making more and more sacrifices in the years ahead. He didn’t realize that the middle class in the United States, the middle-class American makes plenty of sacrifices right now to pay for a lifestyle that’s gotten increasingly expensive.

HEFFNER: But you know, I see you have your way out of the logical trap that you put yourself in. You say “Well, with the exception of Jimmy Carter”. But when one starts to read The Liberal Crackup, or had read Public Nuisances before…


HEFFNER: …it would seem that you have just this incredible vendetta to wage against former President Carter. And he’s the one the Democrats picked who was elected.

TYRELL: Well, yeah, but he was unique in that he had this wonderful ability to talk out of both sides of his mouth. And he convinced conservatives in the Democratic Party that he was a conservative, and he convinced liberals that he was a liberal, and he convinced radicals with his talk about Bob Dylan that he was just a little bit of a radical, too.

HEFFNER: You think we’re that much fools?

TYRELL: No, of course not. Certainly you and I aren’t. But I think that without any doubt Jimmy Carter was a great con artist. And I do think that the standards of democratic discourse have dropped so low in this country, probably as a consequence of the spread of higher education, that a man can indeed get away with saying almost anything.

HEFFNER: Do I understand correctly…

TYRELL: But I might make one other point.


TYRELL: Let us remember that in 1980 and 1984 the American people showed liberalism about the same courtesy I show liberalism in The Liberal Crackup. And by the way this isn’t, as I say, this is new age liberalism. This is different. This is radicalized liberalism.

HEFFNER: What do you think about the old age, not-yet-radicalized liberalism? What do you think about? I mean, are you suggesting that you’re really an old New Dealer, that Harry Truman was a hero, and so John Kennedy was too? I’m really eager to know.

TYRELL: I made this point…I’m glad you asked. This is a very pertinent question. I might add that almost no one has asked me this question. The only person that’s taken issue with me on it is John Chamberlain, the very conservative and very intelligent syndicated columnist. He said, “The mistake with Tyrell’s book is that Tyrell has not criticized the New Deal, the New Frontier, and even says some kind things about it”. I will say some kind things bout it. I point out that the three goals that liberalism set out to achieve in 1970 were admirable goals. The first goal was to bring some welfare to the poor. And there’s nothing, in my opinion, reprehensible about some welfare for the poor. But they moved from that sensible goal to allowing the radicals to take over that position and demand income redistribution. And that’s an entirely different thing. That’s taking far more money from the middle class and the rich than is justified, and giving it generally to welfare bureaucrats rather than the poor. They set out to bring civil rights to the blacks in a way with more avidity to be sure than conservatives ever showed. And they somewhere along the way lost courage, of course, once civil rights had been assured to the black man, they lost their courage and allowed the radical militants to dominate the movement and insist on the kind of extravagant things, Affirmative Action is one of the milder extravagances that came to dominate civil rights by the late 70s.

HEFFNER: And you would dismiss Affirmative Action as one of the milder bits of craziness?

TYRELL: Yeah. I think establishing a state for black people of the South would be one of the more reprehensible forms of craziness.

HEFFNER: But Affirmative Action comes under your rubric, under the rubric of The Liberal Crackup.

TYRELL: Because it’s just the opposite of what good liberals set out to achieve. They set out to establish a color-free society. I think that’s perfectly admirable. And I’m at one with them on that. But they moved from that to the exact opposite: a society in which position and preferment is based on the color of your skin or your sex or some other physical attribute rather than your ability to fulfill a position.

HEFFNER: Presumably to achieve something that you say you want to achieve.

TYRELL: Yeah, but you see, the difference between me and the new age liberal, the radical liberal is that I don’t believe that solutions to human problems can be brought instantaneously down on a society. They do. And anyone that gets in their way will suffer. Think of all the young faculty members at universities around this country, young men who are never going to be advanced just because they happen to be male or they happen to be white or they happen to be members of some other group. I think that’s a tragedy. And someday it will be recognized as a tragedy, or course.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I was very interested when you joined me as a guest editor on FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK and we had Jerry Falwell…


HEFFNER: …as our guest. I went back to the transcript last evening in fact, and I thought, “Let me find out if this gentleman who talks about The Liberal Crackup, does he see anything of a conservative crackup?” And you were interestingly tough on him. You asked him, let’s see, page nine, you said first, “Where do you think government should stand on questions of morality? What do you think? What limits would you put on? Where do you think that government should stand on these questions?” He didn’t answer you satisfactorily. You thought he was equivocating.

TYRELL: I sure do. I think he tends to equivocate quite a lot. And in The American Spectator we recently reviewed a book about him and which was quite critical of him. I think he’s much more of a politician than a man of the cloth.

HEFFNER: What does that mean? (Coughing) Excuse me.

TYRELL: That means he tends to test the way the winds are blowing and follow the winds. I don’t know any great religious figure that did that, but then I don’t know a great deal about religion.

HEFFNER: What about politicians? (Clearing his throat) Excuse me. You’ve got me speechless.

TYRELL: (Laughter) Maybe it’s the air here in New York. Perhaps they were right that by 1980 we’d be forced to wear gas masks.

HEFFNER: What about politicians? What about President Reagan, for instance, in terms of trimming?

TYRELL: Well, the great politician, just like the great writer, the great scholar, is the leader who goes out and tries to change a wrong-headed opinion. And I think Ronald Reagan, to a great degree, has. I mean, he has completely changed the American view of big government, the view that big government can solve problems. Now, the majority of the American people quite obviously are very wary of American government and American government’s ability to solve human problems. There are some things it can do; and there are some things it can’t do. And Ronald Reagan’s made us more aware of what it can’t do.

HEFFNER: You were standing in the control room, I think, when I was doing a program just before with Norman Podhoretz. He was expressing his disappointment in President Reagan’s posture on foreign policy. What’s your feeling about that? Not tough enough? Too much involved in accommodation perhaps with the Soviets, détente?

TYRELL: Well, all of this is quite complicated. I generally agree with Norman Podhoretz on his observations, particularly on foreign policy. But I think we’re seeing, and I think on the Middle East of course I think the Reagan Administration should have left the Israelis alone. I think the Israelis could have solved some of those problems in Lebanon a lot quicker without our involvement. But I think that in foreign policy as a whole I think that Ronald Reagan has handled a very difficult situation. You have to remember that he has a problem in the United States Congress of rising neo-isolationism. He’s faced with a similar problem, the problem that FDR had in the 30s. That is, he has on Capitol Hill an awful lot of people that don’t want to think very seriously about foreign policy; and he has to. And he’s kept those people at bay pretty well I think.

HEFFNER: Now, do you think this is all what he has to be confronted with, that this is all part of The Liberal Crackup too?

TYRELL: Yeah. I think that the liberal move from being an internationalist in foreign policy to becoming, as I say, a neo-isolationist. There are an awful lot of people like Senator Dodd who would put their, like the ostrich, drive their head into the ground whenever any sign of distress comes along. I mean, Senator Dodd and his associates are simply going to have to face up to the fact that in Central America there is a growing anti-, a menace to the security of the United States. There are Sandinistas. He might think that they play guitars and sing folk songs and sing of peace, but my opinion is that they are just what they say they are: serious Marxist Leninists out to undo the order of freedom, democracy in the world.

HEFFNER: But the fact also is that Senator Dodd, a Democrat, isn’t alone. And it would seem that there are many people who wear the mantle of conservatism who do take that position. Maybe not the extreme position you describe.

TYRELL: No, none I know.

HEFFNER: And you know you think the president has full support for a very, very strong anti-Soviet stance in Central America and elsewhere?

TYRELL: I think he’s got…With conservatives.

HEFFNER: With conservatives?

TYRELL: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And with many old-fashioned, cold-war years liberals, sure. But you know, one of the things I point out in The Liberal Crackup is that on a lot of questions that are intractable or difficult of a solution, the liberals practice what Anna Freud talked about in The Ego and Mechanisms of Survival. She talked about the defense or denial syndrome. People afflicted or people who encounter anxiety-causing situations will tend to deny those situations even exist. And I think in Central America you see the denial syndrome afflicting my liberal friends.

HEFFNER: And you think it’s a party matter and a conservative liberal matter?

TYRELL: I think it’s an ideological matter. Now, I must say this about the conservatives with regard to foreign policy: that they don’t come from a very long-established tradition of thinking seriously about foreign policy. But that’s a complicated matter. But what I’m trying to say in The Liberal Crackup is that a whole culture of thought, a whole ideological way of looking at the world, American liberalism, has broken up into a riot of contradictory enthusiasms that have very little in common with the New Deal and very little in common with the New Frontier. And that are, A, contradictory, and B, quite morbid (laughter) and gruesome.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “Morbid and gruesome?” Apocalyptic?

TYRELL: No, I don’t. I mean their absorption is with, in policy their absorption is with the morbid side of life. They don’t, for instance, the supply side economists and advocates of supply side economics who speak of growth, and speak of cutting taxes and allowing people to go out and work, those people do indeed have a great deal in common with the economics of JFK. And on the other hand, the liberals seem to have lost confidence in the American people’s ability to grow and to be self-reliant.

HEFFNER: I guess the problem I have is your characterization. Why don’t you just say there are those who have lost confidence, who have lost faith, and you find among them a good many people who belong to the Democratic Party? But why say that the liberals have experienced a crackup, a little bit of insanity as it would seem in your book?

TYRELL: Yeah, because I’m talking about liberals. I mean, I am studying the growth of the evolution of liberal ideas in this book. In The Liberal Crackup I’m only concerned with liberals; I’m not concerned with conservatives.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting you could do as much of a kook analysis with conservatives?

TYRELL: Yeah, but the kooks of conservatism are much farther removed from the centers of power than the kooks of American liberalism.

HEFFNER: You know, it interested me that I, reading the comments that have been made about The Liberal Crackup, there are comments by William Sapphire, William Buckley, Gene Kirkpatrick, etcetera. And then there’s Henry Kissinger, who says that you have, “Written a stimulating book which should cause many Americans to rethink positions they have taken in the debates of the past decade”. And I couldn’t help but think, since I was familiar and did remember and then go myself another copy of Public Nuisances, some of the things that you had said about Henry Kissinger, had written about Henry Kissinger, “The biography of Dr. Kissinger is the chronicle of how Bismarck was made presentable to Shirley McLaine and David Susskind, how Metternick was made comprehensible to Walter Cronkite, and how Castleray was transformed into a mercurial buffoon. In the end such acts grow tedious. Henry’s spanglerian, hagalian whim-wham may make Georgetown debutantes weep, but grownups become restless. Henry had bamboozled practically everyone in our nation’s capitol. In a city devoted to deception, Henry came to be its most warmly esteemed artist of flim-flam”. What had changed in you between Public Nuisances and his statement…

TYRELL: He’s a big man, isn’t he, to be able to make such generous comments about The Liberal Crackup, notwithstanding what I’d said about him? What I had to say about him was about, with regard to those passages, I was talking about the way he, in my opinion, I’ve told him before, paid entirely too much attention to the more frivolous elements in Washington, not…the truth must be said on his behalf. Those frivolous elements do have a great deal of influence. So maybe he really had to deal with those people. I don’t think so. The point I make throughout this book is he’s one of the men in American history most wronged by his critics. I not being one of them in this case. I mean, had he at his resolution of the War in Vietnam, for instance, been carried out, I think that South Vietnam would be free today, and I think he and Richard Nixon were wronged by their critics and particularly the claptrap of claptrap artists like this fellow Sharcross whose research, whose claim that those men are responsible for the tyranny and brutality in Cambodia has been shown in The American Spectator to be utterly bogus.

HEFFNER: Of course, you weren’t much kinder. “The rapidity and thoroughness with which Henry was taken in by the mediocrity and bunkum of our Alexandrian age should give every admirer of intellect cause for unease. Obviously Henry needed something more than intelligence and Bromo-Seltzer to become a modern Metternick; he needed sound character”. And your implication is that he didn’t have one. “I began as one of Henry’s admirers. But as with so many other claims made for him, this claim withers under scrutiny”. So aren’t you here talking about conservative crackup? And aren’t you really just picking those whom you don’t like, and perhaps for very good reason?

TYRELL: I don’t understand the question.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m suggesting that what you say in your second book, that we have experienced a liberal crackup, that you attributed many of the same kinds of outrageous thoughts to people who have been identified win the past as having, coming from a different political persuasion.

TYRELL: No, no.


TYRELL: No. Let me make a point. You talk about Norman Podhoretz. Let me make a point about what we call conservatism today. What we call conservatism today embraces populist conservatives, old-line conservatives like Richard Viguerie and Bill Buckley, who is a slightly different conservatism, but a life-long conservative, and the neo-conservatives, as they’re called. We could just as easily call them neo-liberals. People like Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter in particular. Now, these people are now considered conservatives, and they are indeed conservitizing. What they are conserving is their original ideas, the ideas of New Deal liberalism, with very few exceptions. Nothing points it out more clearly. Norman Podhoretz hasn’t changed his view on some welfare for the poor, not has he changed his view that civil rights and a color-free society ought to be extended to the blacks in this country. But he’s found that the greatest danger to the liberal values of the past comes not from Richard Viguerie or William Buckley – we have come to accept those decent notions in large part – but from the people on the left, a people who call themselves liberal today, but as a matter of fact who are kooks. And he’s come to see that egalitarianism is a menace to freedom, and in the end the greatest political value that we have in our society is freedom and personal liberty. And that’s what must be protected in this country today.

HEFFNER: You know, I found myself – I want to needle you, and I do – but I found myself admitting not quite what Tom Wolfe said, that The Liberal Crackup is the funniest, that you are the funniest political essayist to come along in years, perhaps because of The Liberal Crackup. I could accept so much of what you write. I just wondered why you had to call it The Liberal Crackup instead of saying there is so doggone much kookiness in our times, and perhaps extending your critical analysis to people like Jerry Falwell. And it seems to me that that is what you would intend to do if you wrote about the conservative crackup.

TYRELL: That is what I’d do. But as I say, I mean, I’m talking to a fellow historian. This is a book of a history of the evolution of liberal ideas. It’s not about conservatism. It’s a commentary too in some degree about America and what’s happened to America. Let’s face it, the standards of thought, the standards of intellect in this country have over the last 15 or 20 years dropped. And this in large part I blame on those in the academy, liberals for the most part, almost 99 percent of them, who allowed coarse and stupid views to gain an ascendancy in the universe that they should never have.

HEFFNER: We have 30 seconds. Let me ask you whether you have softened your attitude toward Jimmy Carter at all.

TYRELL: No, not at all. I’m just merely waiting to see that the historians in the future recognize that I was the most resolute proponent of the notion that Jimmy Carter was the worst president in this century. Warren Harding was redeemed.

HEFFNER: One only has to read Public Nuisances, and your new book, The Liberal Crackup, to know that you really do think that. Thanks so much for joining me today.

TYRELL: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here again next time on THE OPEN MIND. And meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.