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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Death of Liberalism’
“They love him, gentlemen, and they respect him, not only for himself, but for his character, for his integrity and his iron will, but they love him most for the enemies he has made.”
The words were spoken by Rep. Edward Stuyvesant Bragg - what a great name for a politician - at the 1884 Democratic national convention. They described Grover Cleveland but, 138 years later, they are a perfect fit for R. Emmett (“Bob” to his friends) Tyrrell Jr. Tenacious, sometimes pugnacious, and always loquacious, author/editor/columnist Bob Tyrrell has been a tireless champion of conservative principles - and an inspired deflator of liberal poses and poseurs - for almost half a century, ever since he launched the American Spectator in 1967.
If William F. Buckley’s National Review - a larger, older publication founded by established conservative intellectuals like Buckley himself, James Burnham and Frank Meyer - represented the heavy artillery of the early conservative revival, Mr. Tyrrell commanded the skirmishers, the free-ranging sharpshooters whose potshots kept the enemy ducking and dodging while the main army organized for the grand offensive.
In his latest book, “The Death of Liberalism,” Mr. Tyrrell has lost neither his fighting spirit nor his cutting edge. In nine lively, if occasionally discursive, chapters he chronicles the political origins, rise and gradual decline of liberalism in American politics, all with his characteristic blend of wit, insight and over-the-top gusto. One is sometimes reminded of what Oliver Goldsmith said of Samuel Johnson: You could never win an argument with the good doctor because if his rhetorical pistol misfired, he would club you to death with the butt.
Mr. Tyrrell’s real secret weapon, however, is the folly of his foes - and his own raptor’s eye when it comes to chronicling their words and deeds. Thus, Barack Obama “is a different type of politico altogether … . It is hard to picture him having the sheerest fun ever. He is the Stealth Socialist. From the start he was odd … . Possibly that comes with being a community organizer, from which he briefly became a U.S. senator, then president of the United States, probably for one term. For decades he sat through long, hysterical tirades from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. He associated with grim company: for instance, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dorn. As president he has been indecisive but somehow ideologically stubborn. He is different … .”
Different, but certainly not diffident: Mr. Tyrrell quotes Mr. Obama as saying of himself, “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m … a better political director than my political director.”
And the liberal chorus is even worse, Mr. Tyrrell points out. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss “pronounced Obama ‘a guy whose IQ is off the charts,’ backing that judgment up with ‘He’s probably the smartest guy ever to become president.’ “
This “modest appraisal of the intellect of probably the worst president in modern times,” Mr. Tyrrell concludes, has inspired the liberal establishment to elevate Mr. Obama “to the pantheon of modern presidential greats with Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy and whosoever else sets their hearts aflutter. After all, he won a Nobel Prize just nine months into his presidency and wrote a sublime memoir, and have you seen his jump shot?”
While Mr. Tyrrell may be overly optimistic about the odds of sending Mr. Obama back to the faculty lounge where he belongs, the latter’s conduct to date has definitely played a major role in the conservative surge that began with the 2010 Republican landslide in the congressional and gubernatorial elections. Whether death actually awaits liberalism this November remains to be seen. In the 1946 midterms, Republicans won by a landslide, capturing both the House and the Senate after a generation in the minority. Two years later, they lost them both - and a flawed, personally unpopular incumbent Democrat, Harry S. Truman, held on to the White House.
The big political question of 2012 is not whether liberalism is dead, but whether Barack Obama will prove to be a second Harry Truman or a latter-day Jimmy Carter. Until we find out, it isn’t quite time to call in the coroner.
Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan.
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