- The Washington Times - Monday, August 3, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE BEST OF THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR’S THE CONTINUING CRISIS: AS CHRONICLED FOR FOUR DECADES BY R. EMMETT TYRRELL JR.

By R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.

Beaufort Books, $14.95, 290 pages

Reviewed by Wesley Pruden

Henry Louis Mencken was an original and difficult to imitate, but sometimes men writing with more ambition than talent try their hand at it. Some years ago, the Baltimore Sun, where Mr. Mencken was the franchise for many years, even awarded a prize every year to the columnist who best expressed “the originality and fire of the sage of Baltimore.” It awarded the prize every year but rarely found an authentic read-alike. Mr. Mencken, like Elvis, was an acquired taste, and, like Elvis, a hard act to follow.

R. Emmet Tyrrell Jr. — or Bob to his friends — is sometimes compared to the sage, but that’s wrong. He’s an original: sassy, irascible, irreverent, witty, pungent, mischievously bawdy and, like Mr. Mencken, always a good read. He has the sage’s respect for the language, and he uses it flawlessly and imaginatively.

This is all on display in his latest book, “The Continuing Crisis,” which is a collection of his popular column in the American Spectator, which he founded and of which he is the editor in chief. “The Continuing Crisis” shouldn’t be confused with his regular syndicated political column, which appears in this newspaper and hundreds of others. “The Continuing Crisis” is a collection of one- or two-line items culled from the newspapers, delivered in a deadpan voice unadorned by unnecessary context, the harvest of a rich vein of human amusements, outrages and peccadillos, subjects as various as presidential wannabes, congressional blowhards, media pomposities and healthy nose-picking, donkey soup, the importance of elephant droppings at Manhattan art galleries, Nigerian genital soup and the perils for unsuspecting homeless Muslims supping on pork stew at a Brooklyn soup kitchen.

Mr. Tyrrell gleans his daily gruel for pithy observation from the four newspapers he reads every morning. But he rarely reads the comics. “Usually the front section is good enough for me. If I need a bit more hilarity, I proceed directly to the editorials.”

This ride through the front section of the daily newspapers comprises a disorderly trip across four decades of America as it was and continues to be. For example, consider these “crises” recorded faithfully from the newspapers in the year of our Lord 1980:

“Pakistani strongman Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq has vowed to get tough with shepherds who enter into liaisons with members of their flocks … in Sri Lanka the Rt. Rev. Mr. Achmed Abdullah has declared his belief that heretofore unrealized sources of virility can be tapped by sitting on a transistor radio for an hour or so a day … A Foreign Service officer … reports that [President Jimmy Carter’s] ambassador to Singapore arrived at his post unaware that there are two Koreas (“Did you say there are two Korean governments? How come?”) and that Pakistan and India are not palsy-walsy (“You mean there has been a war between India and Pakistan? What was that all about?”)

Why not the best, indeed. Such items, factual and accurately reported, rarely need an explanation, but Professor Louis Hatchett offers a useful introduction. “Using the [London] Spectator as his model, Mr. Tyrrell’s first installment of ‘The Continuing Crisis’ (in November 1970) began life as a record of recent university campus atrocities that were erupting across the United States — thus the column’s name. In its second appearance a month later, Mr. Tyrrell broadened its scope to include not only idiocies taking place on campus but the entire world. And thus this monthly magazine column took on the shape that it has maintained ever since: a look at the asinine imbecility, moronic bravado and cretinous behavior found throughout the world, often perpetrated by liberals, but not exclusively.”

In addition to the passing parade of human outrages and foibles, this collection offers welcome reassurance that the rogues, scamps and skeesicks that are the warts on the body politic have, after all, a finite shelf life. Most of them eventually go away (or are taken away). Helen Caldicott, Gloria Allred, Jerry Brown, Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, Jerry Springer and others who were once such irritants before they faded into the tall grass, make appearances here once more, this time in the full glory of idiocy. More samples:

From 1985: “Ex-Gov. Jerry Brown absentmindedly drove off from Mr. David Tonner’s Carnegie Truck Plaza in Tracy, California, trailing 15 feet of self-service gas pump hose behind his black Thunderbird and leaving a gas pump now a dreadful eyesore … in West Los Angeles, feminist attorney Miss Gloria Allred filed suit against a local children’s hair salon on behalf of a 3-year-old girl whose mother … discovered that the little girl’s haircut took less time and cost more money than that of her 4-year-old brother …”

The media get deserved roundhouse punches for the inevitable exaggerations of breathless reporters (some of whom are old enough to know better). From the year 2005:

“Hurricane Katrina became the first hurricane ever to be attributed to a sitting president, namely George W. Bush … Up there in the Kultursmog the media were very indignant: Ten thousand people perished, possibly 10 million. CNN reported small-arms fire aimed at rescue helicopters. CNN’s Miss Paul Zahn mentioned ‘bands of rapists going block to block.’ On the authoritative ‘Oprah Winfrey Show,’ New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass reported that in the Superdome ‘little babies are getting raped’ … Sen. Mary Landrieu notified a national television audience that ‘we have gotten reports, but unconfirmed, of some of our deputies and sheriffs that have been either injured or killed’ and she expressed her strong and inextinguishable yearning to ‘punch’ the president. On ‘Larry King Live,’ Mr. Dan Rather summed up the media’s historic moment: ‘[The media] took us there to the hurricane. They put the facts in front of us, and very important, they sucked up their guts and talked truth to power.’ Alas, by the end of September all of the reports [cited] were found to be false.”

Mr. Tyrrell repeatedly indulges one of the meanest and lowest tricks of the reporter’s trade, that of quoting his subjects accurately. This makes him more fun than ants in his subjects’ pants. The inevitable squirming is what makes for an entertaining crisis. May it long continue.

Wesley Pruden, whose Pruden on Politics column appears on Monday and Friday in The Washington Times Times, won the H.L. Mencken Prize in 1991.

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