The American Spectator at 50

Fifty years ago, R. Emmett (“Bob”) Tyrrell founded The American Spectator, a magazine that has entertained readers with its droll conservative commentary on the events on the day ever since.

Over that period, the Spectator has become America’s unofficial post-graduate school of conservative journalism. The list of its writers and columnists includes just about every conservative writer you ever hear of, including Bob Bork, Newt Gingrich, Boyden Gray, Barry Goldwater and Michael Novak. George F. Will was the magazine’s first Washington correspondent.

The list of its managing editors includes Christopher Caldwell, Malcolm Gladwell, Andy Ferguson, Bill McGurn and Adam Meyerson. Byron York was a staff reporter. Bill Kristol cut his editorial teeth at the magazine, as did John Podhoretz. Greg Gutfeld of Fox News began as the Spectator’s mailroom boy.

P.J. O’Rourke had a regular “Enemies List” column, in which he pulled the wings off liberal flies. The magazine’s “press watch” column was run by Fred Barnes, Michael Ledeen, John O’Sullivan and James Taranto. Mark Steyn had a regular column.

From Britain, Daniel Johnson, Paul Johnson, Malcolm Muggeridge, Roger Scruton and Peregrine Worsthorne wrote for the Spectator. From Israel, Natan Sharansky.

John von Kannon was the magazine’s first publisher, followed by movie-maker Whit Stillman. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bob Novak and Bill Simon served on its board.

Over the years, pretty much every conservative writer in America had written for the Spectator, and in the process been taught how to write by Wlady Pleszczynski, its superb editor for the last 37 years.

In 1993 the Clintons arrived in town. It was a time when D.C. lawyers went around boasting that they were FOBs – friends of Bill, and when liberals thought it was a very joy to be alive. And that was the year the Spectator began reporting on just who the new White House tenants were.

In a series of articles the magazine told us what Arkansas state troopers had to say about Bill’s shenanigans, in what came to be known at the “Troopergate” scandal. This in turn led to a torrent of stories about Bill’s nocturnal habits, and eventually to his lies under oath and his 1998 impeachment.

It drove up the Spectator’s circulation to 340,000 paid readers. And it nearly took it into bankruptcy. The Clinton Justice Department took the position that the leading anti-Clinton journal must necessarily be a criminal enterprise.

The Justice Department launched an inquiry into the Spectator’s stories, based on the recollection of a 14-year-old boy that he heard someone offer money for a story. The crime wasn’t there and the evidence wasn’t there, but by time it was over the Spectator was broke.

It had spent all its money on its lawyers, and Bob Tyrrell only escaped a criminal trial because Ken Starr took over the inquiry and properly shut it down as an improper interference with First Amendment rights.

The other journals on the right were content to see the Spectator disappear, but at that point George Gilder mounted a rescue. He bought the journal and quickly made it a vehicle to advance two causes he held dear: the high tech industry and the fallacies of evolutionary biology.

It was like the Monty Python sketch about the restaurant called “The Frog and the Peach.” Subscriptions to Gilder’s magazine quickly descended down to the few people who thought that Grenouille à la pêche made a nice light snack, and in 2002 Bob Tyrrell bought the magazine back for $1.

That was fifteen years ago. The Spectator is now on its second wind and thriving, with contributors such as Jed Babbin, Esther Goldberg, John Fund, Jeff Lord, George Neumayr and Ben Stein. It’s not the only conservative magazine in town, but it’s almost the only one that didn’t go stark raving mad in opposition to Donald Trump.

The magazine published articles that were critical of Trump, but its tilt to The Donald was apparent to everyone, and this was especially clear from Tyrrell’s writings. The magazine is still Washington’s leading source of intelligent commentary in defense of the Trump agenda.

The American Spectator is one of those little jewels of American conservatism. From 1967 until today it has carried on the battle with intelligence, insight and its trademark wit. We’ll celebrate its 50th on September 26 with the prayer “esto perpetua.” Let it be perpetual!

F.H. Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School and is the author of "The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America" (Encounter, 2016).