“I was a conservative back in the days before we had such sumptuous dinners,” an old-timer told me over drinks the other night at The American Spectator’s 41st Anniversary Dinner, celebrated at the magnificent Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington D.C.
“The Spectator is a presumptuous magazine,” I explained.
Conservative ideas may have taken a lickin’ lately at the ballot box, but they were finger-lickin’-good at this Dec. 3 gathering. The atmosphere was decidedly upbeat. There was a wide range of participants from all walks of life, united by a recognition of the contribution a great magazine of ideas can make to the broader culture. In the case of the Spectator, those ideas often arrive leavened by a chuckle.
The big joke of the evening was delivered to each table in the form of a pile of L.L. Bean catalogs. Everyone was buzzing about the possible import of these publications. Was Bean a supporter of the magazine? Were they about to merge? Spectator Editor R. Emmett Tyrrell cleared it all up by explaining that conservatives would need to outfit themselves properly for their stay in the political wilderness.
The event featured two special highlights in addition to the general ambience and Mr. Tyrrell’s inimitable raillery. The first of these was the presentation of the Barbara Olson award for excellence in journalism to Robert Novak. A video compilation was shown, with testimonials from politicians such as Jack Kemp and Roy Blunt alongside a touching interview with the ailing “Prince of Darkness”. There were some very nice personal touches, like a shot of Novak pulling his trademark black Corvette up to his special parking spot at the University of Maryland basketball arena.
“I sometimes offer the referees some constructive criticism,” Novak notes with a sly grin.
Sadly Mr. Novak himself was recovering from brain surgery and could not accept the award in person. That was done by Tom Phillips, chairman of the Phillips Foundation. Phillips and Novak, along with Al Regnery, publisher of the Spectator, form the committee awarding the Phillips Foundation grants, which have helped advance the careers of many fine conservative journalists.
The capstone was the keynote address by Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito. He was classy, witty and substantive in an oration worth many times the price of admission. He began with some self-deprecating humor about the article he submitted to the Spectator years ago — rejected! — and set up a running gag poking fun at Vice-President-elect Joe Biden. Biden had been embarrassed into dropping out of the 1988 Presidential primary after being caught plagiarizing. Alito kept quoting Biden, giving him tongue-in-cheek credit for such lines as Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changing”.
His central message was a very powerful insight. He demonstrated that although many cases are still decided with too much influence from liberalism, the powerful revolution by the law schools in the 60s and 70s has been largely pushed back. The attempt to substitute the judge’s conscience for the letter of the law has been significantly contained, and even liberal judges are forced to argue within the text. “We are all originalists now,” he cited Laurence Tribe.
Sometimes victory comes subtly, rippling along still waters. But now and then even quiet folks can go and ring that dinner gong.