The Greatness of George F. Will

When George Will was being packed off to graduate school, his father, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, asked him what, or who, he wanted to be in life: Ted Sorensen, Isaiah Berlin, or Murray Kempton? All three men were closely identified with a public trade. Sorensen, as President Kennedy’s speechwriter, was the ultimate political operative and staffer. Berlin was one of the century’s leading political philosophers. Kempton was the most revered newspaper columnist of his time, writing copiously about everything from politics to poetry in an elevated style unlike that of any other newspaperman.

Will studied at Oxford and got a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Princeton, on the assumption that he would pursue the calling of Berlin. It didn’t take. He moved to Washington to be an aide, Sorensen-like, to a conservative Republican senator. After two years, he had had enough of the hill-rat race. That left Kempton and the scribbling life. “I phoned Bill Buckley at National Review,” he recalled the other day. “I said, ‘You need a Washington editor.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I do, and you’re it.’ ” A few months later, in January 1973, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post offered him a three-times-a-week column, to be syndicated nationally. At the age of 32, Will had arrived at the summit of political punditry.

And here he is still, an astonishing 44 years later, in the second-floor office of a townhouse he owns in Georgetown. He’s 76 but looks 55; for that matter, when he was 36 he looked 55. Owing to his trademarked dour appearance and sometimes crotchety manner on TV, it is always a surprise to note that the primary impression George Will makes in person is one of perpetual sunniness. Maybe happiness is a better word—happiness understood in its old sense of aptness. He has the good cheer and supreme self-confidence of a man perfectly situated in life, doing precisely what he was made to do. The man and the vocation are essentially identical. He is a columnist born to write columns, a miniaturist who writes exquisite mini-essays of 750 words and not a word longer.

“I’d do it for free,” he says, “but they pay me anyway. It’s a failure of the price system.”

George Will is part of the furniture of Washington life and as close to a national celebrity as punditry will allow. He has been famous for so long—he’s figured in episodes of Seinfeld and The Simpsons (“The George Will?” says an awed friend of Lisa’s) and has been the subject of a sketch on Saturday Night Live and made a character in Doonesbury, back when both were sort of funny—it’s sometimes easy to forget he’s here. But you don’t forget for long.

For instance: His column this May asserting that President Trump suffered from a mental “disability” was one of the most republished columns of his career, propelled by the combined accelerant of Twitter, Facebook, and vast clouds of anti-Trump animus. His columns are routinely among the top five “most read” stories on the Washington Post website the day they appear. When, last year, he offhandedly told a meeting of the Federalist Society that he had dropped his Republican party registration, political outlets from the Post to Politico wrote it up as news. Under contract to Fox News, he engaged in a televised argument with Bill O’Reilly, then the network’s premier star, that became, as the kids don’t say but should, a YouTube sensation.

It also got him fired. Will called O’Reilly a liar and O’Reilly saw his liar and raised him a hack, and the spectacle of two of his stars squabbling so unnerved Roger Ailes, the overlord of Fox News, that he phoned Will and instructed him to declare a truce. Recall President Muffley’s famous reproach in Dr. Strangelove. “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

“I think he didn’t think I was a good team player,” Will says, “and he was right. I’m not a good team player.” Will left Fox and joined the other team, MSNBC, where he can unfurl his anti-Trump colors to cheers instead of dirty looks.

“The usual trope about Fox is that it’s been bad for journalism but good for conservatism, and that’s exactly wrong,” he says. “They’ve got some really first-class journalists over there. But it’s been calamitous for conservatism. When Sean Hannity is the face of conservatism you’re in deep trouble.”

At this particular moment in his long career, Will is best known as a ferocious critic of President Trump. He comes at him from the right. Will’s revulsion isn’t really about ideology, since the president has none. It is aesthetic, and aesthetics, Will says, have a place in politics. “Manners matter,” he says. “Appearances matter. Many people, including him, seem not to understand this. It simply won’t do to say, ‘Well, we like his program but not his persona.’ The two are now inextricable.”

The president’s vulgarity to one side, Will puts his finger on something more crucial about Trump’s rise. Virtually alone among Trump critics, he recognizes that the president is a bastard child not so much of the right as of the left—of the dominant “mainstream” culture and its obsession with individual autonomy: its sexual libertinism and moral relativism, its disdain for traditional propriety and distrust of the very idea of objective truth. “The Trump people talk of ‘alternative facts,’ ” he says. “If the Nietzscheans at the Modern Language Association were paying attention, they’d say, ‘Ah, yes, Nietzsche told us about this; there are no facts, only interpretations.’ They would have given Trump tenure, for Pete’s sake.”

Still, Will knows that his own contempt for the president could quickly become a snooze for readers, as several of his fellow columnists have already proved. He rations his columns on Trump—indeed, he says, in the first half of the year there were only two. “I don’t think the country’s readers of editorial pages feel an aching insufficiency of commentary on Donald Trump,” he says. “If you open up the Post editorial page it’s ‘Trump, Trump, Trump.’ ” He waves a limp hand. “I mean, give it a rest.”

Fortunately, he has other things to write about. Range of subject is Will’s greatest strength as a columnist. His inexhaustible curiosity is a key to his longevity, like a bubble fountain keeping the pond water fresh. He is chiefly a political columnist, but also a columnist about any subject that suits his fancy.

“A columnist ought to write at least 20 percent of his or her columns on subjects that aren’t even in the newspaper that day,” he says. “It was said of Napoleon that he could not look at a landscape without seeing a battlefield. Someone who has an aptitude for columnizing just looks at the social landscape and sees columns everywhere.”

Will is one of the few remaining newspaper columnists whose pieces are collected into books and deserve to be. By my count, there are eight collections, covering the span of his career. He writes about sports, education, diplomacy, popular entertainment, new works of fiction and nonfiction, and of course politics, foreign and domestic—anything that would catch the attention of an alert and well-stocked mind. Taken together they make for a comprehensive intellectual history of the last half-century. A reader who returns to them after many years will find them irresistible for dipping into, for laughs, historical observations, aphorisms, obscure facts, and other forms of mental enrichment.

All the Willian trademarks are there. He is a magpie and famously allusive. In one collection, The Woven Figure, Will begins the first page of his introduction by telling of the discovery of a new Middle English word by linguistic researchers in Michigan; he ends the page with a reference to Erik the Red. Then we’re off to the races: Here come quotes from Daniel Patrick Moynihan and James Q. Wilson and Lionel Trilling, followed by a potted history of the first 12 amendments to the Constitution, a funny bumper sticker glimpsed on a New York taxicab, an anecdote about William McKinley and a cigar (this is before Monica Lewinsky) told by William Allen White, a recent judicial opinion from the Massachusetts supreme court, Burke, Tocqueville, Mr. Jarndyce from Bleak House, Shelley, and Samuel Beckett (these last three in a single paragraph), before he wraps up the introduction with a perfectly chosen quotation from .  .  . Lily Tomlin.

Sometimes, it’s true, he pushes his luck, or his erudition, and he becomes quotatious. Nobody’s perfect. But usually the allusions are more enlightening than obtrusive. As someone once said of Will’s hero Kempton, “The man knew how to write, even when he was quoting somebody else.” Yet liberals have chosen this quality to try to make Will a figure of fun over the years—for them it’s even more risible than the bow ties he used to wear on TV! A piece of writing by Will, said one liberal magazine years ago, reads like “Monty Python’s shooting script for Bartlett’s.”

Among the many sins a columnist can commit, erudition is the most refreshing. And the rarest. Will never condescends to his readers. He assumes that they are as smart as he is. The assumption is wrong, of course, but he’s not wrong to assume it: A column couldn’t last 44 years if the columnist was always pausing to wonder if he’s being too intelligent. The 750-word limit doesn’t allow for dilation. “You have to be concise—though concise isn’t the right word,” he says. “You have to do a lot with intimation. You have to be able to assume a lot about your readers—that they have a certain pantry full of knowledge.”

Which leads to one other thing about Will, worth mentioning along with his durability and the undiminished quality of his stuff. I mean his personal and professional generosity. As the dean of conservative journalists—he would hate the title, if only because it discounts his many ideological heresies—he makes it a point to seek out the company of younger scribblers. He is quick to drop them a line of praise, take them to lunch, publicize their work in his column, or clear the way toward one job or another. There are now at least three generations of these lucky people sawing away in the journalism business. You can easily imagine the revivifying effects of gestures like these on a writer, young or old, when they come from a man of such stature, integrity, and accomplishment. Plus, he always picks up the check.

Update, 10/6/17: A spokeswoman for Fox said the channel simply declined to renew Will’s contract.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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