The World According to George
August 1, 1999
Back in 1970 an interviewer asked William F. Buckley, Jr. what he saw as the greatest weakness of the conservative movement. Without hesitation, Buckley answered: A shortage of good conservative writers. A generation later, of course, conservative magazines stuff the mailbox, and conservative writers dominate the op-ed pages of all but the most sectarian liberal newspapers, such that Tom Bray, editorial page editor of the Detroit News, remarked to me recently that his biggest problem today is finding intelligent liberal columnists. No wonder Buckley took up writing novels.
Amid the proliferation of a second and even a third generation of conservative writers, one stands apart and above all the rest: George F. Will. Why? “Because,” as Will himself might write of a baseball player, “he is simply the best.” But what makes him the best? Like a skilled position player on the baseball diamond, Will makes it look easy, which is always a veneer for a combination of talent, hard work, and adjustment to circumstances. Like baseball or any other skill, it requires close attention and a peeling away of several layers to reveal the sources of excellence.
Readers will recall the end of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, where the narrator Charles Ryder refers to the “Age of Hooper” as an epithet for the egalitarianism of the 20th century. (Hooper was the incompetent and uncomprehending junior officer, representing the flattened mediocrity of public education.) I often think that newspaper journalism today is in the same condition—call it the “Age of Al Hunt”—where increasing “sophistication” of journalists in the ordinary sense masks a near complete ignorance of history beyond the last election, a total lack of philosophical depth, an absence of literary imagination, and a scarcity of wit. This is the first and most obvious thing that sets Will apart. Will brings to his journalism an education. Unlike most journalists (even opinion journalists), many of whom are the product of journalism schools, Will actually knows something. Not since Walter
Lippmann has anyone brought such a depth of learning to opinion journalism, which is why he is so frequently compared to Lippmann. (Michael Barone is another rare journalist of whom this can be said.) It is probably because Will didn’t set out to be a journalist that he became the kind of journalist he is. He pursued graduate studies in political science at Princeton and Oxford, and—it is a less known fact—taught political philosophy for a time at Michigan State and the University of Toronto. (This should serve as a good object lesson for you Ashbrook Scholars out there.)
But the lure of the political arena brought Will to Washington in the late 1960s, where he wrote speeches for Colorado Senator Gordon Allott. It was shortly after Will began writing the Washington column for National Review that Washington Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield took notice of Will and decided his fresh and learned style would be a worthy addition to the op-ed page of the Post. (In those days Buckley was about the only conservative columnist in the nation, and his column ran in the now-defunct Washington Star rather than the Post.) It did not take long for Will to catch on with newspapers around the nation, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977, when he was only 35 years old.
Successful writing requires a balance of style and substance, and when style and substance are combined at the highest level, they blend together seamlessly. Will’s prose style combines three elements. First, there is the sheer clarity and aphoristic quality of his prose. Will’s aphoristic, one-sentence distillations of a larger body of thought can be found in nearly every column. Just open to a page in any one of the bound collections of his columns and look. My first random search came across this: “The conservative temperament is, at bottom, incorrigibly skeptical of the ability of human plans to eliminate the rattling bumps from the road of life.” Will has no doubt expressed this same thought a hundred times with variations of this axiomatic insight.
(One of my favorites: “Since Aristotle there have been precious few political ideas that are both true and new.”)
Second, Will is a superb narrative story-teller, a rarity among opinion journalists. Will ventures often from his study and reports about the people he meets—often ordinary or unknown people, and not just celebrities. Will’s narratives are seldom confined to the genre of “human interest” (though he would say that humans are endlessly interesting), but usually connect the person’s story with some larger moral theme or trend of our time. It is rare that the same kind of writer who discourses eloquently about the moral tenets of Edmund Burke can also movingly describe the human and physical decay of a public housing project.
Third, Will writes with a dry, understated wit, also rare among opinion journalists whose prose seldom deviates from the monotone seriousness of the overly earnest. He wrote, in a column on his aversion to camping: “I don’t know quite how civilization came to be saddled with summer vacations, but I’ll say this for them: they do rob winter of its sting. A man shoveling snow can console himself with the thought that things could be worse: he could be camping. Vacations also help parents and children know each other better, but time usually heals that wound… As we sat in the dark, watching a breathtaking moonrise, a father stuck his head from his tent and called to his wife: ‘Do you know where my knife is?’ Without a second’s hesitation, she asked in reply: ‘Why? Won’t the children be quiet?’”
Finally, it may be worth mentioning that Will writes all his work longhand, with a fountain pen. Cynics might think this an affectation, like Tom Wolfe’s white suits, but Will is probably following the advice of C.S. Lewis, who once wrote in a letter that writers should compose longhand as much as possible, and to eschew typewriters because they destroy a writer’s sense of rhythm. It is advice that is less and less followed in the age of the computer word processor, but students and young writers would be advised to stick with until their own style and substance are more settled.
The substance of Will’s body of work can be considered a teaching. On the surface, Will’s outlook may seem to come from a reflexive impulse to contrarianism, i.e., if the Chattering Classes think Something Is So, then surely the opposite must be true. Will loves to take on the accepted axioms of our time, and when a Will column begins with a thesis statement for some aspect of the Conventional Wisdom, the reader knows he is in for a splendid debunking in the paragraphs that follow. The Conventional Wisdom has, for 20 years or more, decried “gridlock” in government, and wishes for “reforms” that would make our government more “effective.”
Bosh, says Will. Gridlock is good; government is slow and inefficient on purpose, and woe to the republic if the reformers ever get their way. Will’s latest contrary stand is over the issue of campaign finance reform, which he understands would be an abomination to a free, self-governing people.
(It is dismaying how few people understand this.)
It would be a mistake, however, to elevate this contrariness to a principle, or to suppose that Will’s outlook is purely a reflection of a contrary temperament (though he would likely say that a contrary temperament is a central expression of his kind of conservatism). In the early 1980s Will described himself as a “Tory” because “I trace the pedigree of my philosophy to Burke, Newman, Disraeli and others who were more skeptical, even pessimistic, about the modern world than most people are who today call themselves conservatives.” “The recurring theme” of his work, he wrote in 1978, “is that politics should be about the cultivation and conservation of character.”
Among the other virtues that a Burkean conservatism teaches is patience. Institutions, circumstances, and personalities that develop slowly usually embody a certain wisdom, and are not easily changed by exhortation or the ministrations of either therapists or bureaucrats. But it also explains how Will has the patience to put up with Sam Donaldson every week on ABC.
The greatest tribute that Will could make toward his beloved Burkean conservatism is to follow it faithfully. And it is possible to observe two ways that Will practices the kind of conservatism that embodies ancient truths and is organic at the same time: Will is not afraid of repeating himself—knowing that learning comes only through repetition (he seldom repeats himself with the same phrases, however; his repetitions are always conveyed with original phrases)—and his teaching displays subtle changes as circumstances change. The development of Will’s outlook is an example of how classical natural right has been described: “The unchanging ground of changing experience.” In a few cases, Will has changed his mind completely.
No one was more severe on the shortcomings of Jimmy Carter and the flaccidness of 1970s liberalism than Will, but the suddenness with which Carter-style liberalism was repudiated in 1980, and the triumphalism that accompanied many of the conservatives who surged to Washington to make the “Reagan Revolution,” left Will slightly dismayed. Amidst all the brave talk of shrinking government and repealing the New Deal, Will offered a prediction two weeks before Reagan was sworn in: “Reagan’s people probably will not be able, or perhaps even inclined, to shrink their inheritance. Something—indeed, almost everything—about the modern state causes it to swell. The principle cause of this, Will pointed out, was not some nefarious
liberal/media conspiracy or bureaucratic machine that might be short circuited through some gimmick, but “the modern citizenry” itself. “When—if—Reagan does what some aides say he must,
when he asks Congress to prune some of the biggest programs of ‘big government,’ he may find that the number of ‘liberals’ in the new ‘conservative’ Congress approaches 535.” Will described forthcoming events much as they subsequently unfolded.
Behind all of this Will thought he discerned an immaturity in American conservatism. In the early 1980s he thought conservatism was too libertarian, or too attached to the magic of the marketplace. “Libertarian conservative,” Will wrote in 1981, makes as much sense as “promiscuous celibate.” Conservatives’ “attachment to laissez faire,” Will said, “makes them deeply ambivalent about government, and reluctant to use it as an instrument of conservative values, tempering and directing social dynamism… Real conservatism is about balancing many competing values… and always requires resistance to libertarianism (the doctrine of maximum freedom for private appetites) because libertarianism is a recipe for the dissolution of public authority, social and religious traditions,
and other restraints needed to prevent license from replacing durable, disciplined liberty.”
Make no mistake, Will is a great admirer of Ronald Reagan, perhaps in part because Reagan was bold and confident enough to wear plaid suits in pinstripe Washington. Reagan, he understood, would be a person of paradox: if Reagan succeeded, he would do so in part by restoring the people’s faith in the very institution that he and his movement habitually disparaged: the federal government itself. Will thought the crude anti-government countenance of too many conservatives was inadequate to a great republic, and so he set himself the task of suggesting a reformed outlook.
The result was Will’s first complete, theoretical book, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does, which appeared in 1983. Will announced a lofty intention: “My aim is to recast conservatism in a form compatible with the broad popular imperatives of the day, but also to change somewhat the agenda and even the vocabulary of contemporary politics.” Well now, as Will himself might say.
Statecraft as Soulcraft (which was developed from his Godkin Lectures at Harvard in 1982) was not well-received by other conservatives. Will’s embrace of a moderate welfare state drew the early fire from rank-and-file conservatives (especially since this chapter had been serialized in The New Republic). The deeper source of controversy over the book came from the impression that Will had chosen sides in the ferocious intramural argument among the followers of Leo Strauss over the character of the American Founding. Will thought that the seeds of contemporary America’s lack of concern with character and virtue were sewn into the fabric of the Founding, indeed, that America was “ill-founded,” and that for James Madison and the other Founders “the political problem is seen merely in terms of controlling the passions that nature gives, not nurturing the kind of character that the polity might need.”
This is simply a variation of the argument some Straussians make that
America is founded on the low but solid ground of post-Machiavellian modernity (never mind that Leo Strauss himself wrote that “The United States of America may be said to be the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles”). The other side of the argument points to a deeper and more subtle teaching that emerges from a careful reading of the thought of the Founding, starting on the surface with the very pen name Madison chose in writing the Federalist Papers—Publius—which consciously recalls the virtue of ancient republics.
It is not necessary to settle this argument to judge whether Will’s argument in Statecraft was mistaken, out of proportion, or ill-advised, for in the late 1980s and into the 1990s the issue of character and virtue has taken center stage in the national conversation. One can point to Bill Bennett’s Book of Virtues as an example, but also to the ironic figure of Bill Clinton, who aided the cause of character in public life first by publicly scolding rap music “artist” Sister Souljah in 1992, and then with his own subsequent moral failings. The point is, Will was ahead of events in Statecraft, and may be said to have found vindication for his thesis in subsequent events, even if the particulars of his argument remain controversial.
While Statecraft was contentious, another of Will’s positions in the mid-1980s struck many conservatives as a complete heresy: America, he argued, is undertaxed. “The conclusion that the country is undertaxed derives not from social masochism but from political realism… Conservatives whose ideology has not immunized them against evidence can face fiscal facts.” Will was signing up with the deficit hawks. Here, surely, was evidence that Will had been in Washington too long and had gone native. Like the argument about the Founding, it is possible to argue about the tax and spending question long into the night, yet it must be acknowledged that many conservatives are still wiping the egg from their faces for having argued that Clinton’s 1993 tax increase would plunge the nation into recession.
In the 1990s it is possible to point to ways in which Will’s thought might be said to have evolved, but Will no doubt dislikes evolution as the idea is popularly overused. Instead we should say that he is practicing the kind of consistency Churchill had in mind in his famous essay “Consistency in Politics.” For example, Will began a column in 1993 with this: “Clinton’s Washington is awash with ‘the fatal conceit.’ The phrase is from the late Friedrich von Hayek, Nobel Prize-winning economist.” What’s this? Can this be the same Will who worried about excessive libertarianism in the early 1980s, and who now approvingly quotes the leading theorist of libertarian thought? (Other Will columns in recent years have spotlighted the efforts of the Institute for Justice and other organizations who litigate to remove regulatory barriers to economic liberty.) Are Will’s views evolving?
Churchill reminds us that a “a Statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case when contrasted can be shown to be not only very different in character, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet his object will throughout have remained the same.” This describes Will’s purpose and changes precisely. As a Burkean conservative, Will’s great object is the preservation and deepening of ordered liberty. From Will’s point of view, the transition from the 1980s to the 1990s has been a transition from a set of people (Reaganites) who thought only of the marketplace to a crowd of people (the Clintonistias) who thought nothing of the marketplace.
These are exaggerations, of course, but the moderate, Burkean conservative will constantly attune his attention to where the greatest threat to ordered
liberty is active at any given time. In the first half of the 1990s (until the coming of a Republican Congress) that has been among the faction that wanted to reinvigorate big government.
The consistency that comes from having a central idea also explains why Will has abruptly changed his mind on a few issues. One reversal came over the issue of term limits. Will initially opposed term limits, partly on the grounds that the Founders had rejected them, and that the Founders’ institutional designs ought not to be lightly disrupted. But he changed his mind when closer thought convinced him that the perverse incentives and culture of careerism that have grown up in modern Washington thwarted the deliberative institutional design of the Founders. Will’s change of mind resulted in a book, Restoration, whose theme is expressed in the title. Will’s other notable change of mind—the American League’s designated hitter rule (he opposed it for a long time, and now supports it)—seems more whimsical, but in the Great
American Game Will has always derived broader lessons about character, virtue, and national greatness. Changes in the way the game is played, and especially how professional players train year round, make some rule changes harmonious with the preservation of the greatness of the baseball.
To repair again to Churchill: “We cannot call this inconsistency. In fact it may be claimed to be the truest consistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.” For 25 years Will’s dominating purpose has been to illuminate the American character, celebrating the sources of its greatness, deploring the sources of its weakness and failings, exposing frivolousness and self-indulgence in public discourse, and upholding the principles of ordered liberty, and above all doing so with a style that is consistently excellent. Let us look forward to another 25 years.
Steven Hayward is a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.