Politics & Policy

The Impossible Elegance of George Will

George Will (Gage Skidmore)
If progressives studied his latest brilliant tome, we’d have fewer progressives.

George Will saved me from two unfortunate habits: overwriting and the Democratic party.

I model that remark after my favorite of Will’s many witticisms: “Football combines the two worst things about America: It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” Will is rightly praised for his erudition. The Conservative Sensibility, the summa he has just published, is a tour de force. He is the dean of conservatism. But I don’t want to praise him for that, or not only for that.

Remember Garry Trudeau? He was for years one of the most famed political humorists in America, via his comic strip Doonesbury, which is still running but has not been mentioned by anyone I know since Johnny Carson went off the air. Doonesbury used to contain a running gag about “George Will’s quote boy,” as if in those pre-Google days Will had some master of quotation trawling around to find the perfect aperçu for any occasion. Will didn’t have a quote boy because he didn’t need one. He was his own quote boy. He was America’s quote boy. The importance of this has been overlooked. Will is America’s preeminent creator, finder, and promulgator of the crystalline and the lapidary. Often one finds him lumped together with his departed friend and mentor, WFB, but the styles of the two men differ sharply. Buckley would frequently and hilariously luxuriate in literary peacockery, which is why the adjective “sesquipedalian” attached to him like a burr to Velcro.

Will’s writing style is more like Cary Grant’s suits: all dazzling simplicity. He is sober yet delightful, restrained yet vivid. In a word he is smart. It would be as shocking to come across a superfluous phrase or a turgid passage in Will as it would be to spot Grant looking like Bluto Blutarsky. Although I have on occasion picked up a vocabulary word in years of reading Will’s columns (he may be the only person I read who regularly slips in the word “condign,” an adjective with which I was previously unfamiliar), ten-dollar words are not his norm. The norm is a honed clarity to which nearly anyone who makes his trade with a pen should aspire. (I wouldn’t have wanted Tom Wolfe to try to write like Will, but then again, a fundament of writing is “Do not try to write like Tom Wolfe unless you actually are Tom Wolfe”).

Some Will gems from the past:

“The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.”

“Being elected to Congress is regarded as being sent on a looting raid for one’s friends.”

“Freedom means the freedom to behave coarsely, basely, foolishly.”

“A politician’s words reveal less about what he thinks about his subject than what he thinks about his audience.”

“The future has a way of arriving unannounced.”

The new book is alive with aphorisms, instances in which Will makes, either through his own skill or via generous quotation, important points in the simplest, most demystifing way. The Conservative Sensibility is a fat volume, yet it floats on air. Were every college student required to read it and be tested on it, American progressivism would have to pull down the shutters and close up shop, like phrenology or alchemy.

What do conservatives seek to conserve? “We seek to conserve the American Founding.”

“William James spoke of a ‘moral equivalent of war.’ TR’s idea was: Accept no substitutes. TR wanted the body politic to really be one body, with the president as the head.”

“The words ‘leader’ or ‘leaders’ appear thirteen times in The Federalist, once with reference to those who led the Revolution and twelve times in a context of disparagement.”

“In the 1960s, progressivism became a stance of disdain, describing Americans not only as [John Kenneth] Galbraith had, as vulgar, but also as sick, racist, sexist, imperialist, etc.”

“The mind of the true believer [is] a mind stocked with unfalsifiable propositions.”

“Humanity . . . was supposed to be pretty much extinct by now, or at least miserable. It is neither. So what went wrong?”

“Time was, the upper crust rode in carriages, the lower orders walked. No such dramatic difference distinguishes the driver of a Mercedes from the driver of a Chevrolet.”

“The government is good at delivering transfer payments. It is not so adept at delivering services, still less at delivering planned changes in attitudes and behaviors.”

Adlai Stevenson “was considered by advanced thinkers to be an advanced thinker.”

“In 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing ‘just about always or most of the time.’ Today, fewer than 20 percent do. The former number is one reason [Lyndon] Johnson did so much; the latter is one consequence of his doing so.”

“America might be entering what will be called the Great Flinch, a reaction against the uncertainties and other stresses inherent in dynamism.”

“The egalitarian’s work is never done.”

Like being attracted to like, Will exhibits a gift for finding the perfect one-liner from other thinkers. The depth and breadth of knowledge underlying the ability to be able to summon so many apt observations is best not thought about, lest intellectual vertigo be induced.

“Doing worse than others does not entail doing badly.” (Harry Frankfurt)

“No man who owns a house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.” (Bill Levitt)

“Liberty is the goal at which democracy aims, not the other way around.” (Timothy Sandefur)

“Men may chuse different things, and yet all chuse right.” (John Locke)

Can one be pithy yet wrong? Sure. “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together” (Barney Frank) comes to mind. But there is a reason I and so many others on the right consider Will our intellectual godfather. Progressives who can win the argument with Will have won the argument against conservatism. May they read this book and take their best shot.

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