Politics & Policy

George F. Will, Ever and Always

George F. Will in 2014 (Gage Skidmore)
The columnist, at 80, motors along, at his familiar clip. A dazzling writer and political thinker.

Editor’s Note: The following is an expanded version of an essay published in the current issue of National Review.

Last May, George F. Will published a column that was learned, sparkling, and wise. In other words, typical. It was also shocking. Why? Because, in it, Will disclosed that he had just turned 80. “To be 80 years old in this republic,” he wrote, “is to have lived through almost exactly one-third of its life.”

He closed his column by saying, “To live a long life braided with the life of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to an imperishable proposition is simply delightful.”

Yeah, yeah, nice about the braiding and all that, but — 80? George Will is 80? How is that possible? He looks the same as he always did, more or less. He writes and talks the same too: with verve, precision, and élan. He is not autumnal (except when the occasion calls for it). He motors along, timelessly.

He began writing columns for National Review and the Washington Post in 1973. Nixon was beginning his second term (which would be a short one). Will won the Pulitzer prize for commentary just about as soon as you can — in 1977. Jimmy Carter was in his first year as president.

In October of ’77, the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. Billy Martin managed the Yankees, Tommy Lasorda the Dodgers. Catfish Hunter was on the Yankees’ pitching staff, Don Sutton on the Dodgers’. One of the umpires was Nestor Chylak. Providing color commentary in the booth was Howard Cosell.

All of this is meaningful, and orienting, to baseball people. George Will is such a person — and how. All politics and no play makes Jack a dull boy. William F. Buckley Jr. had sailing and music; Will has baseball. He does not have much use for football. That game, he says, combines two of the worst elements of American life: violence and committee meetings (in the form of huddles).

In 1990, Will wrote one of the best-selling sports books of all time: Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball.

Will is a craftsman himself — producing those columns at 750 words a crack. When he wrote his magnum opus, The Conservative Sensibility, two years ago, I asked him whether he had labored over it, poured his sweat into it. Not really, he said: He enjoyed having the room. (The book is more than 600 pages.) Columns, you have to sweat over, fitting them into that column-size frame.

I well understand. Once, when I had written something in a very tight space, I got a nice compliment from an editor (John Podhoretz): “You’re a haiku-ist.”

But back to George Will’s longevity, his stamina, his perpetual brio: How? I think the answer lies in the pleasure he takes from his immersion in the torrent. I had better explain that.

Will has published a new collection of columns, American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008–2020. He opens his introduction with a statement by José Ortega y Gasset: “In order to master the unruly torrent of life the learned man meditates, the poet quivers, and the political hero erects the fortress of his will.”

But, says Will,

a journalist, whose job is to chronicle and comment on the tor­rent, knows that this is not amenable to being mastered. That is what it means to be unruly. Besides, the enjoyment of life is inseparable from life’s surprises, and hence from its contingencies. Surprises and contingencies have propelled this columnist through a happy half-century of arriving at his office each morning impatient to get on with the pleasure of immersion in the torrent.

Okay. How about you and me? Are we pleased to be immersed in the torrent? Speaking for myself, it depends. Sometimes I envy people who barely know who’s president.

George F. Will was born in 1941, named after George Sabine, a professor of philosophy at Cornell. Mr. Sabine had been the dissertation adviser of Will’s father, Frederick L. Will, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois. George Will grew up in Lincoln country. He was, as he once put it in me, “marinated in the spirit and reality of Abraham Lincoln.” I’m not sure there is a keener student of Lincoln than Will. I’m not sure there is a greater admirer.

In one of our podcasts together, Will told me that, in his estimation, Lincoln had “the greatest career in the history of world politics.”

Will had lots of education — at Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn.; at Magdalen College, Oxford; and at Princeton, where he earned a Ph.D. in politics. We once talked about Walter Berns, the late political scientist, or political philosopher. “One of the epochal moments in my life,” said Will, “was reading one of his many wonderful books, Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment” (1957).

Like Berns, and like his own father, Will was a professor for a while. In his columns, he sometimes seems a Supreme Court justice manqué. He is a legal beagle, without J.D. But his calling, no doubt, was to be a writer.

In the introduction to his new collection, he writes of visiting New York City in his freshman year of college. “Arriving in the splendor of Grand Central Terminal, I plunked down a nickel for a New York tabloid in order to see what was going on in Gotham. This purchase of a New York Post was a life-changing event because in it I found a column by Murray Kempton.”

A first encounter between a mind and spirit like George Will and a Murray Kempton column must have been explosive.

“I do not remember what his subject was that day,” Will continues, “but his subjects generally were of secondary importance to his style, which reflected his refined mind and his penchant for understated passion, mordantly expressed.”

That is exactly what Bill Buckley used to say: that Kempton’s subjects, and even his views, were of secondary importance to his style. Here at National Review, WFB published Kempton at every opportunity — no matter what Kempton wanted to say. This did not sit well with people of a more ideological orientation; but it certainly sat well with WFB — a writer admiring a fellow craftsman, a fellow artist.

(When Kempton died in 1997, Bill wrote a long appreciation of him, ending, “He was a great artist, and a great friend.”)

WFB admired George Will, too — a philosophical and political kinsman, in addition to a fellow craftsman and artist. At our 50th-anniversary party, in 2005, WFB greeted Will with the words “My leader.”

About three decades before, Will phoned Buckley and said, “You need a Washington editor.” (NR has always been headquartered in New York.) Buckley answered, “You’re right, I do, and you’re it.”

For all these years, George F. Will has meant a lot to many of us. Will is the reason that Jonathan V. Last, my old friend and one-time co-worker, became a writer. He is the reason that JVL uses his middle initial — Will did, so why shouldn’t he, too? In fact, Last sometimes refers to Will, with earthy reverence, as “George Effin’ Will.”

Will had an influence on me, and I think of two issues, in particular — big ones: Israel and abortion. He was for the first, against the latter. So am I. Years ago, he wrote something about Israel that arrested me. A lot of people had always admired Israel, he said, as an Athens in the desert — a place of poets, musicians, and so on. But in June 1967, “Sparta stood up.” A lot of people admired that less. But this standing up was necessary, for the survival of the state.

I remember a column — or more than one — about Will’s son Jonathan, who was born with Down syndrome. For reasons one might well understand, Down syndrome is linked to the issue of abortion. In one of our podcasts, Will asked, “Is it possible that abortion will look 70 years from now the way segregated buses look today?” He answered, “I think it’s possible.”

Rolling through my memory, I think of lighter columns, as well as heavier. There was the time George was taken to a Bruce Springsteen concert and wore ear plugs. There was the time he pronounced Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the greatest movie — movie, now, as distinct from film — ever made.

And he was a steady presence on television — speaking in the same crisp, smooth paragraphs that characterized his writing. With Sam Donaldson, he was a panelist on David Brinkley’s Sunday-morning show. Sam once told Johnny Carson something like this: “I used to call George ‘the smartest person I know.’ But then someone pointed out, ‘Hey, you disagree with him on everything. What does that say about you?’”

In Will’s formulation, Murray Kempton exemplified “trenchant elegance.” So does he, really. Also, Will is wry, as in that 80th-birthday column, last May: “Among the abundant pleasures of turning 80, in addition to being well beyond the danger of dying young, is . . .”

Bill Buckley would search for, and land on, the “right word.” Indeed, that’s what he titled his collection on language: The Right Word. GFW lands on the right word as well. In one of our podcasts, he described Mookie Betts, an outfielder with the Dodgers, as “superb,” sure, but also “angelic.” Yes.

Language and style aside, Will is a “honey badger” — a fearless animal, a fearless writer, who doesn’t care what the Left thinks, who doesn’t care what the Right thinks, who says what he thinks is so, trusting that he will find his readers, who value the honesty and independence.

In the new collection, there are ample columns on politics, policy, etc. You also get Frank Sinatra, on the occasion of his centennial. Will celebrates him as a craftsman — same as he does the top baseball players. He also says, “Sinatra was many things, some of them — libertine, bully, gangster groupie — regrettable. But he unquestionably was the greatest singer of American songs.”

“Unquestionably”? Is that the mot juste? I question it. (I could easily live with “arguably.”)

Will also writes about another singer — a singer-songwriter — namely Bob Dylan. In 2016, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. You want wry? “If you recognize even one-third of the 113 literature prize winners since 1901,” Will says, “you need to get out of the house more.” He also includes a political note: Dylan once called Barry Goldwater his “favorite politician.”

(In one of our podcasts, Will said, “I cast my first presidential vote for Barry Goldwater, and I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed a vote as much since.”)

I cannot pass the subject of Dylan without remembering WFB — who did not give a positive review to the man’s singing. Dylan, said Buckley, “has enough gravel in his throat to stop Jean-Claude Killy in mid-slope.” (Bill also blasted the Beatles. He was never a bower to popular culture.)

George Will ends his new collection with a moving column, even a gut-punch. It is about how families are notified when their loved ones are killed while wearing our uniform. Will’s longtime assistant, Sarah Walton, received such a notification in 2008. Her husband, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Walton — West Point Class of 1989 — had been killed in Afghanistan. Will dedicates the collection to Sarah.

In the eyes of many, Will is the paradigmatic conservative. I once asked him, “What is a conservative, exactly? Or generally?” A conservative, Will replied — an American conservative, he specified — is someone who desires to conserve our founding — our ideals, our experiment, our way of life — which is under constant attack.

According to Will, the most important word in the Declaration of Independence is “secure.” Where does that come in? Well, the Declaration says — sing along — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Okay, what comes next? “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men . . .”

There! “Secure”! First come our rights — our natural rights — and then comes government. It is the job of government to secure our rights.

Will and I once discussed conservatism as it is understood in Europe versus conservatism as it is understood — or has traditionally been understood — on these New World shores. “European conservatism,” said Will, “traces back to blood and soil, throne and altar, hierarchical societies, a conservatism that exists to preserve ancient structures and ranks in society. That is not American conservatism.” No. “American conservatism is about equipping people for, and reconciling them to, the vicissitudes of a free society, which is much more complicated, but much more gratifying.”

I asked him for some classic conservatives. He named a handful, including Ronald Reagan. (Do you know the “Mighty Handful”? They are five Russian composers, including Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.) But, said Will, “my great conservative is Lincoln. Lincoln’s great virtue was prudence, and prudence is the signal conservative virtue.”

Lincoln, Will explained, “had a polestar, namely the Declaration of Independence. He wanted to make it real in a country that had not lived up to it. But it was his incremental approach, his canny maneuvering in the terrible coming-apart of the country between 1854 and 1861, that marks him, in my judgment, as the exemplary conservative.”

Our country needs two responsible parties — responsible Republicans and responsible Democrats. Will made this point to me in one of our talks. In another, he spoke of January 6. “I happen to have been rocked to my very foundations by what happened that day,” he said. Twenty years ago, “9/11 proved that we have external enemies. Knew that already.” But “we did not know that we had mobs that could be incited by a president to try to halt a constitutional process.” And now we know.

Here’s one more nugget from Will: “My approach to politics is not to define the good and pursue it but to define the worst and avoid it.”

When Will published The Conservative Sensibility two years ago, I asked him whether it was a summa, a Ce que je crois, a sort of last will and testament (last Will and testament?). Yes, he said. In fact, he thought of calling the book “Closing Argument.” He decided against, however, because he had so much more writing to do. (He was not ready to leave the torrent.)

Since I have been reading Will for as long as I have been reading about politics, or reading about the news, it’s hard for me to imagine not reading him. I’m glad that, in addition to his books — his book books — he has hundreds of columns between hard covers. Collections are a gift, and a preserver. They give the gift of preservation. Let me name but three collections of journalism that are favorites of mine.

John Dos Passos: The Theme Is Freedom (1956). Bernard Levin: Enthusiasms (1983). William F. Buckley Jr.: Right Reason (1985).

Why have I singled out Right Reason, of all the WFB collections? Probably — no, certainly — because it came out when I was in college, hitting me at just the right time.

Let me give you one more collection, coming out only last year: Big White Ghetto, by Kevin D. Williamson. Here is George Will’s blurb on that book:

No commentator on America’s current discontents matches Kevin Williamson’s written pyrotechnics, which feature indignation laced with wit and information delivered with moral urgency. He writes often about the problem of addiction but is himself a cause of a wholesome addiction. I am among the many readers who are Williamson addicts.

In my view, George F. Will ought to have the Medal of Freedom, from the hand of a president either R or D. I also think of what WFB said of Jeane Kirkpatrick: “She ought to be woven into the flag as the 51st star.” (On hearing about this, Michael Kinsley quipped, “Sounds painful.”)

When I hit him with praise some time ago, in one piece or another, Will sent a typical note: “Your excessively kind words are a timely reminder, as spending surges in trillion-dollar tranches, that inflation need not be painful.” Objecting to his contention, I replied, “I am anti-inflation, in all respects.” Immerse yourself in the torrent — the salutary waters — of George Will’s writings, and you will see.

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