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Politics & Policy

Will at Bat

Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer hoists the Commissioner’s Trophy after defeating the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas, October 30, 2019. (Erik Williams / USA TODAY Sports)

Who are those guys up there? The Washington Nationals, winning the World Series last year. The guy with the trophy is Max Scherzer, one of the many great former Tigers who pervade the major leagues. This is very painful, for a Michigander like me.

George F. Will has two teams, by virtue of the arc of his life: the Chicago Cubs and those very same Nationals. He is my guest on Q&A, here.

We begin by talking about baseball — he is an authority (see Men at Work, his now-classic book) — and end the same way. Will says he is “desolated” by the absence of baseball this year, but is “of mixed feelings” about whether to try some makeshift season.

On one hand, such a season — 50 games, let’s say, capped by “a make-believe World Series” — would be “deeply unsatisfying.” On the other hand, “for baseball to go 17, 18 months without being in the national mind is a grave risk to a sport that has seen seven consecutive years of declining attendance.”

So, what would Will do if he were baseball commissioner? “This is a moment,” he says, “to number among your blessings that you’re not the commissioner of baseball.”

We talk about the Astros cheating scandal. “Stealing signs is not a punishable offense in baseball,” says Will, “as long as it is not done with illicit technological help, which the Astros clearly had.”

At the end of our podcast, we do some speculating — or rather, Will does (because I ask him to). How would his Cubs and his Nationals have fared in a proper 2020 season? It is “extremely difficult in modern baseball,” says Will, to win the World Series two seasons in a row. He thinks the Nationals would have been very good, however, and the Cubs as well.

But “the cream of the crop,” he says, would have been the Los Angeles Dodgers — who “probably would have won the World Series.”

Among our various subjects is police brutality. “Policing is an extraordinarily demanding craft,” says Will. (Is it ever. I once wrote a piece on policing called “A Job Like No Other.”) “It is honorably pursued, requiring split-second decisions, life-and-death decisions.” It is also dishonorably pursued, as Will says.

A great problem is accountability — a problem “severely complicated by the presence of police unions,” which have “developed enormous muscle in defending even guilty officers against comeuppance.”

Then there is qualified immunity — “a court-made doctrine, with no justification in the Constitution’s text or history.”

Another of our subjects: racism, that American bane (and human bane, of course). Will’s latest column is “A 1946 lynching is still haunting us.” It is a searing column — pardon the cliché — and I highly recommend it.

We also talk the New York Times — the recent turmoil following the paper’s publication of an op-ed piece by Senator Tom Cotton. “I really don’t take pleasure in the degradation of a great American institution such as the New York Times,” says Will, “but degradation is the word for what happened there.”

More: “The children ran the adults out of the room, and the adults were all too willing to be run out of the room.”

More: “The problem is not the children — children are supposed to act like children, I’m afraid, particularly when they’ve been badly educated at great expense and considerable time — but you have to worry that the adults turn out to be not adults.”

Will and I then talk about Walter Berns — one of the adults who left Cornell when the kids acted up, violently, in 1969 — and other estimable scholars. George Will was named after George Sabine, a professor of philosophy at Cornell, who was the dissertation adviser of Will’s father, Frederick.

Back to Berns for a second. “One of the epochal moments in my life,” says Will, “was reading one of his many wonderful books, Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment” (1957).

In due course, we get to President Trump, and the episode in Lafayette Park. “The most disagreeable part of it,” says Will, “was the co-opting of the military.”

We talk about Trump’s “base” — an amazing, rock-solid base, as Will says. He then points out something interesting: Trump has spent his presidency stroking that base. Which is peculiar, because it’s going to be rock-solid no matter what. The Fifth Avenue Principle is really in place.

In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million or so, and threaded the needle in the Electoral College. You might have thought that Trump would try to expand his base, out of electoral self-interest, if nothing else. But no.

Will says that the Republican Party, under Trump, is more homogenized than it has ever been since the party was founded in Wisconsin in 1854. Over the generations, there have always been division and ferment. In 1912, you had Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moosers and President Taft’s traditionalists. In the 1940s, you had Tom Dewey types and Taft types (Robert Taft, this time, not his father, William Howard). In the ’60s, you had Goldwaterites and Rockefellerites.

(“I cast my first presidential vote for Barry Goldwater,” says Will, “and I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed a vote as much since.”)

Such division, or ferment, has been salutary, in Will’s view. But today, “there is no dissent within the Republican Party — not out of conviction. I know from intimate experience that most Republicans in Congress despise the president. They think he’s a fool. But they’re terrified of him.” They know that “one tweet from the White House” can end their careers.

As Will sees it, the GOP deserves a drubbing at the polls this fall, for its sake and the country’s. He explains why.

Obviously, most — virtually all — Republicans will recoil from this. Winning is good and losing is bad. But George Will has arguments, as he always does. He has an exceptional mind, which commands an exceptional pen. (And he talks just like he writes.) In my presence, WFB greeted Will as “my leader.”

Before returning to baseball, where we began, we talk about conservatism, and in particular American conservatism. “The adjective ‘American’ modifies the noun ‘conservatism’ considerably,” says Will, “and does a lot of work.”

That’s for sure. Again, our podcast is here.

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