As George F. Will turns eighty, it bears noting that just as Whig writers in the eighteenth century learned their craft by studying the essays of Joseph Addison, so, too, have American conservative writers honed their writing skills by reading the columns of George Will. While Will’s authorial elegance and insight have been influences on many aspiring conservative writers, his personal aura of aloof pomposity made him a target for lampooning in early July, 1986, by the newspaper cartoon Doonesbury. There Will makes lofty research demands of a preppy young man who, with quill pen and candle at a sloped wooden desk, does drudge work as Will’s new “quote boy,” on par with Bob Cratchit.
As the son of a philosophy professor in Illinois, Will grew up in an academic environment. After studying at Oxford and Princeton, he worked for a Republican senator and then entered journalism, covering the Watergate scandal for National Review, and since the early 1980s he has appeared on network and cable television programs, providing analysis for ABC’s This Week with David Brinkley and Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier. Now laden with honors such as a Pulitzer Prize and numerous honorary doctorates to complement his Ph. D., Will has long been an intellectual fixture in Washington, D. C.
My own debt to Will’s writings goes back to 1983, when a local independent bookshop had a copy of a new book with an intriguingly odd title, The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions. A collection of Will’s columns in Newsweek, a column syndicated to hundreds of newspapers around the country, it was an eye-opener for a high school senior. Here was a man saying, and saying with clarity and style, what I had merely felt.
It was Will’s second collection of columns, and he would publish ten more volumes of columns and commentary. Along the way, he wrote a book on political theory, Statecraft as Soulcraft (1983), based on lectures delivered at Harvard and drawing upon Cicero and Edmund Burke, and three books on baseball. For those of us who find the national pastime less than diverting, three cheers went up when another conservative columnist, William Safire, jovially fed up with Will finding metaphysical significance in that game, declared in one of his own columns, “Baseball is team golf.”
In his Introduction to The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions, Will wrote that “a society that dedicates itself to the pursuit of happiness had better dedicate itself, including its government, to the pursuit of the virtues indispensable to ordered liberty.” As Lee Congdon wrote of Will in an encyclopedia, American Conservatism (2006), “the cultivation of character may be said to be his controlling theme.”
Regarding national virtue, Will included “The Need for Nationalism,” a column from September, 1980. Invited to breakfast by a diplomat of the Carter administration, Will appalled him by saying what in those Cold War days of détente old Washington hands considered chauvinistic and gauche: “This would be a safer, better world if more nations had more occasions for muttering to themselves, ‘We just have to understand how strongly the United States feels about this’.”
Just as Will starkly and succinctly challenged prevailing political assumptions, he also took on an emerging cultural consensus. In “Freedom, True and False,” a column from May, 1978, Will said, “The purpose of humanities is to humanize, which presupposes students who acknowledge their incompleteness and teachers who believe that the purpose of education is to put something into students rather than to let something—‘self-expression’—out.” Anticipating a charge of elitism, he countered, with his emphasis on the first two words, “Of course universities are elitist: a society is judged, in part, by the caliber of elites it produces.”
Will invoked John Henry Newman and summed up Newman’s educational ideal, “The center of a university should be a rigorous curriculum of required studies of proven substance.” Will called that curriculum, developed by countless generations, “the body of knowledge that is civilization’s patrimony,” and concluded, “What has been lost is the understanding that education consists primarily of arguing from, not with, this patrimony.”
The boldness of Will’s criticism becomes clearer when one discovers that it was the text of his commencement address given at Dickinson College, a small liberal arts college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A professor of philosophy, George Allan, presented Will that day for an honorary Doctor of Letters, saying, “In a society that worships the selfish and expedient, you offer homage to the discomforting ideals of tradition.” As a leftist professor who heard that address told me, a line that Will spoke but then left out of his column really struck home: “The question is not whether elites will rule, but which elites will rule.”
Back then, “elitist” was an epithet meant to be shaming and discussion-ending. Keep in mind, in those days, one of the worst labels to paste on someone was “insensitive.” In the struggle between elites, conservatives often fall flat, ever since the day when, according to one eyewitness, Alexander Hamilton shot wide to be a gentleman and Aaron Burr shot to kill. Gentlemanly principles avail little without power, and so ideas do not always have consequences.
For close to fifty years George Will has written and spoken on current affairs, but even his admirers reach a saturation point. As Doonesbury perceived, a man coming across as a self-appointed national headmaster can seem silly, and continually monitoring declining cultural standards can tend to turn sagacity into stuffiness. Will’s trademark bow ties have come to stand for his apparent allergy to the least indignity or impropriety, a trait early on exhibited by his dismay at then President Gerald Ford allowing himself to be photographed in his kitchen making his own toast.
Given such pearl-clutching, it was no surprise that Will had unmitigated disdain for the blunt common touch, the bombastic vulgarity of President Donald Trump. Odds are good, however, that the millions of flag-waving, Constitution-loving conservatives who flocked to attend, or at least to watch on television, President Trump’s hundreds of rallies no longer subscribe to newspapers or read Will’s columns. In his silvering twilight, George Will glares down uncomprehending on such vast patriotic throngs like an abandoned Coriolanus, of whom Shakespeare said, “His nature is too noble for the world;/He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,/Or Jove for’s power to thunder.”