THE POOP: Once considered one of the grand old men of American conservativism, George Frederick Will has become the unfortunate victim of his own gimmicks. Every celebrity knows that the quickest way to fame is to have a hook, a schtick, a sort of shorthand personality that helps people remember you and ensures easy recall for a fickle public, but the danger of such a hook is that it can overwhelm you and subsume your accomplishments. Such is the case with this prickly Illinoisan, whose decades of staunch conservative thought, political acumen and journalistic near-excellence have been all but forgotten as he steadily accumulates a universal reputation as ‘that geek in the bow tie who yaps constantly about baseball’. Just as his ideological brother-in-arms Bill Buckley has become America’s favorite Kerouac-rememberer, George Will has settled with a yawn into role of America’s favorite baseball commentator who doesn’t actually have anything to do with baseball (as well as the white equivalent of Louis Farrakhan, not for deranged anti-Semitism and fiery if incomprehensible numerological conspiracy-mongering, but for being a tireless advocate of the bow tie, a job he took over from the late Orville Redenbacher). Oddly enough, though the professionally pompous Bob Costas and the hopelessly awful George W. Bush are often talked up for the role, Will would probably make a pretty good commissioner of Major League Baseball; his devotion for the game borders on religious, and aside from pushing for the death penalty for use of the designated hitter, it’s likely he’d do a much better job than he’s done as a journalist.
Yes, that’s right, kids: George Will was considered a journalist once! He even won a Pulitzer Prize for it, which goes to show you how thoroughly we’ve confused punditry with journalism in this country. Although one searches in vain for any story, political or otherwise, he’s ever covered, let alone broken, he has won awards for, taught classes in, and developed a curious reputation for reportorial excellence. In a stunning testament to the bigotry of low expectations, Will was named, in a 1985 Washington Journalism Review poll, the best writer on any subject, which says a lot more about the reading habits of that publication’s readership than it does George Will’s talent. And when the phrase ‘journalistic ethics’ gets unpacked, Will would just as soon have you focus on the first word and not the second. The bow-tied Beltway bloviator has what his detractors politely term a “troubling pattern” of iffy behavior, which is to say, he’ll whore out his reputation at the drop of a hat if it helps one of his favorite politicians or puts some cash in his bow-tie fund. In 1980, he not only helped his idol Ronald Reagan prepare for his debate with Jimmy Carter (not an unusual thing for a paid GOP staffer to do, but perhaps an unsettling choice for a nationally syndicated columnist), but rumors persist that it was he who stole the famous ‘briefing book’ that allowed Reagan, always a champ at memorizing lines, to be ready for most of Carter’s most stinging accusations. (Bizarrely, Will denies having stolen the briefing book, but admits to having read it without permission and given a précis of it to the Reagan debate team, as if that’s more acceptable.) He also used his column as a house organ for the Dole campaign in 1996 when his wife Mari was employed as a senior speechwriter for said campaign; he was paid off by crooked media jillionaire Conrad Black to hype Black in his columns; he rewrote several of Reagan’s speeches in exchange for fat payoffs and a cushy job for his previous wife; and he’s such a war hawk he might as well be on the Pentagon payroll. It’s not for nothing that Jimmy Breslin has dubbed him “Will the Shill”.
Politically, Will is not really what you’d call a deep conservative thinker; he’s really more of a stunted fanboy who gravitates naturally towards domineering shitbags like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a.k.a. the King and Queen of the Right-Wing Universe. He’s not even a particularly good movement conservative; he’s plenty rah-rah for capitalism, but he’s much happier when the U.S. is invading someone than he is when it’s lowering taxes. In fact, he’s all for big government as long as it’s used to impose the proper imperialist framework on the world – this is the central premise of what is wrongly regarded as his best book, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does. (In fact, his best book is Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball.) He shares with Bill Buckley a snob’s Anglophilia, but unlike his old boss at the National Review, his conservative philosophy is gaudy and paper-thin and you get the impression that Will, who hates Thomas Jefferson almost as much as he hates Kofi Annan, would be more than happy to abandon democracy for hereditary monarchy as long as the line of succession yielded plenty of juicy wars for him to get excited about.
In the end, Will remains a casualty of his thwarted ambition. His own political career consists of a few ho-hum staff jobs and a decade of sucking Ronald Reagan’s dick to no avail; RR’s people were happy to use him, but his quasi-intellectualism and tendency to toss polysyllabic words around like lazy change-ups made him unfit for the jus’-folks image they were trying to sell the American public, so they never gave him a job. He’ll never make a living in baseball because he thinks he’s too smart for the game; he’ll never be much of a right-wing idol because the Grand Old Party requires much more ideological rigor these days than he’s ever been able to muster; and his disdain for shouting and ungentlemanly behavior has led him to turn up his bow-tie at televised slugfests like Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group, so he ends up on yawnfests like Agronsky & Company. The closest he’ll ever come to political service is having voiced John Quincy Adams in a historical documentary, and the best thing he ever did for the Reagan administration was to play himself in the TV movie about the Gipper’s life. But he’s still got enough of an audience to keep him in Nationals season tickets, and as long as Republican administrations follow his beloved strategy of preventive warfare, he might some day realize the destiny of another self-impressed plutocrat and become “the smartest man on the cinder”.
WHAT’S THE ONE THING HE KNOWS FOR SURE? He never met a war he didn’t pimp.
DEFINING MOMENT: During the 1988 presidential campaign, Will got into a rather public tiff with George H.W. Bush, who he despised largely for the crime of not being Ronald Reagan. At the peak of the ‘wimp factor’ meme that plagued Bush for a few months, Will wrote a column in which he compared recent speeches by the vice-president to “the tinny yap of the lapdog”. Bush responded, in a television interview a few days later, by suggesting that Will “will never play fullback for the Chicago Bears” and asking rhetorically of the diminutive, bespectacled, bow-tied pundit, “Have you ever seen him?” Indeed we had, and as astonishing as it seems, George Herbert Walker Bush had successfully delivered a smackdown. (Bush, who learned at the knee of Reagan the power of an endlessly repeated catchphrase, immediately reprised the line on a liberal columnist, but it already had lost its power within two minutes of its creation.)