If Rush Limbaugh can pass for a conservative these days, it’s no marvel that George Will can, too. Unlike Limbaugh, he at least reads books, especially Victorian ones. (He even named his daughter Victoria.) But he shares with Limbaugh an easygoing approach to defining conservatism, to the extent that a tabloid tramp such as Rudy Giuliani makes Will’s cut, while a far more principled man such as Rep. Ron Paul (one of the very few members of today’s Congress who could converse about something other than the weather with James Madison) is faintly risible—at best, “a useful anachronism.” Yes, this of one of the few who opposed invading Iraq from the start.
But then, Will would probably speak condescendingly of the Sermon on the Mount, and, as one wag has quipped, he “could bring an air of pomposity to a nudist colony, with or without his bow tie.” He has announced that the Tenth Amendment is “as dead as a doornail,” which may be true, although that is nothing to smirk about. The U.S. Constitution is related to today’s U.S. government roughly as the Book of Revelation is related to the Unitarian Church, which is to say, rather tenuously; but, like the Devil citing Scripture, Will can use it when he wants to, as in hurling imprecations against McCain-Feingold limits on campaign spending. First Amendment, you know.
Will’s style is simply to announce, as ineluctable facts, things principled conservatives don’t like, with the unspoken counsel, “So, get over it, children.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy is “an ethic of common provision.” Affirmative action means a “racial spoils system.” As for reversing legal abortion, “the culture has moved on.” Well, that’s that! Will has always treated ordinary conservatives, such as pro-lifers, as disreputable poor relations.
To give him his due, Will has also been a staunch defender of the state of Israel and an unflinching critic—nay, an utterly fearless foe—of holocaust deniers.
Sometimes suspected of plagiarism himself, he has flagged Thomas Aquinas for his “intellectual hijacking” of Aristotle. He has nailed the Catholic Church for antisemitism and Pius XII for his silence about the holocaust. He has also taken the side of the great Victorian scientist Charles Darwin against the benighted apostles of “intelligent design.”
I first met George at National Review in 1972. I was a green editorial writer; he was our new Washington correspondent—smart and well informed, but cocky and priggish, the sort of impressive young man who, knowing how to wow his elders, only gets more precocious with age. I knew of his brilliant father, Frederick L. Will, from my philosophy studies. His grandfather was a Lutheran minister, and with this background, George somehow felt entitled to make snide but not original—in fact, trite—remarks about Saint Augustine. (Luther wouldn’t have approved.)
Egotistical and opinionated without having a really independent mind, George was confident that he was among suckers and could get away with pretty much anything, including a bit of occasional minor plagiarism. And he did and does. Nobody told him to come off it. He quickly made his way as a Washington pundit, rising to the top of the tree in record time. A few critics have pointed out how derivative his views are, but he has never let this slow him down.
Washington is not a city to which would-be martyrs flock in large numbers, and I have never known George to take a position knowing that it would cost him anything. On the contrary, he has always had a shrewd sense of which side his bagel is buttered on. He was among the first in the punditry racket to perceive that neoconservatism could be more lucrative than actual, old-fashioned conservatism. He has been careful not to call himself a neoconservative, but he ran with the neocons rhetorically until they fell into disrepute a couple of years ago, at which point he scolded them as if he’d never known them. He now writes about the Iraq war as if he’d been warning against it from the start. Which is not quite the case.
In fact, in early 2003, George was applauding the other George for threatening to invade Iraq, using the full arsenal of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-neocon rationales and slogans: “weapons of mass destruction,” “regime change,” “Nuremberg trials,” etc., with swipes at Franco-European cowardice. In fact, to read those columns now is to return to the enchanted land of early Limbaugh. A book I don’t expect to read soon is The Confessions of George Will.
Conservatism? Again, it depends on how you define it. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, whose name Will used to drop when he was showing the rubes how tony true conservatism could be, warned against using government as “a vast reservoir of power” in pursuit of “favorite projects.” Such talk now sounds archaic. But so, already, do David Brooks’ “national-greatness conservatism” and Fred Barnes’ eulogies of Bush’s “big-government conservatism,” to say nothing of Barnes’ judgment that the Iraq invasion was “the greatest act of benevolence one nation has ever performed for another” and Richard Lowry’s 2005 effusion on the cover of National Review: “We Are Winning!” No wonder conservatives aren’t quoting themselves much these days. Only the neocons, or at least the few who still admit they are neocons, still insist that the war was a splendid idea until Bush & Co. made a hash of it.
How did it come to this? National Review has had to repudiate its own founder, the aging, ailing Bill Buckley, who has written that he would have opposed the war had he known in 2003 what he knows now. Will has taken a wiser approach: Get lost in the crowd, act as if it had all been someone else’s blunder, and pray that nobody digs up your old columns.
And if you write about someone who was right all along, such as Ron Paul, just sneer at him.
This article first appeared in the May 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.