The new season: a spectator's guide to the 1988 election.
George F. Will Simon & Schuster, $19.95.
George Will once compared himself to Walter Lippmann, the model philosopher-columnist, for his "various relationships with presidents.' In Statecraft As Soulcraft, Will wrote: "My thesis is that the most important task confronting Americans as a polity is, in part, a philosopher's task.' With little reluctance Will has wrapped himself in the philosopher's mantle and taken up a relationship with President and, especially, Mrs. Reagan. He has served the Reagans as a social liaison, as a political adviser and, for the First Lady, as an occasional luncheon companion. Will has privately boasted of his association with the president's wife to distinguished journalists, who were taken aback by what they felt was crass status-seeking. Perhaps Will believed that the personal connection to Nancy Reagan was a measure of his standing at the apex of the Washington pecking order. Whatever his motivation, his tete-a-tetes with Mrs. Reagan at Galileo's restaurant on P Street or the Jockey Club in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel or the Middleburg Inn in Virginia hunt country do not certify him as a Lippmann.
While the real Lippmann may not have been all his admirers have said, he still towers over his pretenders. Unlike Lippmann, Will has proved his expertise in nothing in particular. He has written no original work of moral philosophy recognized by moral philosophers, as Lippmann did in A Preface to Morals. Will has made no original contributions to the study of public opinion or foreign affairs. He has written no book based on actual observation of events, as Lippmann did in the case of the Scopes trial. Nor has Will helped promote the ideas of a more interesting mind, as Lippmann did with Keynes's in The Method of Freedom.
Will's brief philosophical work, Statecraft as Soulcraft, with its clotted mass of quotations, reads in long stretches like Monty Python's shooting script of Bartlett's. The comic effect was underlined by Will's affectless piety. One random paragraph, for example, was filled with the sayings of David Hume, Benedict Spinoza, William Penn, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson. The preceding paragraph cited Alexis de Tocqueville, William Blackstone and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Though Will obscured his thesis in Statecraft As Soulcraft with promiscuous ancestor worship, it could be found by a dogged reader: government should act as society's moral tutor. This ground idea has enabled him to sustain a running commentary far more intellectually coherent than most columnists.
Since Will appeared on the scene, he has presented himself as a passionate advocate, a serious man engaged with serious things. A recent advertisement for Newsweek showed Will as he obviously wants to present himself, in his study, seated at his antique desk, Waterman fountain pen in hand, bone-china cup and saucer nearby, with thick volumes of Churchilliana resting on the bookcase. With the title of his new book, The New Season: A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election, he no longer describes himself as the serious man, but as a casual "spectator,' scorecard in hand, simply delighted to observe the competition. Baseball is indeed a wonderful game, and Will has rightly called it "noble,' but his metaphor trivializes what he wishes to speak of solemnly and withdraws the gravity he implicitly imputes to himself.
The underlying message of the baseball metaphor is that there is no distinction between being a citizen and being a fan. Politics, in his book, is a cross between a spectacle and a sport. Will suggests that the ultimate claim of the American political system upon our participation is not natural law or hallowed tradition. Rather, it is merely pleasure for its own sake. He writes in his final paragraph: "A philosopher once said: "People have more fun than anybody.' Quite right, and Americans have more fun than any other people, in part because their politics--their collective conversation--is so astonishingly amicable and, all things considered, intelligent.' But the word "fun' gives away a fundamental problem, which is not that Will inflates his subject when he borrows others' phrases, but that he deflates it when he uses his own. In The New Season, spectator Will is Walter Lippmann as Mel Allen.
Much of this slight book is filled with commonplaces that can be gleaned from the daily newspaper: "In 1980 the nation was ripe for what Republicans do best. It was ripe for a campaign condemning the government.' Or: "It is problematic for a party to come off eight years in power and present itself as an agent of change.' Or: "A theme of this book is that politicians' words--the most public acts of public people-- matter and should be taken seriously by serious students of politics.' Most annoying of all, Will puts forth this boilerplate as if it were derived from a close reading of Aristotle.
Or others. Will stands like a butler at the door, announcing the entrance of distinguished guests: "No one knows more about American politics than Michael Barone . . . Now comes naughty Norman Ornstein to use history to rehabilitate Congress . . . Chris Matthews, a prodigy among Democratic political operators . . . Horace Busby, a wiss political consultant whose pocket calculator never sleeps . . ..' Will presents their insights without acknowledging their differences. His authorities remain consistent, but he does not.
Will has done this before. In Statecraft As Soulcraft he argued that American conservatism, if it were to endure, required a more Burkean deference to established custom and institutions. In particular, he suggested, the right-wing ought to take a more benign attitude toward the welfare state. But, Will claimed, what was also needed was a sense of moral absolutes. His tale of Western civilization's fall described the supplanting of worthy "ancients' such as Aristotle by cynical "moderns' such as Machiavelli, categories entirely derived from the work of philosopher Leo Strauss, but unacknowledged. The wholesale lifting of Strauss's semantics, without citation, by a writer who made a fetish of quotations, was a telling sign of Will's authenticity and originality.
Will's argument depended upon meshing Strauss and Burke. Yet Strauss, in Natural Right and History, cast Burke into the netherworld of despised moderns as one who "paves the way for the "historical school.'' Burke's appeals to the glorious past undermined moral absolutes that, according to Strauss, existed independent of history. In Statecraft As Soulcraft, Will failed to face the central conundrum he had raised. If he had openly discussed Strauss, the problem of Strauss's and Burke's basic incompatibility would at least have been apparent. But Will neglected to acknowledge one of his principal sources. Instead, he tried to reconcile the irreconcilable by gratuitously assigning Burke to the "ancients.' But this merely revealed Will's frequent substitution of bald assertion for actual scholarship. In Statecraft As Soulcraft, the consequence was a shambles. As a work of philosophy, Will's book was unconvincing; but in explaining his continuing approach to column-writing it was a success.
For all his quotesmanship, Will seems generally unfamiliar with much of the terrain of political science. The New Season neglects the difficult questions of, for example, dealignment, decomposition of the party system, the permanent campaign and its effects on governing, the influence of money, and the role of rising and declining elites. Many topics, in the meantime, receive superficial treatment: Will argues, without any supporting empirical evidence, that political advertising cannot sway elections. Then he quotes: "Mr. Dooley, Finley Peter Dunne's fictional barkeep, "Politics ain't beanbag.''
As Will sees it, the Republican and the Democratic parties are both stupid parties that fail to measure up to the standards of the Will party. (Or, more exact, the Will team, comprised completely of spectators.) The Democrats, among their other vices, are soft on communism. And the Republicans, among their other vices, are soft on communism. To Will, the Democrats must shed their permissive attitude toward immoral behavior and gluttonous constituency groups. Then, they will gain back the voters they lost to Reagan. The Republicans, for their part, must relinquish their distaste for government and embrace the welfare state. Then they will keep the voters Reagan attracted. Both parties must be more resolute in confronting Moscow. If they follow this advice, they will move closer to the center of gravity: the Will party.
In spite of Will's absolutism, his prospectus of the upcoming campaign remains fundamentally cautious. He does not review any of the candidates; there never is heard a discouraging word. It is not so much that he is generously giving the candidates a clean slate, as he is giving himself one. The author of The New Season is attempting to show that he is a man for all seasons, particularly the one after Reagan.
Mostly, though, Will treads water, recycling the rhetoric of Statecraft As Soulcraft: "The infantilism; impatience; hedonism; inability to defer gratification--that produced the cultural dissolution of the Sixties helped give rise to the inflation of the Seventies.' This coarse relegation of an economic trend--inflation--to a state of mind--infantilism--is curious. Inflation, apparently, had nothing to do with the financing of the Vietnam war and the oil shocks. Will's passionate support of the Vietnam war, which precipitated the inflation of the 1970s, would seem to deprive him of capital to spend on this issue. But he does not pause.
His premise, if his explanation of inflation is to make any sense, must be that the private is the public: what happens in the bedrooms is directly reflected in politics and the economy. But one wonders, if there is a relationship between "a collapsing capacity for discipline' and America's fall from grace, whether it could be seen in statistics on personal turmoil. Will, however, offers assertion, not illustration.
In The Season, Will more clearly reveals than in any other work that his analysis flows from a priori assumptions. Almost invariably, his conclusions are imposed at the beginning; his logic, or more accurately, his logic-chopping, follows. Will's method is inimitable. On the contras, for example, he states his own position: pro. Then he quotes Lord Salisbury: "If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.' Finally, he holds the Democrats up to scorn: ". . . it recently has seemed that if you believe the Democrats, nothing is vital.' Thus the Will method, applied in case after case: first the verdict, then the trial.
To avoid being regarded as agents of appeasement, Will urges the Democrats to support the contras. Earlier in the book, he writes, "The Irancontra affair involved various attempts to evade or subvert laws, established procedures, and intragovernmental traditions (thin reeds, these) of civility.' But which laws?
Will's comment on the evasion and subversion of law is on the order of Vice President George Bush's passive and inspecific remark: "Mistakes were made.' A bit of the scandal's background may cast some light on Will's attitude toward facts when they contradict his assumptions.
In January 1984, the CIA mined the harbors of Nicaragua without informing the Senate and House intelligence committees. As a result, the toughest version of the Boland amendment was passed by Congress, saying that "no funds available' to any agency "involved in intelligence activities' could be used to aid the contras, "directly or indirectly.'
After the Iran-contra scandal was exposed, in May 1987, Will launched an attack on the Boland amendment--"unconstitutional in intent; pseudolegal static in the system . . . a non-law'--far more vicious and emotional than any criticism he ventured about the scandal's participants. The conflict between the executive and legislative branches Will decried was precisely due to the administration's breach of "established procedures,' to which the Boland amendment was the response. And the contra-diversion was precisely intended to evade this measure. If the Boland amendment was "a non-law,' then what laws does Will believe were evaded and subverted? He does not say.
As with the politicians Will set out to study, his words must be taken seriously. Two words are key to his thought--"decent' and "civility'--his shorthand for different political mentalities. "Decent' arises in his language as something bad about Democrats: "There hangs about the Democratic party an aura of moral overreaching. A symptom is the use of words like "decent' . . . as in "a decent society requires this or that.'' "Civility,' according to Will, is what will be restored when the Iran-contra scandal is swept away. But the meaning of these words, as Will uses them, is broader.
Civility is manners masquerading as morals, a category of form referring less to the rule of law than to the rule of etiquette; it is more an unspoken social, rather than ethical, code. Correct behavior may make the good possible, it is not goodness itself.
By contrast, decency, which Will belittles, actually is about morals. And there is some history behind the word and its content. The introduction of the word "decent' into the political vocabulary can be attributed to George Orwell. In his essay on Charles Dickens he defined the essence of the great novelist's sensibility as "decent.' In an age of totalitarians, Dickens's message was still contemporary. Orwell wrote: "The central problem--how to prevent power from being abused--remains unsolved . . .. "If men would behave decently the world would be decent' is not such a platitude as it sounds.' Since Orwell's use of the word, a number of liberal intellectuals and reformers have taken it up. "Decent' connotes a tempered moral position, one that carefully avoids righteous absolutism; it also suggests compassion and patience. The word is precisely the opposite of elite condescension, the opposite of hauteur.
Oddly, Orwell's essay on Dickens was cited by Will in his 1981 column on the Royal Shakespere production of Nicholas Nickleby. "Dickens's message,' wrote Will, "which found an avid audience on Broadway, is that the worthiest cause is kindness, and it is timeless.' But, in his preference for civility over decency, Will demonstrates that Dickens--and Orwell--did not make a lasting impression on him.
Will's tone of infallibility suggests that his expertise can be reliably followed on any subject from rockets to rock. He never acknowledges that he has changed a single imperious opinion. In his self-revisions, offered as fresh revelation, Will must be banking on his readers' amnesia.
For example, just a year ago, in The Morning After, Will proclaimed the Reagan presidency a success. At home, Reagan was "saving' the welfare state "by tempering its excesses.' Abroad, Will wrote in a 1986 column, Reagan achieved his "finest hour' at the Reykjavik summit, securing for himself "a high place in history.' These accomplishments, he wrote in the book, translated into Republican control of the White House as far into the future as the human mind could contemplate: "At the presidential level, realignment is a fact.'
As 1988 approaches, Reagan's fall from the Will firmament has been swift. In The New Season, he writes without a trace of self-consciousness or irony: ". . . even allowing for the genial hyperbole of American politics and journalism, Reagan's consequences, although substantial, have not been as bold--as revolutionary, if you must--as those of FDR or LBJ.'
Then there is Will's dauntless assessment of Bruce Springsteen. In The New Season Will asserts that Springsteen's "songs of stress, vulnerability, and precariousness are counterpoints to the Morning in America goo of overripe Reaganism.'
Consider now the Will of 1984, who tried to claim Springsteen for the Reagan campaign, an effort that resulted in Reagan's approving reference to Springsteen in a stump speech. The George Will of 1984 wrote: "Springsteen's fans say his message affirms the right values. Certainly his manner does . . .. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: "Born in the U.S.A.!' . . .. There still is nothing quite like being born in the U.S.A.'
Never does Will weigh empirical evidence that might ruffle his dogmatic confidence. One seldom feels in the presence of an independent mind, one that considers factual counter-arguments or unexpected events. Typically, he ascribes unworthy motives--"infantilism,' etc.--to those with whom he disagrees. The New Season is no departure for Will, but is written as if it were further proof of his 1969 doctoral thesis: "A specter is haunting American liberals, the specter of confident politics . . . the kind of open mind the liberal favors is a political menace.' Will's method is unyielding--assertion, appeal to authority, snide dismissal of an opposing view. And so he continues his furious assault on the "menace' of the "open mind' and the "moral overreaching' of the "decent.'
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1987|
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