Pondering the Other George W. (Life is good for Will on the hill)

The back page of Newsweek, titled "The Last Word," is the Delphi of magazines and George Will is its bi-weekly oracle. (He alternates in that space with Anna Quindlen.) There, as in his widely syndicated newspaper columns, he holds forth on an impressive array of subjects, from Atomic Energy to Zoroastrianism. He once filled his Newsweek page with an essay on Buck Owens, which, as a country music fan, I appreciated. I don’t know if he could do the same for Slim Whitman, but I wouldn’t put it past him. As the other George W (the squirrelly guy in the White House) says, don’t "misunderestimate" him.

There is much to like about a Pulitzer Prize-winning political writer who can, and does, produce best-selling books about baseball. Will is, I believe, at his second best when he is writing, with keen interest and good humor, about a sport he clearly knows and loves. He is at his very best when he is writing in anger about institutional depravity, as when "Infant Doe" was left to starve to death at a hospital in Bloomington, Indiana or when Attorney General Janet Reno had her Gestapo seize a terrified six-year-old for deportation to Cuba. But sometimes George is just ponderously gloomy. It must take a lot to depress a lifelong Cubs fan, but Hurricane Katrina has been more than a lot.

Will suggests the gulf disaster (We’re not talking about Iraq now) may result in people believing more in government. (You’re kidding, right, George?) Or less in God. (The hurricane was a phenomenon of nature, something commonly called an "act of God." Neglect of the levees was not.) Or both. "Time will tell…"

That is so like George. (No, I’ve never met the man, but he is, as a TV pundit, in my living room so often that I feel we’re on a first-name basis.) It is always six of one thing, unless it is half a dozen of something else. Sometimes he is St. George out to slay (or at least harass) the dragon of big government. ("The five most beautiful words in the English language," he has said, can be found in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law…") At other times, he lectures us on our shortsighted, taxophobic, narrow-minded obsession with limited government. Americans are undertaxed, he wrote frequently in years past. He has told us the Tenth Amendment is "dead as a door nail" and we might as well accept it. George has great breadth of mind, as witness the lessons he draws from the chaos of Katrina.

"This is a liberal hour in that it illustrates the indispensability, and dignity, of the public sector." (George must have just returned from a federally subsidized night at the opera.) "It is also a conservative hour, dramatizing the prudence of pessimism, and the fact that the first business of government, on which everything depends, is security." (emphasis in the original) What, and not a moderate hour to illustrate and dramatize the dignity of pessimism or the security of prudence? Will sounds like he is trying to write the prologue to "A Tale of Two Hurricanes."

Will is no stranger to turning with the wind. He has been all over the lot on issues ranging from term limits for members of Congress to baseball’s designated hitter. He explained one of his flip-flops (in this case from anti to pro-DH) by noting that an umpire during the 1986 World Series could not help laughing at the sight of Red Sox pitcher Bruce Hurst attempting to hit. Laughter from an umpire so offended Will’s sense of propriety that he promptly endorsed the DH. At least until such time as he would oppose it again. That may not seem important to those who are not baseball fans, but if you can’t depend on a Tory to oppose a radical innovation like the designated hitter, for what can you depend on him?

The Toryism seems a bit contrived, perhaps as an explanation for Will’s diffident manner, his aloofness, his habit of talking to us from the summit of Mt. Olympus. Will walks with kings, or, better yet, kingmakers and does not affect the common touch. The closest he comes to identifying with common folk is in his willingness to leave his powered wig at home for TV appearances.

Many commentators, including Pat Buchanan, have noted that those left behind in the Katrina disaster have been mostly poor and black. Will, in his post-Katrina Newsweek column, makes no mention of that and seems principally concerned with the fact that many of them have behaved badly — rioting, looting and otherwise demonstrating those “molten passions that must be checked by force when they cannot be tamed by socialization.” That the “molten passions” may be driven in many cases by hunger and thirst (not easily “tamed” by “socialization”) seems hardly to matter. Passions are passions and George finds them appalling.

Reading those conservative principles, so elegantly stated, a disturbing thought intrudes: Will no doubt wrote this piece in the comfort of his study in Chevy Chase, far removed from the chaos, the suffering and the frantic helplessness of the many caught up in the panic of New Orleans. It is from a safe and very comfortable distance that he ponders the blessings of civilization and implies that the destitute trapped in the flood should sit quietly and contemplate Edmund Burke until civilization returns and we may all "continue this summer’s argument about whether we and our habitat have been intelligently designed."

It reminds me of something Roger Simon wrote about Will back in the 1980’s: “He is a conservative and a patrician and believes deep down, I think, that God just doesn’t like poor people. And that is why He gave them bad table manners.”

I remember how hard I laughed when I first read that, because I thought it was a joke.

Maybe not.

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.