Farewell to Will

Norman Mailer flattens George Will after the bow-tied GOP courtier notes a Hemingway-like eloquence in our president's mangled prose.

Published March 28, 2002 2:26AM (EST)

Live by the bogus pseudo-intellectual reference, die by the bogus pseudo-intellectual reference.

That is the conclusion we must draw as we gaze with sorrow upon the battered corpse of bow-tied bloviator George Will, after literary brawler Norman Mailer finished him off in one of the most brutal beatings ever administered by a heavyweight writer to a bleating conservative pundit.

Will probably never saw the fatal punch coming. After all, he has made a literary career of spicing up his middlebrow observations with references to Montesquieu, Dr. Johnson and the like. Although many of these references emit a distinctive canned odor more redolent of a hasty visit to Bartlett's than of literary erudition, Will has generally gotten away with them. But this time he went too far. He managed to stir up even the famously sweet-tempered Mailer, that kindly elder literary statesman dozing in the twilight of his genial career in Provincetown.

What could Will have possibly done capable of pulling the mild Mailer out of his Adirondack chair and into a Bane-and-Hera-like frenzy?

He compared George Bush's use of language to Ernest Hemingway's.

"President Bush's rhetorical style -- syntactical minimalism: Midland, Texas, meets MBA-speak -- is what it was before Sept. 11, but it suits the new sobriety," intoned Will in a column titled "Onward and Upward." "Were Bush to attempt the Ciceronian flourishes of John Kennedy ('Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are ...') it would be like Handel played on a harmonica. Bush's terseness is Ernest Hemingway seasoned by John Wesley."

Mailer did not like this.

The old man stood up and walked over to his typewriter. He took down a bottle of wine, the old Rioja that he always kept on his nightstand, and he drank the wine and ate olives and proceeded to type a letter to the editor of the newspaper in Boston that is called the Boston Globe.

The letter read, in part: "Well, one is hardly familiar with John Wesley's sermons, but I do know that to put George W. Bush's prose next to Hemingway is equal to saying that Jackie Susann is right up there with Jane Austen. Did a sense of shame ever reside in our Republican toadies? You can't stop people who are never embarrassed by themselves. Will's readiness to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse can be cited as world class sycophancy."

Mailer followed this "I knew Ernest Hemingway and you George W. are no Ernest Hemingway" body blow with a quotation from "A Farewell to Arms," commenting acidly, "It has more going for it than 'terseness.'"

"I was embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice ... I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words you could not stand to hear ... Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the names of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates."

After unloading this large dump truck full of stinky unpatriotic excrement all over Will's little flag-bedecked Astroturf lawn, Mailer proceeded to get deeply medieval on the man Will was bowing and scraping before: "It is worth reminding ourselves that the life of a democracy may also depend on the good and honorable use of language and not on the scurvy manipulation of such words as 'evil' and 'love' by intellectual striplings of the caliber of our president."

As Papa might have said, "There was nothing to be done with the meat except to bury it."

Once you've been flattened like a Chuck Jones character, there's not much you can do. Will might try pulling himself from the floor by castigating Mailer as another America-hating "cultural relativist" (in a column last year he almost had an apoplectic fit when Arthur Miller, in a National Endowment for the Humanities lecture, dared to question the legitimacy of Bush's election). But it will certainly be a long time before the Republican courtier again grows effusive about our president's eloquence. Comparing our verbally challenged leader to one of the masters of 20th century American prose? As George "Jake" Bush would say, "That is as wrong as it is evil."

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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