A dying breed

In the new world of body-slamming right-wing politics, what's a snooty, fake-patrician

By Louis Bayard

Published October 3, 2002 2:31PM (EDT)

"And so we beat on," F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Leading with a quote is surely the appropriate thing to do when reviewing the notoriously allusive George F. Will. But this quote seems particularly relevant to defining the oddly poignant figure that Will cuts at this stage in his career. Two decades ago, he was secretly prepping Ronald Reagan for debates (albeit with briefing papers swiped from the Carter White House), lunching with Nancy Reagan, and guarding the right wing's intellectual flank like a one-headed, four-eyed Cerberus. With his starched shirts and bow ties, with his impassive demeanor and ecclesiastical gestures and the ever-ready epigram squeezing through his pursed lips, he had the feel of his very own establishment -- permanent and immovable.

And in fact, he hasn't moved much in the past two decades; it's just the rest of the establishment that has. Conservative policy is no longer hashed out in the gray pages of the National Review but in the fractious, jangling confines of talk radio and the Fox News Network. The genteel harrumphs of William F. Buckley and James J. Kilpatrick have given way to the braying outrage of Rush Limbaugh and Brit Hume, and in this new higher-decibel culture, Will, always a throwback, has been thrown so far back as to seem irrelevant.

The White House is no longer requesting talking points, Laura Bush is not calling for lunch, beloved mentors like Meg Greenfield have passed on, nimbler colleagues like Bill Kristol are dancing rings around him on TV, and shriller colleagues like Charles Krauthammer and Michael Kelly are drowning him out on the Op-Ed pages. It's a Roger Ailes world we live in, and the pundits who ascend most rapidly are the ones who most closely resemble psychotic toddlers. (Oh, let's just use Ann Coulter as an example.)

All of which raises an interesting question: Is there any longer a place for George F. Will and what he represents in the Republican republic?

For answer, we have the partial, occluded evidence of his columns, highly burnished artifacts that reflect their creator more vividly than he knows. The last five years' worth have now been gathered into a volume awkwardly titled "With a Happy Eye But ..." and subtitled "America and the World (1997-2002)," which pretty much covers it all, as far as I can see. Before we address what the author has to say, however, let us see how he is holding up.

The cover photograph finds him in the expected Brooks Brothers suit -- navy-blue pinstripes -- the once-ubiquitous bow tie now exchanged for a less eccentric rep tie. Arms folded, he poses against an ecru pilaster and paisley-patterned ecru wallpaper, leaning (ever so slightly) on a buffed wooden stair rail. The setting is archetypal gentry, but Will's body language is unique to him and unmistakable. In his own wry, ascetic fashion, he is trying to hold the barbarians at the gate.

But what is this castle he is defending? That takes actually plowing through the columns, and the plowing is, for the most part, easy work. Will may be too arch by half -- his favored adjective for Bill Clinton is "glandular" -- and years of writing for deadline have imparted their tics, but the prose continually refreshes with its grace and nimbleness and its easy range of reference. Blowhards like William Bennett make lots of noise on behalf of the Western canon without actually imparting very much of it. I can't think of any other mass-media columnist who can so readily avail himself of civilization's contents as Will does.

This is not simply a matter of quoting famous dead people (G.K. Chesterton is a favorite), but of building synthetic bridges between past and present. Will can discourse knowledgeably on everything from the Hegelian theory of history to the rape of Nanking and make it all seem uniquely relevant. He can, with no apparent strain, extrapolate lessons from John Adams, William Tecumseh Sherman and Hannah Arendt. He can produce an assessment of the controversial modern ethicist Peter Singer (then a new hire at Princeton) that is a small masterpiece of intellectual exposition, locating Singer in a utilitarian line that extends back to Jeremy Bentham and coming to a surprisingly equivocal conclusion: "[Singer] will do more to stimulate serious reflection -- and more to stimulate opposition to his (literally) homicidal ideas -- than he will to make his ideas acceptable. Which is to say, Princeton can justify his appointment by utilitarian arithmetic."

This is as thoughtful as it is elegantly turned, and it is of no small significance that Princeton is the occasion for it, this being the institution that sanctified Will's vocation by awarding him a doctorate in politics. Little wonder, then, that Princeton should be the citadel from which he surveys the enemy position and that his most definitive declaration of war should come in an address commemorating Old Nassau's 250th anniversary.

"Vulgarians are thick on the ground in the nation's capital," he announces. Not a new development, he quickly concedes, but he nevertheless speaks darkly of "the thinning of the common culture" and harks back to the days when "The Old Curiosity Shop" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (rather bad books, but never mind) were "part of the shared vocabulary, the casual discourse" of family life, when everyday people could make allusions to the Bible and the classics with the full expectation that they would be understood by other people.

Those days are not quite gone, he acknowledges -- civilized people still recognize Dickensian allusions like "Barkis is willin'" and "Something will turn up" -- but our fund of reference, he thinks, is being vitiated by the inroads of popular culture. "Contemporary America can still work itself into something of a swivet over the question of 'Who shot J.R.?'" he huffs. "A century and a half on, Micawber and Little Nell, Pickwick and Mr. Bumble, and a host of other Dickensian figures are still part, if a steadily diminishing part, of our common conversation. Who really thinks that even just ten years from now such 'Seinfeld' characters as George Costanza or Kramer will remain fixtures in the public mind?"

To which one might say: Well, if that's the case, what is he whingeing about? It sounds to my ear like whistling in the dark, the positing of a future that is by no means certain, even to Will. This is the man, after all, who believes that "classic" is "a designation usually reserved in America for a variant of Coca-Cola." In his heart of hearts, he must know that, with the benefit of reruns and reunion specials, the characters of "Seinfeld" will still be fixtures in the public mind a decade, three decades hence (just as Lucy Ricardo and Ralph Kramden are still with us half a century later).

What he doesn't seem to recognize is the wobbly line he has drawn in the sand. Even if he hadn't chosen as his whipping boy "Seinfeld," one of the smarter entertainments TV has given us in recent years, even if he had dragged into the equation "American Idol" or "The Osbournes" or "Touched by an Angel," he would still have to acknowledge that high and low can co-exist, that people can read Dickens and watch "American Idol." Surely one kind of familiarity does not preclude the other.

But television is, of course, one of modernity's tools, and Will is modernity's sworn enemy. "Schools, including universities, must insist upon the prestige of reading," he writes, "and especially of reading old books." Without contesting the point, we may still glimpse here the defining quality of Will's ideal society: a village of antiquarians. A populace that still weeps at the deaths of Little Nell and Little Eva. A populace that, in short, no longer exists.

This reactionary, almost necrophiliac esthetic is best observed when Will dips his toes into the currents of popular culture. We get crumpet-laden pleasantries with overrated mystery writer P.D. James ("Baroness James of Holland Park," he instructs us). A head bowed over the grave of overrated historical novelist Patrick O'Brien ("proof of Chesterton's axiom that great men take up great space even when gone"). A swift boot to the keister of Salinger's Holden Caulfield ("as limited and tiresome as his vocabulary") and a warm bath in the apologetics of C.S. Lewis, hailed for his "adversarial stance toward life in our time."

Even from this small sampling, a pattern emerges, yes? Anglophiliac. (It is surely no accident that Will's daughter is named Victoria.) Deeply at variance with the present day. And firmly, if unconsciously, rooted in the strictures of class.

To the casual eye, of course, Will's ramrod WASP posture has always looked like blue blood in its most extruded form. You would have to know a little bit about his history to know that he hailed from Champaign, Ill., that his father taught at a public university and that he got his undergraduate degree at Hartford's non-Ivy Trinity College. It hardly matters. Will's Gatsbyite self-reinvention as East Coast Brahmin has been so persuasive that he himself is the most persuaded of all, and his columns are an increasingly desperate search for the right kind of people -- the ones who have read the right books, absorbed the right etiquette and have le mot juste for every occasion. (In this context, Will's obsessive love for baseball and its practitioners is a bit like the 19th century fondness for the "noble savage.")

Will's treatment of Bill Clinton is instructive in this regard. As l'affaire Lewinsky heats up, the columnist's rhetoric rises to higher and higher dudgeon: "A liar ... a narcissist's delight ... unserious ... the worst person ever to have been president" ... a sower of "moral chaos." But is that the problem with Bill Clinton? Or is it that he misattributed Lincoln's "of the people, by the people, for the people"? Or is it, more likely, the assertion of an Oxford newsletter that Clinton "followed the B.Phil. course." "'Followed'?" sniffs Will, a genuine Oxford grad. "What a delicate way of saying he failed to get a degree." There you have it. Not only a sower of moral chaos but a pretender ... a social-climbing hick from Arkansas.

It takes some doing to paint a Rhodes scholar as intellectually backward, and one would think that a bar raised so high would effectively decapitate Clinton's successor, who, despite his Ivy pedigree, has been found guilty of such locutions as "Build the pie higher" and "Is our children learning?" Perhaps the challenge of defending Ronald Reagan's intellect during the 1980s proved too taxing in the end, for Will is strangely silent on the whole subject of George W. An approving nod for Bush's post-Sept. 11 orations, a dollop of praise for his position on stem cell research, scattered digs at his positions on education and campaign finance reform ... little else.

He is silent, too -- has always been silent -- about the carny barkers of the religious right who have spent the last three decades wrestling Will's Brahmins for control of the Republican Party. A glancing reference to the Rev. Jerry Falwell (defending him from Hillary), no mention at all of Pat Robertson or Ralph Reed or Gary Bauer or any of their yahoo brethren. So much silence from such a ready tongue, and herein lies the irony of George Will's situation. To maintain the aristocratic ton that forms the basis of his personality and his credo and his life's work, he must exclude from his field of vision large precincts of his own party, up to and including the president of the United States.

So where does that leave our doughty intellectual? Delivering his tart rejoinders to an increasingly empty chamber, like the professor of an under-subscribed course. God knows, the man still has his viewership and readership -- ABC Sunday mornings, Newsweek, the Washington Post -- but how many followers? How many hungry young Republicans will sit on their hands and listen to him hold forth one more time on Stonewall Jackson (what if he hadn't died at Chancellorsville?) or call up the ghost of Henry Adams or recount that awfully interesting lunch he had last week with Avery Dulles? How many of these Young Turks would do anything but gaze in bafflement at the tasks Will calls central to conservatism: "keeping government where it belongs, which is on a short constitutional leash, and politics in its place, which is at the margins of life." Politics at the margins of life? You might as well say life is at the margins of life.

Perhaps this feeling of being out of step with his audience accounts for the flagging one detects in Will's writing now. The high notes are still there: missile defense, school choice and school prayer, the natural aristocracy of baseball, the inanity of the NEA, the perils of political correctness and activist judges and the "therapeutic ethos." Will's pleasing vein of self-deprecation is still intact: "My friends, happily rooting for Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and other great Redbirds, grew up cheerfully convinced that the world is a benign place. So, of course, they became liberals. Rooting for the Cubs in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I became gloomy, pessimistic, morose, dyspeptic -- in a word, conservative." But everything is shot through with elegiac threads: the remains of the columnist's day.

"Being sixty in Washington sometimes feels like having had one year's experience sixty times," he writes. "However, age can confer a certain calm about the passing circus, a preference for understatement and for people with low emotional metabolisms." One of those people, by implication, was Meg Greenfield, the Washington Post eminence who first launched Will into the national mainstream. Will's remembrance of her is warmer than anything else in this volume (warmer even than his memorial for his father), and while this partiality leads him, I think, to overvalue Greenfield's writing, it also inspires in him some of the most explicit renderings of his beau idéal:

"For years Meg and I and columnist Charles Krauthammer regularly met on Saturdays for lunch and conversation with a guest, usually someone newsworthy. We met at a greasy spoon on upper Connecticut Avenue in Washington. The name, Chevy Chase Lounge, was decidedly more upscale than the place. Meg's favorite moment -- how she savored such scenes from Washington's version of the human comedy -- was when a guest, a senator once considered a presidential prospect, asked the waitress if the tuna was fresh. The waitress said, sure it was. She meant the can had just been opened."

On one level, this is classic WASP reportage. Note how that musical line of privilege is ever so delicately sustained: the "greasy spoon" in an otherwise unimpeachable part of the District, Will and Greenfield and Krauthammer posed against it like slumming royalty, sniggering in each other's ear while Washington's elite ("usually someone newsworthy") stoops to kiss their collective ass. Asks if the tuna's fresh! What can the fellow be thinking?

We can do our own share of sniggering at this self-important triumvirate, but there is something quite touching about the tableau they form. Will seems to be openly hankering for a time -- before Bill O'Reilly, before "The McLaughlin Report" -- when people on both sides of the aisle could be counted on to set the right tone. When no one raised his voice or sawed his sentences down to a sound bite (the poor man's epigram) or did anything that could earn eviction from either a Georgetown salon or a Chevy Chase greasy spoon. "A little academe," to quote Shakespeare, "still and contemplative in living art." This is the past into which George Will is ceaselessly borne. May he find rest there.

Louis Bayard

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His books include "Mr. Timothy" and "The Black Tower."

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