Bill Long 11/19/04
Actually, George Won't
George Will held forth for more than an hour to a largely appreciative crowd at Willamette University on November 18 on the opportunities and challenges facing America today. As is his manner, he lithely and lightly covered topics as broad as gay rights and Iraq, the American economy and public teacher unions. What began as a talk with a germ of a very interesting idea--that the welfare state is here to stay--soon degenerated, however, into the same political vituperation that he decried at the beginning of the talk.
He who talked about the shared sense of American values just couldn't help bashing every villain of the conservatives in our day--from so-called activist judges to greedy trial lawyers to rapacious teachers unions to inner city schools to (more veiled attacks on) gays and the European Union. Whether he was just tired or quickly exhausted the store of the ideas which he said moved history, he left me wondering whether Pulitzer Prizes, as well as Presidential elections, are now awarded to the master of one or two syllable rants.
The Promise of the Speech
I say these remarks in the context of a speech that began with so much promise. He isolated a problem which both the doctrinaire conservatives flee from and the doctrinaire liberals can't properly face, and that is the reality that major aspects of the "welfare state" are here to stay. Rising expectations for pension security as well as government help in providing medical benefits are clashing with the realities of what Americans want to pay for these services. This is, in fact, no news flash, but by beginning with this problem he showed that the simple solutions of the past (make government smaller; create another cabinet position) are probably not going to solve the problem.
If only he had given us the kind of precision in facts on this issue that he did with his baseball anecdotes, we might have been able to see the stark reality of the trans-party demand for these benefits up against the felt reality of high taxes. Indeed, his manifold invocation of the insight of his (former) "best friend" in Washington, the Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, provided him an opportunity truly to see this as a bi-partisant or non-partisan issue. But he couldn't hold his own interest in the topic, and once he left "welfare state issues" and Moynihan his friend he got himself involved in increasingly vituperative cheap shots at the Democrats and their constituencies.
How George's Mind Works
The transition he made from the helpful part of his talk (15 minutes) to the worthless part of the talk was attended with a clumsy manipulation of language. He moved on to discuss global "terror," which he quickly confessed was an improper name for the phenomenon. Fair enough. Then he painted the most ghoulish picture of the ability of "good grad students" to manufacture all kinds of deadly chemical and biological weapons that could easily wipe out Manhattan in a trice. If this were four years ago, he would have followed this line with the obligatory conservative bashing of liberal Manhattan, but now, since 9/11, even conservatives don't have the heart to do that.
Nevertheless, he said it is this kind of reality that makes some people talk about "preemptive" strikes here and abroad. Why wait for them to get us? Then he backed quickly away as soon as he had dropped his own brand of intellectual poison. He was not to be interpreted to mean that all preemptive strikes are good things and, indeed, historians will ultimately gauge our efforts in Iraq, but the bomb was dropped. Preemptive strikes are now OK in theory. When he says they are OK in theory, it is not a far cry for those who want to flex America's muscle at home and abroad to rush in and "preempt" the next so-called terrorist attack, even if the intelligence is bad. You know, however, that such preemptive attacks will be directed against people whose skin color and religion differs from the majority of Americans.
After a detour to Iraq, he returned to the domestic scene but, by this time, Moynihan and ideas and the patina of working together had long since disappeared from his remarks. If culture was the place where battles were fought, he was going to join into the battles with both guns blazing. But all he could utter were the tired shibboleths of the right. "Activist Judges" were on the loose, despite the fact that the only activist judge he mentioned has been dead for a decade; in fact, the Rehnquist revolution has been so successful at the Supreme Court that no one speaks of true liberals on the Court anymore; it is just conservatives and moderates. "Tort Reform" is necessary, despite the fact that such a "reform" means that juries are to be considered inconsequential--a most elitist notion. Urban schools are a blight on America, and, if people would only have two parent families (does that mean he thinks that having two same sex parents is better than single parenting?), things would be better. When he mentioned the immediate decline in illegitimacy at the passing of the Welfare Reform Bill in 1996, he committed the first sin of improper survey analysis, so basic that it need not even be mentioned.
In the final analysis, this was a "George Won't" speech. George won't be a voice for any kind of reasoned middle course in necessary reforms in the future. George Won't be the kind of impassioned intellectual as his friend who could actually stay on one topic for more than five minutes. George Won't be a person whom anyone should really read for fresh treatment of knotty issues. As I left the gathering, I reflected that most of his major journalistic awards were for things he had done as a young man, in the 1970s. It made me wonder if a sort of "Orson Welles" complex has befallen George Will--a wunderkind who ended up peddling banal consumer products. You have to wonder, don't you?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long