From a conservative's viewpoint. George Will's commentaries on the `antic parade of American life'
The Morning After: American Successes and Excesses, 1981-1986, by George F. Will. New York: The Free Press. 430 pp. $19.95 Now that George Will is everywhere -- ``the most powerful journalist in America,'' says the Wall Street Journal -- the appearance of his third collection of newspaper columns prompts us to pause and ask: Where did this guy come from? And what is it he has become?
``When in 1958 I came out of the Illinois wilderness to reconnoiter the East,'' he writes, ``I, wary of exotic metropolitan things, gingerly opened a New York Post and discovered Kempton.''
So Will was inspired by the great liberal Murray Kempton! Will says he could write a 75-word sentence -- ``sinewy and ironic and demanding'' -- that would climb ``a winding path up a pillar of thought,'' and ``must be read twice to be properly enjoyed.''
George Will considers that day in 1958 fateful because it was then, more than a decade before he himself became a columnist, that he knew what a good columnist is. Will considers Kempton's columns ``literature,'' explaining that ``although he knows that news is necessarily about the surface of things, he also wants to tell the stories of persons who are not all surface, and wants to save The Republic from those who are.''
The nasty spin on that final phrase would become a Will trademark when he began to write a Washington column for National Review in the '70s.
Will says he ``came out of the Illinois wilderness'': that is, he casts himself in the role of the American naif. In fact, his father, Frederick Will, taught philosophy at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana; George himself majored in religion at Trinity College, Conn. He was a liberal in college. (By the time he got his PhD from Princeton in 1968 he had become a conservative.)
What he discovered when he discovered Kempton was a durable model of the columnist as craftsman. And, like Will, Kempton was short on enthusiasms (Willie Mays and Adlai Stevenson almost exhaust the list) and long on intolerance for those who simplify things, or try to.
Looking back, Will notes that ``many people now flinch from a prose more elaborate than that spoken on television. But the eye is superior to the ear as a recipient of language, in part because a reader can pause, think, reread.''
Elsewhere in this book of columns syndicated by the Washington Post, Will writes that ``blandness in public utterance is encouraged by television journalism, which, because of the tyranny of the clock, specializes in what are known, in television speech, as `sound bites.' It defines, and distorts individuals with brief, telegenic `bites.' ''
Will should know. On the Sunday news show ``This Week with David Brinkley,'' Will appears ``opposite'' Sam Donaldson, whose terse, liberal commentary seems quite well suited to sound bites.
George Will is a classic American conservative. He fits Michael Oakeshott's definition of a conservative as someone who prefers to engage in activities for the enjoyment they generate and not for profit or other ends. Among such activities, Oakeshott mentions, among others, friendship, conversation, and fishing.
Readers of Will know how much pleasure he takes in the ordinary things of life that flow from that old center of virtue, the hearth.
Still, George Will is a man given to sarcasm. Some people find him smug and artificial. Some even doubt the sincerity of his oft-displayed enthusiasm for baseball. Will quotes Aquinas or Herman Wouk on war to the Vietnam generation and has been called a ``war-wimp.''
And Will praises pessimism, criticizing President Reagan for optimism. ``Conservatism,'' he says, ''is a doctrine of disappointment and consolation.'' (Hence the title of this book.)
But read on: ``[Conservate] hopes for social regeneration through improved character -- for statecraft as soulcraft -- are almost always unrealized. The consolation is that conservatism is thereby confirmed: A nation is a mysterious organism, not a Tinkertoy to be pulled apart and reassembled willfully.''
As he explains in his introduction to this book, Will has fun in his columns. The ``antic parade of American life'' is a grand spectacle. At times one gets the feeling that Will, as a conservative, fits Aristotle's description of the theoretical man -- the man who watches life as if he were watching a sport in which a few of the athletes performed ``divinely.''
Will writes: ``Great sporting events are unifying events for the communities directly involved. For the nation they are exceptions to what sometimes seems to be a rule -- that our shared experiences are either sad, such as the assassination of President Kennedy, or divisive, such as the firing of General MacArthur. The World Series occurs four times as frequently as the Iowa cau cuses. What a wonderful country America is.''
The smugness sometimes attached to Will's work by his critics comes from living life as a philosophical spectator. The smugness is irritating, though, because of something else: Will can write. His skill makes his observations count. And Will is a good needler.
Will's skill is not only in the memorable image and phrase. ``When tranquil, as he usually is, George Shultz resembles an Easter Island statue.'' Or: ``Marxist-Leninism sits like a squat rock unmarked by the waves of evidence that it is nonsense.''
Nor is the skill just in executing sorties or chains of propositions. Will demands of others that they ``remember the duty to be clear in their own minds about where their logic leads, and to be candid with others about the probable real-world consequences of the behavior they favor.''
Will's skill can best be seen if you take a column as a whole. Among my favorites are columns on H. Rap Brown, Whittaker Chambers, and Fred, his daughter's goldfish. In each case, Will uses his skill with phrase and logic to present whole persons ``who are not all surface.''
In many ways, the achievement of George Will is a modest, a generic one, his story an American story: From the Midwestern wilderness he came East. He used his knowledge and cunning and became a popular, conservative journalist. Will is no William Buckley. He often looks uncomfortable on TV, betraying his sensitivity under the skin, a vulnerability some find attractive.
It's said that Will is the only political columnist with a forum in every branch of the mass media. But in the end, that won't have mattered. In the end, the only thing that will have mattered is the answer to this question: Does George Will belong among the few journalists whose columns are considered ``literature''?
It's possible. In any event, like Kempton, he has furthered the craft by his example. Despite all the regalia of power, it's almost as if Will had written these columns as he would fish, just for the fun of it.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor. From `Journalism and Passions'
Compared to the English language, a camera is a crude, superficial instrument of communication. It generally deals with surfaces. Pictures -- of police dogs attacking civil-rights workers, of Vietnamese clinging to helicopter kids, of a bankrupt farmer watching has land being auctioned -- can have extraordinary impact....But when there is an attempt to elicit emotional responses to reality, it is time to ask: Is this journalism, or literature carried on by camera, or political agitation?
Given the camera's capacities and television's time constraints (there are 22 minutes of news in a 30-minute broadcast), there may be a temptation to make the most -- the most emotional wallop -- of every moment. But in a world of conflict, suffering and scarcity, there is no shortage of emotions. It remains unclear how television, a slave to the camera, can best serve a society in which the public generally has a high ratio of passion to information.