George Will: Conservative Pundit Displays an Independent Bent

The Washington commentator says American culture is `coarsening'

HE is a conservative who says liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York is ``the greatest senator in history.'' He thought Proposition 187, cutting off government services to illegal aliens in California, was a fine idea. But he wrote an admiring column about former Rep. William Gray of Pennsylvania, a black liberal Democrat who left politics for a higher calling as the head of the United Negro College Fund.

Political pundit George Will is a conservative who stakes out his intellectual and philosophical turf on his own terms.

Why, he doesn't even feel obliged always to agree with the conservative man-of-the-hour, House Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich. (R) of Georgia. When Mr. Gingrich describes himself as a ``conservative futurist,'' Mr. Will says, he has used an ``oxymoron.'' ``Conservatism is a stance of intellectual humility in front of the complexity and unknowability of the future,'' Will explains. So when Gingrich says, ``I know where we're going [and] I know how fast,'' Will doesn't want to be counted in.

``One of the reasons for being a conservative,'' he says, ``is that we don't know the future.''

Will's career has taken an independent bent, too. He has had huge success writing syndicated columns for many of the same major ``liberal'' newspapers (nearly 500 in all) that are so deeply mistrusted by some conservatives. He writes the back page essay for Newsweek magazine every other week. And he appears each Sunday on ABC TV's ``This Week With David Brinkley,'' often sparring with ABC journalist Sam Donaldson in matches refereed by the amiable Mr. Brinkley.

Will, who won a Pulitzer prize for his commentaries in 1977, has been making forays out from Washington in the past few weeks to promote his latest book, a collection of his columns and other writings entitled ``The Leveling Wind: Politics, the Culture, and Other News, 1990-1994'' (Viking, $23.95, 473 pp.).

In looking over past columns to organize the book, Will says, he realized that he had begun to write much more about America's culture. ``People are now more and more convinced that the culture is coarsening, desensitizing - and that has consequences,'' he said a recent interview in the Monitor newsroom. He says 1990 to 1994 ``were years when the culture became news,'' he says.

Yet Will also has great hopes for one of the chief conveyers of culture: books. ``The more daily and weekly journalism I do,'' he says, ``the more convinced am I that [journalism] is not the primary carrier of ideas. Books still do that.'' A biographer or historian may work 30 years to write a book and ``you can read it in 10 hours.... What an extraordinary and efficient condensation of mental effort.''

But aren't young people abandoning reading for video in all its forms? ``I don't know,'' says Will, who derives many of his columns from books he has read and admits to ``haunting bookstores.'' ``I like to think ... that the novelty of pictures, television, is wearing off.... Look at the new bookstores springing up all over the country.... Someone is buying those books.''

The more-thoughtful newspapers and magazines have to settle for only a segment of the public, he says, but that really isn't new. ``The audience that used to be out there in the 1920s for the New York Daily Mirror has got `Hard Copy.' It doesn't need the Daily Mirror anymore. It has `Inside Edition.' Fine. Let television do that. It doesn't destroy any trees. We'll do other things. It's a rational distribution of labor.''

This fall's Republican sweep of the congressional elections has given Will plenty to write about. It ``was not a wave that rose out of a flat sea,'' he says, but the completion of a conservative transformation of the country. ``Before the '94 election you had to have [Ronald] Reagan. Before Reagan, you had to have [1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry] Goldwater; you had to capture the party. Before you had Goldwater, you had to have National Review,'' the magazine founded in the 1950s by William F. Buckley that launched modern American conservatism.

``The message of Nov. 8,'' Will says, is that ``the American people cleared their throats and said at the top of their lungs, `There is something dramatically wrong in a country where the government cannot deliver the mail properly and is still delivering condoms to eighth graders.' ''

Though he agrees the new conservative Congress will provide plenty for a pundit to ponder, he says subject matter has never been a problem.

``There's never been a day when there haven't been five things I've wanted to write about,'' he says.

To demonstrate, he pulls a folded, handwritten list out of his pocket (he writes all of his columns in longhand on yellow legal pads) that has ideas for columns through the end of January.

``If history froze, congeals, I'm all set with topics I want to write about,'' he says.

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