If George Will's politics is `oatmeal,' it's served steaming
Chevy Chase, Md. — GEORGE F. Will sits in his Victorian-style study, his face warmly lit by a stained-glass lamp, looking at ease in the eye of yet another storm of his own making. A column Mr. Will wrote a week earlier is being argued about on TV talk shows. It has helped light an uncomfortable fire under the vice-president of the United States. The affair is about to break onto the front page of the New York Times.
So all is in order in the world of George Will.
In fact, Mr. Will leads a life of almost miraculous order and fulfillment. His days are clockwork productions, the tickings of which are heard around the country.
What George Will writes in his 447-newspaper syndicated column and in Newsweek, as well as what he says as a paid commentator on ABC News, gives him a hand in ``the slow, complicated churning by which public opinion gets shaped.'' It makes him one of the most controversial, outspoken commentators on the American scene. Will's cries for armed intervention abroad and his attitude toward minorities have branded him an ultraconservative who cares little for the poor and even less for peaceful coexistence among nations.
But they certainly haven't hurt his popularity. Will reportedly rakes in a $500,000 annual income. His column won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977. Last year he was voted ``best writer, any subject'' in a poll of his peers.
All of which has given Will a running start in the Washington race for prestigious dinner engagements. He and his wife, Madeleine -- who is assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services -- had dinner and watched the fireworks on July 4 with President and Mrs. Reagan; and the Reagans come to his house for dinner about once a year. (``The President comes to relax,'' Will explains.)
The next time they relax together, there will be lots to talk about. In the aforementioned column, Will tore into Vice-President George Bush's pre-1988 campaign tactics. He complained that Mr. Bush was trying to ingratiate himself with conservatives by taking gratuitous swipes at New York's Democratic governor, Mario Cuomo. ``The unpleasant sound Bush is emitting as he traipses from one conservative gathering to another,'' Will wrote, ``is a thin, tinny `arf' -- the sound of a lapdog.'' (Story on Bush's political stripes, see Page 3.)
It's hard to imagine such unpleasant words flowing from the pen of the mild, almost wispy man with slender hands -- and a way of lowering his shoulders like a cocker spaniel dropping its ears -- who gently takes questions during a two-hour interview.
The trademark owlish gaze seems softer, more at ease here, than it does on television. He talks quietly and laughs frequently about his early-morning jogs through this neighborhood of large homes and small shops; about the 100 books he either reads or listens to each year; about his habit of padding into the kitchen to make himself peanut-butter-and-sweet-pickle sandwiches; and about his real passion in life: baseball. (Will says he would like his epitaph to read, ``He wrote well and got rid of the designated-hitter rule.'')
The door bursts open at one point, and his eldest son, Jonathan, comes in, begging him to phone a neighbor so that he can visit. Will, who has written movingly about his son as a victim of Downes syndrome, and of the need to care for such children, as he and his wife have done, promptly makes the call. Then he returns with one word of explanation for the interruption: ``Daddy.''
``I'm a happy man,'' Will says, protesting his image as a hard-boiled, conservative egghead. ``The very fact I'm so happy is a form of mental sickness, my wife says.'' His inner self is nothing more than ``oatmeal, just boring. That's me. Oatmeal. Nourishing, but sort of bland.
``I don't consider my views to be eccentric, certainly not calculated to shock, or even shocking,'' he adds, leaning back to reveal a picture of Winston Churchill glowering over his shoulder. ``I should have thought they're more guilty of banality. They are not banal on the West Side of Manhattan, but then the West Side of Manhattan is a peculiar place to take the temperature of the country. My position on Nicaragua is, I think, the position of the administration which came within 2,000 stubborn Minnesota votes of carrying 50 states. If that's not mainstream, I don't know what is.''
Nobody talks like that. Except maybe George Will. And by all accounts, he's been doing it for a long time.
The first time Meg Greenfield heard him talk at a 1972 Kenyon College seminar in Ohio, the thought that sprang to her mind was: ``Who is that rotten kid?'' Within a few days of that sighting, however, Miss Greenfield, editorial-page editor of the Washington Post, found herself intrigued enough by Will's mind and style to invite him to contribute commentary pieces to her page. At the time, Will was an aide to Sen. Gordon Allott (R) of Colorado. Shortly afterward, he became Washington editor of the National Review and a frequent guest on ``Agronsky and Company,'' a public-TV talk show. In 1974 he began a syndicated column; and by the age of 35, he had earned his Pulitzer.
The page of his biography that Will is not likely to paste into his scrapbook came when he helped coach Ronald Reagan for his 1980 debate with President Carter and then appraised the challenger's performance on television without revealing his own insider role -- and when it became known that he never reported seeing the infamous Carter ``briefing book,'' which had been leaked to Reagan's team.
The New York Daily News canceled his column (it has since been reinstated); Will was raked over the coals on television; and fellow columnists raised an outcry. ``That marked him for me,'' columnist Jimmy Breslin fumed in a recent telephone interview.
But, in fact, Will came out virtually unmarked. The whole thing amounted to ``a 24-hour public scandal,'' says William F. Buckley, his friend and former employer. Mr. Buckley doubts that Will acted in bad faith. It would take ``more than the national debt'' to buy George Will, Buckley contends, adding that the affair did little to upset Will's equilibrium.
If it did, little showed in public. Will doesn't show much, anyway. ``Primal scream is not my therapy,'' he remarks dryly. ``I don't believe in thinking with one's blood. It's not the seat of reason. When I laugh on television, as I did last Sunday, people say . . . `His face didn't break . . . .' I can't help that. I think maybe I look a little off-putting. . . . I don't know what it is. No upper lip. You know, it's a WASP problem.''
Buckley maintains that the white-Anglo Saxon-Protestant visage masks a hidden side to Will: ``One needs to take many steps toward the inner sanctum to see the private face of George Will.'' This face, according to friends, is much more relaxed and jovial, more passionate and open, than the formal persona. ``He's not patrician. He's very easygoing and relaxed,'' says David Brinkley, host of an ABC Sunday news program featuring Will.
That's not the face his ideological foes talk about. In a review of his book ``The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions,'' in The Nation, Benjamin DeMott skewered him as ``the Baudelaire buff [who] nevertheless places himself with the plain folk as a hater of modern art, modern music, and modern sex education, as a fan of Big Macs and little girls who want to grow up to be nurses rather than doctors.'' ``A day doesn't pass where, in various newspapers around the country, there aren't people beating up on me,'' Will says.
Does it bother him?
He answers by relating how his younger son, Geoffrey, came to him in tears a few years ago because someone had called the eight-year-old names. Will called him to the desk, opened up a current Los Angeles Times, and said, ``Start reading this.'' More than half the paper's letters-to-the-editor section was devoted to George Will; and it was not a friendly chorus. One letter writer called him ``that mad dog, George Will.''
Something in the Will family must respond well to this kind of public reaction. The sight of all this invective acted like a tonic on his son's spirits; and it was written all over his face. Will recalls the moment with evident pleasure and says, almost wistfully:
``I've never seen such a beatific smile.''