George Will Weighs In

The author talks vigorously about reading and reporting in Washington. COLUMNIST INTERVIEW

SOME people accompany their morning ablutions with music, or maybe National Public Radio. Others flip on the television morning news shows. Not George F. Will, columnist, commentator, and author. Mr. Will heads toward the bathroom at 5 a.m., where he hits ``a little button and a book starts on the tape player next to my sink.'' He may look like he's shaving, but he's really reading. ``I'm rabid for words,'' he explains.

Will has a new book out, ``Suddenly,'' a collection of his columns from 1986 to 1990. In an intelligent stroke of organization for such a collection, the meat of the book is divided into two parts, one celebrating the success of what Will calls ``the American idea'' abroad over the past four years, and the other chronicling the troubles afflicting the same idea at home.

It's not unusual for authors to tout the virtues of reading - particularly when they have one or more books on the market - but Will says that politicians and journalists in Washington undervalue the act of reading serious books about ideas.

Sitting in his Georgetown office, in a modest but suitably ancient brick townhouse, Will's warms to the topic. He of the slightly furrowed brow and restrained demeanor on Sunday morning talk-show appearances begins to twist around in his chair, swiveling a bit, and he even starts slapping the huge leather-topped partners desk during his exhortations.

``The most frustrating fact of life in Washington - and it's a dangerous political fact for the republic - is that there's so little time to read books,'' he says, leading into a second-hand anecdote.

``George McGovern once told me that Hubert Humphrey had told him that in 20 years in Washington he'd never finished a book,'' declares Will, slapping his hand on the desk, and adding a kind of pum-de-pum-pum flourish. ``Never, never,'' he continues, struggling for words, ``in fact finished.'' Slap. His coffee cup rattles in its saucer.

He also tells a story about a Wall Street Journal writer who arrived in Will's office to prepare a story about him and heard him ask an assistant to put in calls to several political heavyweights. Will mimics the reporter, a woman he declines to name: ``Oh, well I see you do some reporting.''

``I should have broken her neck and thrown her out the window,'' Will remarks, a little heavy-handedly. ``I mean who are these people to define what's reporting?''

Will finds this topic tiresome and unpleasant, because it reminds him of old accusations that he, in the midst of reading books and wrestling with ideas, does not do enough reportorial legwork. ``I've heard this for 18 years since I've been writing a column, and I might as well settle it now,'' he offers, verging on testiness.

``I do not know why reading a Supreme Court opinion is not reporting whereas having lunch with a senator is reporting.'' Not only that, he says, taunting the imaginary critics, it's harder to read the opinion. ``It takes longer, and it takes more training in order to do it well.''

``Reading [Sen. Daniel Patrick] Moynihan's book ``On the Law of Nations'' ... [is] not reporting? Why not? If I sit down and he says it to me - that's reporting; if I spend eight hours reading the book it's not reporting?'' ``This town is full of journalists,'' he concludes, ``who talk to one another for eight hours and call it reporting. It's one of the reasons so many of them sound alike.''

Will's incessant reading bears fruit in his columns. They are stocked with citations to history, literature - the works of scholars and thinkers.

One piece in ``Suddenly'' is on the death of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's right-hand man and accomplice in state terror. Will cites two books by historian Robert Conquest, and a third volume by two Soviet historians, Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich.

In a column on the French Revolution, Will discusses the protagonist in Stendhal's ``The Red and the Black,'' and says the best thing about the bicentennial of the turmoil is a new book on the event. He also uses the work of Napoleon biographer Felix Markham to make a few points.

The structure of Will's book does make one wonder exactly why American notions of government should succeed so wildly in, say, Eastern Europe while the United States suffers political and economic maladies.

Will says the US has matured beyond the fundamental questions and developed some more intractable problems.

``We're not arguing about equality, liberty, fraternity, segregation, representation - we got a good system.

``The way you solve the problem of Rosa Parks is you say, `Cut it out. She can ride, sit wherever she wants.' That's the end of that. We don't know how to cure what Moynihan started talking about 25 years ago - family disintegration. Government isn't good at ... getting parents to pick up their babies.''

Will acknowledges, as do others, that a moral regeneration is at the heart of the cure, but his book notably bypasses any mention of the role religion might play in the process.

``I'm not religious,'' he explains. ``As the man said who wanted to carve over the portal of every church in England the words: `Important If True.'''

But he also doesn't insist that society has to replenish its moral capital without religion, saying it's possible that ``you cannot have an enduring society without it.''

``Of course,'' he parries, ``one answer to that is you can't have an enduring society anyway, never has been one.''

In conversation, as in column-writing, Will turns to history to make his point. He says he subscribes to something Lincoln said, and proceeds to recite: ``And yet let us hope that if we Americans cultivate the moral world within us as assiduously and prodigiously as we have cultivated the physical world around us, that we may endure.''

Will studied at Oxford and was once a professor of political philosophy, but he says it's not easy to read books when you write five columns every two weeks, and appear on television every Sunday. (``I don't think anyone's ever had simultaneously regular network exposure, a national newsmagazine column, and a newspaper column,'' Will observes.)

So discipline is required. ``I make myself read 86 pages in a book a day. I don't always make it, but I keep track of where I am in the year. Because that's a 600-page book a week.'' He slams the table for emphasis. He does admit that listening to books on tape counts toward the quota.

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