On the surface, George F. Will is an enigma, a man of contradictions and paradoxes who doesn't fit into any neat compartments. He is a Washington Post columnist who praises Gerald Ford more often than he damns him; a National Review editor who frequently ridicules Ronald Reagan; a conservative who decided Richard Nixon was guilty of impeachable crimes more than a year before his resignation; and an academic who, at least until recently, called himself a Republican, and who traces the origin of his conservative outlook to his disappointments as a youthful fan of the Chicago Cubs. If there is a key to understanding him, it seems to be his fundamental pessimism. He intends to write a book someday called The Decline and Fall of Everything.
That pessimism is abstract, based, he says, on his conceptions of the nature of man and history. It certainly isn't derived from his personal success or prospects. His thrice-weekly column is currently syndicated in some 140 newspapers, and he writes a biweekly column for Newsweek that began last week. He is a regular commentator on a Washington TV station, and frequently appears on PBS's "Agronsky and Company". He has already established himself as one of the most sophisticated conservative thinkers in the country--much more complex and coherent than William F. Buckley Jr., immeasurably superior to the like of Kevin Phillips and James J. Kilpatrick. Will is, moreover, one of the most literate and elegant prose stylists in American journalism.
The private Will has little of the charm and elegance of Will the writer. An unimposing six-footer with reddish hair and rimless glasses, he is given to casual dress and succinct answers that often consist of a single word or a single sentence. Self-confident to the point of arrogance, often curt, Will gives the impression of a man uninclined to suffer gools, gladly or otherwise. He answers questions in a monotone, seldom showing even a hint of emotion, except when he emphasizes a point by tapping a pencil on the desk in front of him.
It takes some prodding to get Will to discuss his general philosophical outlook. Asked what his major intellectual influences have been, he says with a slight, sardonic smile, "That's an invitation to be pompous or obscure. If you say Irving Kristol and Aristotle, you're probably both." But he admits to being a conservative, with some qualification. "That's a somewhat richer and more complicated tradition than some conservatives. I'm not a Lockean. I'm more a Burkean," he says, distinguishing himself from other more libertarian conservatives like Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman. Of the former, he observes, "He's a philosophic radical. He is, as Hayek is, a classic Whig or liberal. Goldwater is the most optimistic American. He believes that he knows how to produce a kind of frictionless, progressive society. He's as American as Hubert Humphrey--they both are great believers that they know how to make crooked things straight."
Will's outlook is, in his view, fundamentally different from that of Goldwater; he contends that "the core of liberalism is a certain optimism, and the core of a proper conservatism is a certain Augustinian pessimism. Nothing seems to me more demonstrably untrue--demonstrable from the received experience of the race that we call history--than the optimism that pervades such enjoyable texts as Mill's On Liberty and Milton's Areopagitica--that is, if you just let truth and falsehood fight, falsehood will be beaten." He laughs, a rare indulgence. "That's refuted on every page. Falsehood has lots of advantages. There are a lot more forms of it than there are forms of truth. An awful lot of truths are not very pleasant, and don't make people happy. The first requirement of an idea that's going to succeed is that it make people happy, not that it be true."
But Will is a political critic, not a philosopher, and his sharpest opinions conern present-day events. He originally came to Washington as a counsel to the Republican Policy Committee of the Senate, from the University of Toronto, where he taught political philosophy. Though he says he has never voted for a Democrat, he no longer regards himself as a Republican. "Watergate largely cured me", he says. "I think the party disgraced itself. The general line is that Watergate wasn't a party matter; it was a Nixon matter. It was a party matter: it was a party test, and the party failed it. Had the shoe been on the other foot, the Democrats would have failed as miserably, but they didn't. Life's unfair and life put the shoe on the Republicans' foot." He describes Nixon as "the worst president the country ever had," but doesn't hesitate to admit a general, if rather vague agreement with Nixon's policies, citing with sympathy what he calls Nixon's "general sense of dissatisfaction about the flow of government power in the last forty years, a sense that, particularly in the sixties, it got out of hand--a sense of limits, basically."
Will's evaluation of President Ford is similarly balanced. He contends that Ford, like any politician, "wouldn't know a principle if it were handed to him on a silver plate. He's been in Congress for twenty years, and no one can believe anything after they've been in Congress for twenty years." But Will argues that, from his point of view, Ford's instincts "are basically right." He ticks off a list of Ford's accomplishments: "He has identified the principal long-term American problem, which is living off the seed corn of the future, that is, government confiscating for political purposes more than is consistent with the continued production of wealth. He has retained as his two closest advisers on the most important issue, which is the economy, two men of proper vision--Greenspan and Simon. He has tried, within the limits imposed by his very limited rhetorical gifts, to dramatize the issue. And he has proposed a program, which although faultable, is a program nonetheless--the ceiling on spending and the tax cut."
Will has written a number of columns about one of his favorite subjects, New York City, calling it a "fiscal drunk" that "will reform only under the lash of necessity" and arguing that it is "a little welfare state, and that is why it is a shambles, and a welfare case." He still opposes aid to the city, and has consistently praised Ford for his position against it, at least until Ford reversed himself in November. "I think bankruptcy would have been better," he says. "And I own some New York bonds, so I have an interest in saving them." He is highly critical of the city government. "What ails New York is not what they say ails New York. It's not that they're too generous to the poor--they're too generous to the wealthy. In the wealthy, I include a New York City garbageman, who makes a lot more than the average American makes."
He says that Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayors John Lindsay and Abraham Beame should be indicted: "They've misrepresented securities they were selling, fraudulently misrepresented the economic condition of the city, they've cooked the books. They've done all kinds of things for which people get prosecuted--for which the directors of the Franklin National Bank are being prosecuted." In short, he says, the city government is a "corrupt, criminal operation."
Despite these harsh words, Will opposes increasing taxes in New York City, which he thinks will drive out businesses and middle-class families, further narrowing the city's tax base. New York, he says, "has to go through a fever. They have to start charging tuition at the City University; they have to remove rent control; and they have to renegotiate the pensions. And they ought to close ten or so city hospitals. They ought to reduce the size of the police force--all kinds of things." But Ford's acceptance of a $2.3 billion loan guarantee bill will make such reforms unlikely, if not impossible: "The federal government, by aiding them, has accepted the thesis that default is unthinkable. That's giving New York a license to steal, because they can always say, 'Well, I'm going to default.'"
If Will has mixed views about Ford's handling of domestic issues, he is often scathingly critical of his foreign policy. After Ford refused to meet with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn last summer, Will suggested that "perhaps Brezhnev, in the spirit of detente, would refrain from seeing people offensive to the U.S. government's moral sensibilities--if it had any." He thinks Ford should fire Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger '50, calling detente "a policy in search of a rationale. The original policy was 'we'll have detente so we can get agreements', and it has slowly become 'we need agreements to preserve detente.'"
More important to Will are the moral issues raised by Kissinger's policy. "I think that the United States--under detente, as practiced by Dr. Kissinger--has been almost proudly indifferent to questions of human rights. And I think that's bad for this country--I don't think you need to be sentimental or particularly idealistic. It is in this nation's interest to pressure the Soviet Union and isolate it as a tyranny." Will admits that he doesn't know how successful such a policy might be, but insists that the Soviet Union "ought to be offered unpleasant choices. We have not offered it unpleasant choices. If they want all that grain, if they want to raise the protein consumption of their people, they're going to have to treat their people differently. They may say, 'well, to hell with it, we don't want to raise the protein consumption of our people.' Well, that's just fine. We ought to make it very hard for them, in dealing with their own people, to maintain the kind of military machine they maintain." As for nuclear strategy, Will argues that the SALT agreement "was not in our national interest. I think it was wrong to negotiate away defensive missiles. It committed us to a general nuclear strategy that is dangerous and not moral." He says the basis of any strategy that does not include defensive missiles "is to hold civilians hostage in undefended cities."
Will is similarly hostile to the Chinese government. Asked which of its policies he objects to, he says flatly, "All of them. I mean that quite seriously. It's certainly killed far more than its fair share of people in this century. There's no freedom to speak of in China." But he isn't optimistic about the prospects of forcing the Chinese government to change its policies: "When I say we have a moral obligation, I understand that a government, meaning ours, that can't really deliver the mail, has a very limited ability to change the world beyond our borders. I do think that it's a negative obligation, that we shouldn't make life any easier for tyrannical governments."
Like many conservatives, Will is scornful of the United Nations, and argues that it should be dissolved. "It's founded on a contradiction," he says. "A legislative chamber assumes a certain minimal consensus about values and aims. There are none between members of the UN. There is a majority of police states, and a minority of democracies." He thinks the UN's days are numbered. Asked how soon he expects it to disappear, he smiles tightly. "Not soon enough. But it will. The UN would fold tomorrow if we didn't pay almost everyone's way there. Those preposterous, squalid little nations who make it up believe in the UN, but not to the point of actually paying for it, God knows." Will has little but praise for the present American ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, professor of Government, and thinks he would be a much better Secretary of State than Kissinger.
Anyone who is both critical of Ford and indisputably conservative might be expected to feel a great deal of sympathy with his chief Republican rival, Ronald Reagan, but that is not the case with Will. He scoffs at the value of a Reagan challenge: "There's not a dime's worth of difference between them, really, in terms of what they believe." Asked about his description of their differences as "microscopic", Will smiles sardonically again. "That's an assumption," he remarks. "I'm assuming there's a microscope that could show a difference."