A Thinking Man's Conservative

The Pursuit of Virtue & Other Tory Notions By George F. Will Simon and Schuster; $16.50:381 pp.

BY THE END of 1980, the rise of the right had become boring. Ronald Reagan's rousing nomination in July debunked the common wisdom that he was too conservative; even before the November election, he had proven that, win or lose, he had developed in sizable and committed following. Cover stories asking solemnly. "Is America Turning Right?" no longer piqued the interest and concern of a populace that increasingly realized that, for better of worse, we were headed in that direction.

What followed was an in-depth look at what "right" really means. The conclusion was that it meant a lot of different, often conflicting things. Right-wing species included the "Moral Majority" conservative, who wanted the government to focus on social issues such as abortion, pornography, the status of the family, affirmative action, and busing; the liberation conservative, who wanted the government to do nothing; the fiscal conservative, who did not cure all that much what the government did as long as it kept a balanced budget; the neo-conservative, who was actually liberal when it came to social issues and government spending, but who thought it was time to beet up defense spending, and get tough on communism; and infinite combinations of these types, each pushing for a different agenda.

But somehow lost in this pop analysis was the Burkean conservative, the breed who valued the preservation of the State above all goals. The ideological descendants of 18th-century British politician Edmund Burke claim exclusive control of the cherished title "conservative," dismissing Ronald Reagan as a "Manchester liberal" who is "marching under borrowed banners."

It is not a large group. It is sort of the intellectual's conservative and the man claiming to be its leading spokesman is the only columnist in America who holds a Ph.D., George F. Will. Will's columns show up regularly in the Washington Post, and bi-weekly on the back page of Newsweek. His articulate style and his controversial stands have earned him a wide readership and several awards. But 20-inch columns convey only a brief message to the reader. To understand the coherent Will philosophy, weaving his disparate thoughts together, one needs really to read several in succession. For example, The Pursuit of Virtue & Other Tory Notions.

Novelist G K Chesterton once wrote, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried. "So it is with the political doctrine that develops in Will's book Reagan rhetoric declares that government is the root at our woes and that government, as distinct from the people, must bear the brunt of the sacrifice necessary to restore this nation to prosperity, the populace need not suffer along the route to revival Will, however, disagrees.


"MY CONSERVATISM is less' sanguine about the supposed case with which the public good can be produced." Will starts. The problem with government, he says--challenging a standard right-wing tenet--is not that it is too big but too weak. Our leaders too often capitulate to popular caprices rather than trying to shape those desires. "A society that dedicates itself to the pursuit of happiness had better dedicate itself, including its government, to the pursuit of virtue indispensible to ordered liberty."

How Will applies this lesson becomes clear as one flips through the first section. "Conservatism, Rightly Understood." Government action is an acceptable means to a noble end. Witness the farm development programs responsible for the most productive agricultural system in the world. But a government action--or failure to act--which allows or tacitly encourages imprudent behaviour is reprehensible. The refusal of Congress to expel convicted embezzler Rep. Charles Diggs; the legitimization of gambling and state lotteries; the refusal to counter pornography and the creation of sex education curricula--all these steps can only promote suspect values, he argues.

An equally critical theme for Will is "The War Against the Totalitarian, 1939,"--a war he helps wage with some of his most eloquent passages. Limiting his attacks to the Soviet Union, except for an occasional potshot at Iran. Will incessantly argues against maintaining any political, economic, or cultural relationship with Russia. "Since November 8, 1917, every assumption adopted, every premise clung to by people eager to rationalize a policy of accommodation toward the Soviet Union has been shredded by events." Searching, as he does with all subjects, for the historical coincidence to add meaning, he notes wryly that "Solzhenitsyn finished writing The Gulag Archipelago in 1967, the fiftieth anniversary of the Communist Revolution and the one hundredth anniversary of the invention of barbed wire."

BUT GEORGE F. WILL, philosopher and ruminator, is also George F. Will, human being. And his conservatism spills over from the political world to the personal idiosyncracies he shares with millions of readers. The man who named his daughter Victoria (nickname "Tory") aims his pen with equal vitriol at the designed hitter rule, modern art, and new cars with gaudy interior design. The admiration he expressed for Lech Walesa is no more important than his celebration of the ringing of bells (church, not door or phone), the National Cathedral, the Chicago Cubs, and the semi-colon.

When Will is at his best he mounts a formidable attack with just the right combination of logic, ridicule, example and citation. The common sense he spotlights seems so impeccable that one is often lead to reject once-strongly held beliefs--at least for a few minutes. "It is, by now a scandal beyond irony that thanks to the energetic litigation of 'civil liberties' fanatics, pornographers enjoy expansive First Amendment protection while first-graders in a Nativity play are said to violate First Amendment values." His lighter pieces often leave the reader, upon completion, intellectually sated.

The book itself is a self-selected sample of Will's essays, and so most of the columns in this collection have the desired effect. But some demonstrate what happens when he overuses his stylistic devices. Will, more than any other writer, quotes from other sources, and his reading list goes from government document to Jane Austen. But he often pedantingly falls victim to the temptation to quote, it seems, for the sake of quoting.

Similarly the use of historical example and comparison between seemingly unrelated topics can leave the reader more bewildered than enlightened; his column comparing toothpaste with the Fed is a case in point.

And there are problems with reading several columns successively in book form. The rapid succession of brief thoughts, as well as the sometimes incessant recycling of well-turned phrases, dulls some-what the respect for his writing. The book is not necessarily for reading but for browsing, like a New Yorker collection of cartoons.

Perhaps the most intriguing point raised by Will's book is not its specific contents or arguments--for Will himself relishes political argument for the sake of argument, not necessarily for its substance--but the phenomena the book highlights. While most columnists are content to rehash news events, adding a tinge of opinion called "analysis," or to provide simple textbook explanation. Will adds class to the profession, with his own pursuit of journalistic virtue