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The Ethics of George Will


By John W. Mashek

Harvard's Department of Government of Government has decided, with some noteworthy opposition among its faculty, to give columnist George Will an appointment to teach at the school. As a firm believer in the first Amendment and a strong advocate of giving students the opportunity to hear divergent voices on issues, I believe the Will appointment is okay. But Harvard ought to know a little more about Will's credentials.

In the 1980 presidential campaign, Will served as an inside adviser to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. In fact, Will helped Reagan prepare for his only debate with President Jimmy Carter. (The Reagan campaign, incidentally, had in its possession at the time some documents stolen from the Carter campaign. It is uncertain whether Will knew about this at the time.)

After the debate, Will carried his dual role a step further. He wrote a column heralding Reagan as the decisive winner of the debate. However, the consensus among others was that while Reagan was effective and hardly the bomb thrower portrayed by the Democrats, he was not a knockout puncher.

It was later learned that will had helped Reagan in the mock debate and then declared him the winner without ever disclosing his personal role in the debate. He even denied his role before Reagan's aides acknowledged it. Then, the columnist's view was that he was a writer of opinion, not a reporter, and therefore was operating under a different set of rules.

Many in the media took vigorous exception to this logic and seriously questioned the ethics of his action.

Of course, all of this happened 15 years ago. Carter and Reagan are long gone from the Washington scene. Will, meanwhile, has established himself as a prominent voice of conservatism, a television performer on ABC and a speech writer for fat fees. Free enterprise has been kind to him and that's fine.

But the decision to accept him officially as a teacher, not just a visiting lecturer, has given him a new credential for his lucrative speechmaking and perhaps even his contract with ABC. Will would be a fool, and he certainly isn't one, if he or his agent did not ballyhoo his appointment to Harvard as further evidence of his credibility.

In case conservatives believe that serious journalists would not be agitated if a liberal columnist was involved in the mock debate episode, they are dead wrong. No political writer I know would give two seconds of though to an invitation by a candidate for president of either party to engage in debate preparation and then write that the favored candidate won.

George Will is smart. He is well spoken. He is probably going to be interesting to students. But I do hope some students ask him for his views on ethics when he tells them about democracy.

John W. Mashek, a writer for the Boston Globe, is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics.

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