When Republican senators filibustered President Clinton’s economic stimulus bill in 1993, columnist George Will vigorously defended the Senate rule that requires the votes of at least 60 senators, a so-called supermajority, to impose an end to debate. In a column headlined “The Framers’ Intent” (Washington Post, 4/25/93), Will praised “the right of a minority to use extended debate to obstruct Senate action” and he cheered “the generation that wrote and ratified the Constitution” for properly establishing “the Senate’s permissive tradition regarding extended debates.”
Dismissing a liberal critic of the rule, Will wrote: “The Senate is not obligated to jettison one of its defining characteristics, permissiveness regarding extended debate, in order to pander to the perception that the presidency is the sun around which all else in American government–even American life–orbits.”
Ten years and an apparent Copernican Revolution later, Will reversed himself. In the column “Coup Against the Constitution” (Washington Post, 2/28/03), Will found the Senate rule he’d once draped in the mantle of original intent was in fact an affront to the framers.
Concerned that “41 Senate Democrats” might succeed in stopping the confirmation of Miguel Estrada, nominated by George W. Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Will wrote: “If Senate rules, exploited by an anti-constitutional minority, are allowed to trump the Constitution’s text and two centuries of practice, the Senate’s power to consent to judicial nominations will have become a Senate right to require a supermajority vote for confirmation.”
By what intellectual pathway had Will’s seemingly immutable constitutional position changed? He never explained or even acknowledged holding the earlier, contradictory view. But something obvious had changed: In February 2003, it was a Democratic minority in the Senate trying to block the action of a Republican president, whereas in 1993 the parties’ roles were reversed.
Edward Lazarus, a columnist for the legal website Findlaw.com and the first to point out the hypocrisy in Will’s filibuster bluster (3/6/03), made an important observation when he noted the gap between Will’s supposed status as “an honest broker of ideas” and this “exquisitely brazen example of intellectual flip-floppery that has nothing to do with the law or the Constitution, or American history, and everything to do with conservative politics.”
“Thankful for double standards”
As one of the most prominent conservative commentators in recent decades, Will has a reputation for being brainy, sober and well-researched. Among the noisy current crop of talk radio-nurtured pundits, he gives the impression of being a more reasonable, thoughtful and soft-spoken conservative. But Lazarus’ point about Will’s filibuster contradiction underlines the general mismatch between Will’s reputation for intellectual rigor and integrity, and the reality that his work is too often intellectually inconsistent, ethically questionable and ideologically driven.
Take Will’s 1988 interview of presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson on ABC‘s This Week(1/17/88). In a series of questions apparently meant to expose Jackson as unqualified for office, Will asked: “As president, would you support measures such as the G-7 measures of the Louvre Accords?” (These accords were technical agreements employed the previous year to stabilize exchange rates.) As Will sneeringly recapped in a later column (Washington Post, 1/28/88), Jackson’s “answer to [that] question was, ‘Explain that.'”
When it was suggested that his markedly technical questioning of Jackson might have been racist, Will lashed out in his column: “Because he is black, his white rivals sit silently beside him, leaving his foolishness unremarked. The real racism in this campaign is the unspoken assumption that it is unreasonable to expect a black candidate to get rudimentary things right.” Will concluded, “He should be thankful for double standards.”
Another Washington Post columnist saw a different kind of double standard at work. In a column titled “The G-7 Question” (2/15/88), William Raspberry, himself African-American, put Will’s question in the context of historical “literacy” tests selectively applied to black voters–tests that employed impossibly high standards with the intention of ensuring black failure. Raspberry concluded that Will’s motivation “seemed to be to embarrass the candidate rather than to flesh out his policy position.”
But as Slate.com‘s Will Saletan noted in 1999, with the rise of George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, Will’s rigorous presidential requirements relaxed considerably. In a column recounting Will’s earlier treatment of Jesse Jackson, Saletan asked: “Now along comes George W. Bush, with his fumbling references to ‘Kosovians’ and his confusion of Slovakia with Slovenia. And what does Will think of this?” Saletan then examined Will’s column defending Bush’s intellectual underachievement (Washington Post, 9/23/99), headlined: “He’s No Intellectual–and So What?”
A questionable grasp of rudimentary things was now an asset, Will argued. Defending Bush’s shortcomings, he recalled U.S. presidents known for their rational gifts but not necessarily for their presidential achievements, concluding: “Such intellect in politics is rare, and perhaps should be.” The column closed with an approving citation of fellow conservative Richard Brookheiser: “Perhaps the wise leader should strive to have intellectuals on tap and not be one himself.”
Integrity and civility are two of Will’s favorite hobby horses, but he doesn’t always live up to the standards he sets for others. For instance, Will sneers at cheating of all sorts, from that of Sammy Sosa’s corked bat (Washington Post, 6/5/03) to the extramarital adventures of President Bill Clinton. The latter case produced this priceless example of Will’s signature high dudgeon (Washington Post, 2/3/98):
From the scorn with which he attacks the “vulgarian” Clintons and their “pantomime of domesticity,” one might assume that Will’s personal life has been entirely dignified and free from scandal. One might be surprised to read, in other words, that in the 1980s, while still married to his first wife, Will was romantically linked to Lally Weymouth, daughter of Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, according to Washingtonian magazine (1/87). When Will moved out on his wife and children, he found his office furniture dumped on his front lawn with a note reading, “Take it somewhere else, buster” (Salon, 2/12/98). Though the lamentable lack of shame in U.S. society is a common theme in Will’s writing, shame, like other principles he touts, seems to be for other people.
But expecting others to do as he says, not as he does, is par for Will’s course. Take his 1992 attack (Washington Post, 9/3/92) on Al Gore for being “cavalier with the truth” in his “wastebasket-worthy” book Earth in the Balance. Will confronted Gore on the issue of global warming: “Gore knows, or should know before pontificating, that a recent Gallup Poll of scientists concerned with global climate research shows that 53 percent do not believe warming has occurred, and another 30 percent are uncertain.”
It was Will, however, who should have read the poll more carefully “before pontificating.” Gallup actually reported that 66 percent of the scientists said that human-induced global warming was occurring, with only 10 percent disagreeing and the rest undecided. Gallup took the unusual step of issuing a written correction to Will’s column (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/27/92): “Most scientists involved in research in this area believe that human-induced global warming is occurring now.” Will never noted the error in his column.
Though he expected others, including Al Gore, to be swayed by his misreading of Gallup’s findings, Will’s own opinion on global warming remained unchanged by learning the poll’s actual results.
First hired as a columnist by the Washington Post in 1974, Will took to television quickly, appearing for years as a panelist on the syndicated Agronsky & Company before moving on to the McLaughlin Group. Today Will has a syndicated column appearing in more 450 newspapers, a twice-monthly essay in Newsweek and a weekly slot on ABC‘s This Week as the show’s unopposed conservative voice. (See sidebar.)
With such a high media profile, it’s remarkable how little attention is paid to Will’s double standards, ethical lapses and misstatements. Instead, stories about Will are more likely to focus on his accomplishments. For instance, a Washingtonian article (3/01) that acknowledged some Will eccentricities, including his pretentious style, praised him as one of the country’s top journalists: “Will continues to wield influence as a Washington institution and commands respect for his knowledge of history and the seriousness of his approach.”
Will’s approach has been questioned in a few exceptional cases. During the 1980 campaign, he drew fire when it was learned he’d secretly coached Republican candidate Ronald Reagan for a debate with President Jimmy Carter using a debate briefing book stolen from the Carter campaign. Immediately following the debate, Will appeared on Nightline (10/28/80) to praise Reagan’s “thoroughbred performance,” never disclosing his role in rehearsing that performance (New York Times, 7/9/83).
During the 1996 campaign, Will caught some criticism for commenting on the presidential race while his second wife, Mari Maseng Will, was a senior staffer for the Dole presidential campaign. Defending a Dole speech on ABC News (1/28/96), Will, according to Washingtonian (3/96), “failed to mention…that his wife not only counseled Dole to give the speech but also helped write it.” Similarly, a Will column criticizing Clinton for proposing tariffs on Japanese luxury cars (5/19/95) included no mention that Maseng Will’s public relations firm had received almost $200,000 from the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association. When asked, Will defiantly dismissed any need for disclosure, declaring (Washington Post, 5/23/95), “I was for free trade long before I met my wife.”
Will suffered another ethical lapse in the 2000 campaign when he met with George W. Bush just before the Republican candidate was to appear on ABC‘s This Week. Later, in a column (Washington Post, 3/4/01), Will admitted that he’d met with Bush to preview questions, not wanting to “ambush him with unfamiliar material.” In the meeting, Will provided Bush with a 3-by-5 card containing a crucial question he would later ask the candidate on the air. Though strongly resembling his coaching of candidate Reagan in 1980, and in strong contrast to his treatment of Jesse Jackson in 1988, this extraordinary admission received little media mention.
Truth in advertising
In the end, the most troubling aspect of Will’s prominence as one of the country’s most respected national pundits may not be his intellectual inconsistencies or ethical shortcomings, but the fact that he operates in a media environment where he is largely unopposed by pundits who could present him with forceful counter-arguments and challenge him on his conflicts.
Though Will stands beside dozens of other conservative talking heads and nationally syndicated columnists (see “Conservative Top 40,” Extra!, 7/98), progressive voices that might challenge him are virtually absent from national television and account for only a handful of syndicated columnists.
Will has appeared on ABC‘s This Week as the show’s in-house, movement conservative since its inception in 1981. But the show has never regularly featured a movement progressive. Perhaps the problem of Will’s unanswered ideological commentary is best expressed by a 1995 advertisement for This Week which unwittingly captured the essence of the show with this headline: “There’s No Debate.”