Mar
08
2001

Triumph of (George) Will: When Media Might Makes Right

A skeleton is rattling in George Will's closet. But it's difficult to hear above the steady applause from his elite boosters inside the media business.

Widely viewed as one of the nation's most influential journalists, Will churns out syndicated columns that appear in hundreds of daily papers. He also writes for Newsweek. And he's a regular on ABC's "This Week." He is definitely outspoken — but don't expect him to speak out about the fact that Juanita Yvette Lozano now faces up to 15 years in prison.

"A woman who worked for a media company that produced ads for President George W. Bush's campaign was indicted for secretly mailing a videotape of Bush practicing for a debate to Vice President Al Gore's campaign," an Associated Press story explained the other day. Accompanying the 60-minute video were about 120 pages of the Bush team's confidential material for debate preparation.

Ordinarily, such a transgression might cause Will to express his law-and-order zeal in no uncertain terms. But it's understandable that he isn't eager to weigh in when the subject is theft of debate prep documents. The circumstances of the incident last fall were far less egregious than what happened — with Will's active participation — in 1980.

Six months ago, when Gore campaign adviser Tom Downey received a package containing the Bush campaign material prior to the first debate, he immediately turned it over to the FBI. In sharp contrast, 20 years earlier, top operatives in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign pored through Jimmy Carter's lengthy briefing book swiped from the White House. Back then, behind the scenes, Will was part of the effort to make the most of the illegally obtained papers.

Will looked at the Carter briefing materials and then helped coach Reagan for a crucial debate with Carter. Promptly after the debate, Will went on "Nightline" to praise Reagan for a "thoroughbred performance." Viewers had no way to know of Will's involvement in prepping Reagan for the debate.

For years, Will was able to cover up the deception. But in mid-1983, the "Debategate" story finally broke, and he took some flak.

At first, Newsweek merely mentioned in passing that Will had been shown the stolen briefing book "and thought nothing of it." A week later, devoting several sentences to the intrigue of its star columnist, the magazine reported that he "saw the Carter materials" and later helped to prepare Reagan "for his confrontation with Carter. Then, in his role as television commentator, Will gave Reagan a favorable review for his performance — without explaining that he had personally taken part in the event."

During the summer of 1983, various media pillars rumbled with disapproval. As Newsweek observed, "some of Will's fellow journalists have heatedly criticized his partisan role. Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, called it 'outrageous.'"

The New Republic declared Will to be "the one person who has been most embarrassed by Debategate" and faulted him for two aspects of his behavior: "Appearing on ABC's 'Nightline' the night of the debate, Mr. Will was one of the commentators who awarded the 'victory' to Mr. Reagan; he posed as a referee without ever making it clear that he had been one of the seconds." In addition, the columnist "knew about the purloined briefing books" but kept the knowledge to himself. "Mr. Will said nothing about this on 'Nightline'; nor did he write about it."

Perhaps a bit taken aback by the uproar, Will devoted a Washington Post column to his own defense. In essence, Time magazine noted, "Will said he was glad he had done what he had done, but would not do it again."

The controversy blew over. And in retrospect, Will's prominence in Debategate probably helped rather than hurt his career. The incident certified that he was a power player at the highest reaches of presidential politics.

Nearly three years after his stealth role in the Carter-Reagan debates came to light, a front-page Los Angeles Times profile called Will "the pre-eminent American political commentator." When the story briefly touched on Debategate and quoted Will, the tone was far from apologetic: "I simply reject the idea that I misled anyone. It wasn't a state secret who I was for."

But George Will knew that those Carter briefing papers were stolen. He made use of them. And he kept mum for as long as he could.

On the day after Lozano's indictment, I requested a statement from Will about the criminal charges against her — or about his own role in the Carter briefing-book caper. At the end of the day, the office of his syndicate, the Washington Post Writers Group, informed me of Will's response: No comment.