Half a Cheer for George Will

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Don’t take the low road while demanding others take the high road



Oh, how the mighty have fallen.


Overnight, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will has gone from iconic voice of the conservative movement to a pariah of the political right.


If you haven’t heard about it, you haven’t been paying attention. His latest column reads less like reflective commentary and more like an ideological hit-piece. In a truly breathtaking leap of editorial hyperbole, Mr. Will has advanced his choice for the title of America’s Most Repulsive Public Figure:


Mike Pence.


In a diatribe that is truly painful to read, Mr. Will lambastes the vice president with such appellations as lickspittle, oleaginous, obsequious, groveling, unctuous, toady, and incontinent. The list of thesaurus-generated epithets suggests that Mr. Pence belongs in the company of such odious villains as Rasputin and Iago, Cardinal Richelieu and Peter Pettigrew.


This is not the George Will we used to know. It is a columnist lost in the darkness of bitter resentment, unhinged by a sense of betrayal, and wracked by agonizing reappraisal. It is certainly not the George Will lauded by Commentary Magazine in 1983, when James Nuechterlein of the Hoover Institute wrote:


Will’s conservatism commands respect because it is more than a political reflex or a set of policy prescriptions… [T]he coherence and quality of his political judgments reflect his background: even those who deplore Will’s politics express admiration for the subtlety and sophistication of his arguments as well as the elegance of his prose.


So just how did the late, great George Will get here from there?


SOMETHING TO IT


Despite the cacophony of universal condemnation from conservative pundits, there is a kernel of integrity at the heart of Mr. Will’s cathartic moralizing.


As an unrepentant Never-Trumper, Mr. Will has stewed in his own juices since the election of President Donald. He can tolerate the radical right embracing our Ruffian-in-Chief. What he can’t abide are the moderate and mainstream conservatives who have made their peace with political reality.


The truth is, he has a point. Or, more accurately, he had a point. Right up until the election results came in.


Donald Trump was an unimaginably horrible candidate with only one redeeming quality: he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. He wasn’t a legitimate conservative, wasn’t a statesman, wasn’t a diplomat, and most certainly lacked the character we should demand from a president. George Will’s immoderate disdain of any conservative who could support such a nominee was entirely justified.


But that was then. And this is now.


There’s a world of difference between trying to sway hearts and minds with the light of reason and cursing the darkness after night has fallen. Mr. Will himself quotes Henry Adams’ lament that politics requires philosophical compromise. Political observers may have the freedom to sit on the sidelines and preach ideological purity. But the real world doesn’t work that way.


And now all George Will has left to do is vent his sound and fury upon the nearest straw man – in this case, Vice President Pence.


OUT, OUT, DAMN POTUS


Why did Mike Pence throw his hat into the ring with the likes of Donald Trump? Presumably, the mild-mannered, soft-spoken, politically balanced former governor reckoned that he could lend credibility to a Republican administration that would desperately need it if the unthinkable happened and the voters sent Mr. Trump to Washington.


And so he has. As vice president, Mr. Pence has been a good soldier and a loyal stalwart while simultaneously providing a voice of moderation to offset the president’s more outrageous outbursts of trumpery.


Mr. Will might reasonably argue that Mike Pence should never have put himself in such a position. But there’s no evidence to impugn his motives for doing so, and no license to smear him with ad hominems for not choosing idealism over pragmatism.


In all honesty, I can sympathize with Mr. Will’s frustration. Donald Trump remains crude, coarse, unfiltered, and unpredictable. But for all that, he has acquitted himself on every front far better than most of us expected and – in his own bizarre and paradoxical way – has begun to restore American influence around the world.


The prophet Isaiah lamented, "Woe to the one who is wise in his own eyes and clever in his own sight."


Only a fool is overconfident in his own perception of truth. The world is a complicated place, and we have to grapple with its complexities if we hope to navigate safely through its storms and shoals.


So let's give a nod to George Will for his passion. But he would be wise to find his way back to the world of restraint and respectability before he damages his reputation and legacy beyond repair.


Published in Jewish World Review


Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

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