George Will is no prisoner of the podium. Mic clipped to his lapel, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist (1977) and TV talking head paces left then right, as if stalking his thoughts, sometimes pausing in the center to project them. Would that his talk more fully reflected that very political spectrum, but he is a man of the right, stuck in his comfort zone. The bow tie is gone, the only concession to time, and maybe growth, in evidence.
It would have been illuminating to know the makeup of the audience at Elmhurst University’s Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel last Wednesday evening for Will’s speech, part of the Rudolf G. Schade Lectures on History, Ethics and Law. One might expect to find in attendance some Trump supporters, some center-right Republicans, some center-left Democrats, some centrist independent/moderates, and some left-leaning liberal/progressives. The only visible indicator was that the crowd was almost entirely older — and very white.
Will seemed to think his audience comprised mostly Reagan Republicans because that is what he served for our consumption. He titled his lecture, “The Political Argument Today,” but left out “… Would Benefit from a Hash of Warmed-Over Reaganism.”
Styling himself a modern-day Mark Twain, whom he cited frequently and who made a killing on the lecture circuit in his day, Will was glib, highly anecdotal, polished, and a quote- and statistic-spewing machine. The result sounded like something he has repeated, with few modifications, for 40 years. In other words, it sounded canned.
I attended his talk, hoping this longtime member of the commentariat might surprise me — and he did, but not in a good way. Some might appreciate and admire his tenacious hold on unchanging convictions, but I was hoping for something reflecting personal and intellectual growth — specifically what he might have learned after four years of Donald Trump, whom Will frequently excoriated in his column. It takes courage for any conservative to oppose Trump publicly, and I took it as a sign that at least a few still have some integrity, though little of it was in evidence this night. He mentioned Trump only once: A final anecdote (and a good one, before making a hasty exit) about Trump telling an interviewer not to ask him about the ceiling caving in down the road. “I won’t be around then,” Trump said, Will adding that too many in Washington feel the same way.
Including George Will, perhaps, who played it safe, preaching the same old comfort food, a 1980s version of benign elitism: The free market is smarter and more trustworthy than government. Inequality will always be with us and that’s OK because it allows — as he noted several times — “the cream to rise to the top.” He espouses a culture based on “dynamism.” Allow the cream to rise and it will lead to innovation and excellence and the rest of us will benefit from it.
And what color is cream, George?
Calls for equality and attempts to enforce it will only gum up the system and hold us back as a country. Education will help the poor but only if parents act more responsibly, with two parents in every household, which he mentioned frequently.
Elitism works well for people like George Will. The problem is elitist pundits and politicians view the country’s problems at a great remove. He seemed to be saying that if we would just embrace the American system (unequal opportunity) and allow it to function as intended (by center-right conservatives) all would be well.
No recognition that this ship sailed long ago or how out of date he sounded. Will even noted at one point, tongue barely grazing cheek, that Calvin Coolidge was the last president with whom he fully agreed. Also the last president before the Great Depression.
And no recognition that the whole point of “America,” and the real crux of “The Political Argument Today,” is the need to counteract elitism. The populist right-wing movement itself is a revolt against elitism. Except they keep voting for elitists like Trump and listening to elitists like George Will.
At best, it seemed a sub-par performance. It was as if, at the age of 80, he were still trying, a bit too hard, to convince everyone he’s the smartest person in the room.
During the Q&A session afterward, someone asked about the Supreme Court, which elicited the only crumb tossed to Democrats — that he approved of Biden’s nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson. He also declared that elections determine who gets on the Supreme Court, which is how it’s supposed to work, adding that he approves of the current 6-3 split favoring conservatives.
I wanted to challenge him, but I’m not very articulate off-the-cuff, so I held back, which I regret. By the next morning, however, I had more fully formed the question I wanted to ask, so even though it’s too late for George to answer (no doubt evasively), I’ll ask it here:
“Mr. Will, I agree elections should determine who gets on the Supreme Court, but that didn’t happen in 2016 when the legitimately re-elected president, Barack Obama, nominated Merrick Garland, and the Senate Republican majority refused to hold hearings, even though almost a year remained in Mr. Obama’s term. That strikes me as a clear violation of the system you admire. That dangling Supreme Court opening, in fact, was probably the biggest of several factors leading to the electoral-college victory of Donald Trump, a man you had the courage to say in your column that you despise, which must have generated plenty of hateful reaction from readers. A lot of us in the middle and on the left respected you for proving that a few conservatives still have some integrity. So my question is, will you at least acknowledge that Mitch McConnell’s power play was improper? And please don’t compare it to Robert Bork. You can condemn the Democrats’ 1987 decision all you want, but they followed the process, held hearings and voted him down. In 2016, the Republicans threw the process out the window altogether. In the interest of advancing The Political Argument Today, are you willing to state that the decision not to hold hearings for Merrick Garland in 2016 is unjustifiable?”
Maybe it would have pried him momentarily out of his comfort zone.