George Frederick Will
George Frederick Will
Syndicated columnist, television commentator, and conservative intellectual, George Frederick Will (born 1941) was influential in shaping the arguments that drove American conservatism.
Arguably the most distinguished of conservative newspaper columnists, George F. Will, with weekly television appearances and syndication by the Washington Post, had particular impact on American public discourse after the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. Born into an academic family in 1941, Will attributed his attitude, if not his politics, to the influences of his parents, Frederick L. Will, then a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois, and Louise Will, a high school teacher and editor of a children's encyclopedia. He attended Trinity College in Connecticut, Oxford University in England, and received a Ph. D. from Princeton University in political science in 1967.
Will taught at Michigan State and the University of Toronto, but in 1970 left the academic world to serve on the staff of Republican Senator Gordon Allott of Colorado. After Allott failed to win reelection in 1972, Will became the Washington editor of National Review. He resigned as editor in 1975, but by this time he was already syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group, and by 1976 he became a contributing editor for Newsweek. Beginning in 1977 Will was a television commentator for Agronsky and Company and in 1981 for This Week with David Brinkley. At a time when conservative ideas were being seized by both the religious right and a new form of America First, Will provided a counterpoise, suggesting that conservatism could support defense, encourage law and order, and also provide for the unfortunate. He even had little difficulty suggesting the virtues of a graduated income tax.
In 1960 Will served as co-chair of Trinity Students for Kennedy. By the time he completed his dissertation in 1967, he was firmly in the conservative camp. The route by which he arrived at conservatism, however, may help explain why he has a vision that transcends the average writers of the right. At Oxford Will became dismayed with a pervasive anticapitalism. He reacted against intellectual pretension and trendiness. In rejecting the debilitating spirit of British academic conventions, Will moved toward the influence of Friedrich von Hayek and his vision of the power of the free market. By the time Will accepted his first teaching position, his view of the free market had softened and he was working his way toward a conservatism that acknowledged the possibility of government as a positive force.
In their work Column Right: Conservative Journalists in the Service of Nationalism (1988), David Burner and Thomas R. West identify the development of civic virtue as Will's central concern. As part of such development he sought justice. In his book Restoration: Congress, Term Limits, and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy (1992), Will wrote, "There is a kind of scorched-earth, pillage-and-burn conservatism that is always at a rolling boil, and which boils down to a brute animus against government … that is not my kind of conservatism … Patriotism properly understood simply is not compatible with contempt for the institutions that put American democracy on display."
Will rejected a conservatism based on self-interest rather than on conservation. One of his works, Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions (1982), argued against self-indulgence and for a measured stability to public and private life. In short, Will argued for conserving traditional American values rather than having a free-market trample all values, traditional or not. For example, he argued, following along with Leo Strauss, that government should be a force to ensure justice, because market forces alone cannot be concerned with such a concept. Certainly, Will was not an advocate of withdrawal from the world but was more interested in promoting some vision of America on an international basis. And even though he shared much of the sense of defense and preparedness with other conservatives, his sense of such matters always moved back to America, civic virtue, and moral responsibility.
To the end of establishing American values and securing America in what he perceived as a hostile world, Will wholeheartedly endorsed Reagan's presidency. At the beginning of the 1980 election year Will supported Howard Baker. As Reagan received the Republican nomination, however, Will turned to Reagan as a possibility for the promotion of civic virtue. In the process, Will, through his friendship with the Reagans, became journalist as advocate rather than journalist as adversary. This vision of civic virtue, presumably, caused him to turn away from the George Bush-Dan Quayle campaign of 1992, essentially arguing that virtue was gone from the Republican campaign and that Republicans and conservatives would be better to begin anew.
In 1977 Will received a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. After that date his productive output was, if anything, even more impressive. In addition to the Pursuit of Virtue book, four other collections of Will's columns have been published: in 1978, The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts; in 1986, The Morning After: American Successes and Excesses; in 1990, Suddenly: The American Idea Abroad and At Home; and in 1994, The Leveling Wind. A sixth collection of Will's essays, The Woven Figure, was scheduled for publication in 1997.
Besides the Restoration book Will published two books of political theory: Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does (1983), originally the Godkin Lecture at Harvard University; and The New Season: A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election, published in 1987. Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball, based on in-depth interviews with players and managers, was published in April 1990 and became a bestseller.
Will received more than a dozen academic degrees and awards. He married Madeleine Marion in 1967. They had three children, two sons and a daughter. He remarried in 1991 and had a son by that marriage. In 1995 Will was appointed a visiting professor of government at Harvard University. Will's driving passion, almost beyond politics and political philosophy, was National League baseball and the Chicago Cubs. He even sought, in writing, to make the Cubs the metaphor for his view of mankind and vision of civic virtue.
There is no single biographical source on George F. Will. Other than those listed in this article, many works on current political philosophy, on contemporary newsmakers, or on modern commentators will deal with Will, and his individual body of work is massive. David Astor, "Should George Will be a Harvard prof?" Editor & Publisher (May 2, 1995). □