The Hypocrisy of George Will
Pundit's double standards,
ethical lapses seldom noted
by Steve Rendall
EXTRA - September / October
2003, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
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
Ten years and an apparent Copenican 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
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
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
A questionable grasp of rudimentary things
was now an asset, Will argued. Defending Bush's shortcomings,
he recalled U.S. presidents known for their intellectual 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):
Having vulgarians like the Clintons conspicuous
in government must further coarsen American life. This is already
apparent in the emergence of a significant portion of the public
that almost preens about supporting the Clintons because of the
vulgarity beneath their pantomime of domesticity. Call this portion
of the public the Europhile constituency.... He has caused a pain
he does not feel: The sense millions of Americans have that something
precious has been vandalized. The question is, Who should come
next to scrub from a revered institution the stain of the vulgarians?
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 find, 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 than 450 newspapers, a twice-monthly
essay in Newsweek and a weekly slot on ABC's This Week as the
show's unopposed conservative voice.
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" without 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,
progressive voices that might challenge him are virtually absent
from national television and account for only a handful of syndicated
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."