- - Wednesday, June 12, 2019


By George F. Will

Hachette, $35, 600 pages

“This book’s primary purpose is not to tell readers what to think about this or that particular problem or policy,” writes George F. Will, Pulitzer-Prize winning commentator, Washington Post columnist, author of 15 books and Chicago Cubs fan. “Rather, the purpose is to suggest how to think about the enduring questions concerning the proper scope and actual competence of government.

“This book is an exercise in intellectual archaeology, an excavation to reveal the Republic’s foundations, intellectual and institutional, which have been buried beneath different assumptions and policies Apologetics are writings that offer reasons, especially to non-believers, for believing what the writer does.

“This book is my unapologetic presentation to unbelievers, who are a majority of contemporary Americans, of reasons why they should recur to the wisdom of the nation’s founding.

“Conservatism is about the conservation of that wisdom, or it is nothing of much lasting significance.”

One of the positive features of Mr. Will’s strong affirmation of inalienable individual rights as set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution is that nowhere in these packed pages does the name of Donald Trump appear. George Will doesn’t approve of him. And when George Will disapproves of a political figure, the denunciations are fierce and unrelenting, of the kind that can prompt emotional reactions and make enemies for life.

That was the case when Sen. Gordon Allott, Colorado Republican, for whom Mr. Will worked, was defeated for re-election in 1972 — a defeat Mr. Will blamed in part on Richard Nixon. Mr. Will had been writing pieces for various conservative publications, among them The Alternative (later The American Spectator) and National Review. In 1973 he was named NR’s Washington editor (a job I would later hold briefly), and proceeded to write an anti-Spiro Agnew column appearing in the same issue of National Review in which the editors, acting on the assumption that Richard Nixon would be leaving office, editorially endorsed Vice President Agnew for president.

A great clamor arose among the established conservative leaders of the day, led by Bill Rusher, NR’s publisher, for Mr. Will’s scalp. As a former editor and current contributor to NR, as a friend of the two Bills, Buckley and Rusher, and at the time the vice president’s chief speechwriter (later to join the Nixon writing staff), I was caught up in the outrage. The pressure came from nearly every conservative direction for Bill Buckley to fire Mr. Will. But he wouldn’t consider it. He did issue a mild reprimand, aimed in large part at mollifying Bill Rusher. But he believed Mr. Will to be a writer of elegant, precise prose — much like Bill Buckley himself, both polemicist and artist.

By not mentioning Donald Trump by name here, Mr. Will manages to avoid the turmoil that would ensue, especially among those good Americans who have solid reasons for supporting President Trump, and perhaps even persuade them to read his book, although it should be pointed out that he does find the Republican presidents immediately before and after Ronald Reagan, citing a study, guilty of presiding “over especially lavish expansions of the welfare state.”

His book is dedicated to the memory of Barry Goldwater, “the ‘cheerful malcontent’ who showed it is possible to wed that adjective and that noun.” Goldwater, he writes, “won in 1964 — it just took sixteen years to count the votes.” That was 1980, the year we elected Ronald Reagan, and it seemed for a time, much to the delight of George Will, who was a friend, supporter, writer and debate coach to the president, that the Reagan victory would usher in a new era in which the nation could return to basic constitutional principles.

Those basic principles define conservatism — inalienable rights, the product of unchanging human nature, protected by a limited government, while leaving the pursuit of happiness up to individual citizens. The rival progressive ideology, gaining strength under Woodrow Wilson and his followers, believes the duty of government is to define and shape that happiness, increasingly codifying the rules by which they believe what they define as happiness can be achieved.

That view would become increasingly dominant during the New Deal, and the Reagan ascendancy did bring it briefly to a halt — or at least somewhat alter the mindset that made it possible. But progressivism at bottom appeals to basic human flaws, and as long as there are politicians there will be appeals to the weaknesses in us all. And they work.

Finally, there’s the matter of political labeling. Mr. Will, a Goldwater/Reagan/Buckley Republican, has left the party. But he might argue that the party has left him, and this book can serve as a blueprint for how it might return.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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