George Will, the Washington Post columnist and TV personality who recently made a much-publicized switch from ABC to Fox News, loves talking about government: how it works, why it fails, and the know-it-alls who run it. During my recent visit to his office, a converted townhouse in Georgetown, he gleefully dropped a copy of the Senate’s immigration bill on his desk. It was approximately the size of the Oxford English Dictionary. He then handed me a printout of “one of the half-dozen most important pieces of legislation ever passed,” the Homestead Act of 1862. It was two pages. His explanation for the discrepancy: Washington is now full of condescending elites. “It has to be that long, because they know everything,” he said.
Will himself could easily be mistaken for one of those inside-the-Beltway know-it-alls. For more than 30 years, he has been a regular presence on the Sunday morning political shows, exhibiting his signature brand of bow-tied erudition. Watch clips of him on television during the Reagan years and compare them with those from today: Will, 72, barely seems to have changed. The hair is still neatly in place, the sentences are still crisp, the anecdotes about sports tumble out with the same enthusiasm (his third book about baseball lands next month), and the reliance on famous quotes from Great Men is as firm as ever. He seems to have remained the caricature of himself that Dana Carvey played on “Saturday Night Live” back in the early ’90s, when, as Will, Carvey would respond to questions about baseball with answers such as: “The exhilarating tension between being and becoming.”
The affectations remain as stiff as ever, but Will is finally having something like his own version of 1960s-era personal liberation. One of the most important figures in American conservatism has quietly been breaking with movement orthodoxy and evolving into a far different character.
While the extremism of Ted Cruz and his ilk has caused some veteran conservative columnists to be either ejected from the movement for heresy (think David Frum) or forced into uncomfortable contortions (see: Brooks, David), Will happily spouts Tea Party talking points on government overreach and Washington elitism. He has also been counseling his fellow Republicans to become less doctrinaire on social issues, several of which he has evolved on. Asked whether he was cheered by the rise of gay marriage, he coyly told me, “I’m not depressed” and described himself as an “amiable, low-voltage atheist.”
Will is a political dinosaur, but he has more than survived the Tea Party Ice Age; his writing—even at its most outlandish—is capturing the right-wing zeitgeist in a way that it never did under Ronald Reagan or the Bushes.
The Illinois-bred son of a philosophy professor, Will came to Washington in 1970 and quickly amassed an impeccable set of conservative credentials. He became an admirer of Robert Bork, worked at National Review (William F. Buckley considered Will the magazine’s “most distinguished alumnus,” according to Sam Tanenhaus, who is writing a biography of Buckley), and kept company with Nancy Reagan. He also helped then-ex-Governor Ronald Reagan prepare for a debate against Jimmy Carter, despite the fact that he was ostensibly a journalist, a conflict of interest that he later admitted was “inappropriate.”
Will was, during these years, far from the libertarian sympathizer he is today. Among his early intellectual influences were the social scientist James Q. Wilson and New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Both men had ideas about government reform and ways to alter or streamline the welfare state; but both men also operated within the confines of the system and wanted to improve government rather than hack it to pieces.
In his 1983 book, Statecraft as Soulcraft (a telling title), Will wrote: “The institutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individualism—family, church, voluntary associations, town governments—with collective concerns have come to seem more peripheral. Using government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives.” In a 1989 column denouncing those who favored drug legalization, Will referred to the “intellectual poverty of libertarianism.”
These opinions melded nicely with Will’s self-identification as a Tory. In his educated, gentlemanly way, Will preached a conservatism he described as “European”; he was skeptical of change and worried that “capitalist dynamism” would dissolve “cultural conservatism.” But there was always a tension between Will’s self-styling as a Tory and Reagan Republicanism. Nearly 30 years ago, the British political journalist Henry Fairlie mocked Will in this magazine because his market-skeptical Toryism fit awkwardly with his full-on embrace of Reagan, who offered blanket support for the “values” of the market. Two decades later, Will became increasingly critical of George W. Bush’s record on government spending, but wrote like a partisan during much of Bush’s tenure. He even supported the Iraq War, despite it violating nearly every strand of his ideology. (To his credit, he turned against it more quickly than many others on the right did.)
Bush’s big-government conservatism led Will to find value in libertarianism after all. And in 2008, the election of a liberal Democratic president who believed in expanding everything from the social safety net to the surveillance state gave Will the perfect opportunity to attack big government from the right. He went after Barack Obama with gusto, tearing into what he called the Democrats’ “dependency agenda.” The emerging Tea Party, meanwhile, proved a surprisingly genuine fit for his small-government passions and, with its self-styled revolutionary zeal, allowed him to write with more forthrightness than he had in years.
Simultaneously, Will began questioning policies like the drug war, viewing them through the lens of government overreach rather than social-engineering. (He says he approves of Washington’s and Colorado’s moves to legalize pot.) He now claims that his top criterion in evaluating politics is what expands liberty, which is why he has reversed his stance on activist judges. “I no longer am [a Bork acolyte],” he said to me, explaining that judges should freely strike down laws that impinge on freedom.
“He hasn’t changed in a vacuum,” says Will’s friend, Charles Krauthammer, attributing Will’s evolution to the failures of government over the past 30 years. But the progression also has to do with Will’s newfound distaste for, well, people like himself, which seems to motivate a number of his stances. He called defaulting on the debt, had the debt ceiling been breached, “a choice that we didn’t have to make.” (This, of course, was not the collective wisdom of economic experts.) And he continues to be a disbeliever in global warming. “What I’ve seen is that there’s been no discernible warming for fifteen years,” Will told me, erroneously. He also scolded the scientists and journalists who refer to climate-change “deniers” because they are “vaguely associating us with Holocaust deniers.”
This disdain for intellectuals is an odd posture for someone who drops names with aplomb, has had President Obama over for dinner, and goes to the ballpark in dandyish dress. (His upcoming book is a tribute to Wrigley Field dedicated to Will’s friend, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.) But it’s perfectly in keeping with the Tea’s Party’s own unselfconscious anti-elitism, which would allow banks to go unregulated and billionaires to fund presidential campaigns. The ultimate irony is that Will himself, with his libertarianism and social moderation, is actually closer to the “conventional wisdom” that reigns over much of Wall Street and Washington than he, or many in the Tea Party, might realize.
If Will has discarded many of the ideological aspects of his Toryism, he still gives off the vibe of a cultured Englishman, minus the accent. In a strange way, however, this style reflects the Tea Party’s, with its reverence for the Constitution (which would come close to fitting on two pages), and appeals to simpler times of yore. “The most interesting political development in America in the last five years is named after something that happened in 1773,” Will told me, with gleeful amazement, near the end of our interview. A patrician pundit waving around a copy of the Homestead Act makes a perfect mascot for a movement that is more reactionary than revolutionary.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic.