C-U's George Will reflects on his career, what's in store for future

C-U's George Will reflects on his career, what's in store for future

WASHINGTON — With 100 columns to write every year and as many TV appearances, George Will doesn't hurt for work. But he's now embarking on a large project: an analysis of conservative politics.

It will be definitive, the Champaign native says: "No one will ever need to write another syllable." In a wide-ranging interview, the 73-year-old author spoke about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, a budding rivalry with Roger Ebert, the Cubs and his boyhood as a philosophy professor's son.

Though he is a conservative icon now, in his college days, Will was a member of Students For Kennedy.

But while studying at Oxford University, he visited Western Europe and was shocked by the sight of communist totalitarianism in visits from 1962 to '64.

"Seeing the Berlin Wall encouraged me to vote for (Sen. Barry) Goldwater" in the 1964 presidential election, Will said. Goldwater lost but energized Republicans against the concept of big government.

Will believes big government was not intended by the Founding Fathers. He said that makes him generally anti-war, because the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned about is a major federal government outlay.

Reagan embodies the conservative spirit that Will believes in. The columnist names Reagan as the best president in his lifetime.

As for the Roosevelt clan, whom he analyzed in a recent PBS documentary series by Ken Burns, he's not such a fan.

Teddy, who charged up a hill in the Spanish-American War, was "a little too much in love with war," Will said. His cousin, Franklin, a bit of a lightweight — and his New Deal perhaps detrimental, in Will's view. "But the nation needed a happy face," he added.

"Unquestionably the New Deal failed at its signal object, which was to get the country back to work. The unemployment rate was never under 14 percent until we geared up to become the arsenal for the world," he said.

The Roosevelts are certainly no match for Reagan or Margaret Thatcher "and her vigorous virtues."

"The Reagan Revolution changed politics forever," Will said.

Will endured some controversy when he coached Reagan for a debate in his first presidential election bid and then wrote about how well the Great Communicator did in that debate.

He's somewhat defensive about that to this day.

"I got in a world of trouble for helping him prepare for one debate," he said.

"Reagan hardly needed preparation, because he'd had an enormous amount of experience speaking with ordinary people (as a spokesman for) General Electric and other well-known companies for many, many years."

Like Will, Reagan is an Illinois native who came somewhat late to the conservative party, serving as head of the Screen Actors Guild through the Hollywood Blacklist Era and campaigning as a Democrat in the 1950s.

Will has never held a permanent position in the White House, though he did have a brief career as a senatorial aide.

"I considered journalism," said Will, who worked for the late, lamented Urbana Courier. He is a year older than Roger Ebert would be today; both wound up winning Pulitzer Prizes when they hit the big leagues.

"Before I went to Oxford, my father said, 'Would you rather be (columnist) Murray Kempton or a professor like Isaiah Berlin, or in politics like (Kennedy aide) Ted Sorenson,' " Will said.

"By the time I was 30, I'd done all three."

He chose Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in part because "they had a scholarship program for Illinois students."

Will went on to Oxford and Princeton, where he earned his doctorate, "intending to teach political philosophy," which he did for a while, at the University of Toronto and later at Harvard University.

Then, "the most important thing in my life happened: Everett Dirksen died."

With the death of the longtime Illinois senator known for his leadership and loquaciousness, the power vacuum brought up a now-obscure Colorado senator, Gordon Llewellyn Allott.

"He said, 'I want to hire a Republican academic,'" Will recalled.

Allott failed in a re-election bid in 1972, just in time for Will to get out of the Republican leadership before Watergate caused the party one of the great embarrassments of the 20th century.

"I left the Senate staff and called Bill Buckley, for whom I'd written a few things. I told him, 'You need a Washington editor for the National Review.' He said, 'You're right, you're hired,' " Will said, joining a staff that included such luminaries as Joan Didion and Garry Wills.

He served as Washington editor of National Review from 1973 to '76.

"I started in January 1973 just as the Watergate mess began to break," Will said. "About three months into my tenure, I got a call from Alexander Haig."

General Haig, White House chief of staff in the Nixon/Ford era, is perhaps best known for declaring "I am in control here" after President Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in 1981.

Will recalls that Haig told him the "president would like you to come to the White House."

Will replied, "Al, read my next column first.'"

"I was an early believer that Nixon was guilty," Will added.

As for Gerald Ford, he leaves it at a quote from German leader Otto von Bismarck.

The chancellor is said to have pronounced that there was "a special providence for drunkards, fools and the United States of America."

Will had little to say about Jimmy Carter, Reagan's predecessor.

The Wall Street Journal called Will "perhaps the most powerful journalist in America" in 1986.

The presidents Bush often listened to Will, but the columnist was a critic of the Bush administration in 2006 for warrantless surveillance.

He accuses Barack Obama of practicing trickle-down economics, which liberals despise, through Federal Reserve policy.

Will remains forward-looking and hopes that the federal government will have "a more adult budget process, bringing ends and means together."

He hasn't settled on a presidential candidate yet, but said there is "a whole slew" of candidates he's watching.

"I'd like to have a government that did many fewer things, but did them well," he says. "Fewer wars would be nice."

A few quick questions

George Will has opinions about many things, often written in the aphoristic style of his columns, which appear in The News-Gazette twice a week.

On his parents
"They were academics who voted a number of times for (six-time Socialist presidential candidate) Norman Thomas. (Thomas) was a Princeton graduate. Certainly, my father later voted for Ronald Reagan."

On Little League
The author of three books about baseball, he played "briefly and badly for the Mittendorf Funeral Home Panthers in Eisner Park, second base or right field."

"When I was inducted into the Little League Hall of Excellence, I shared the experience with Tom Selleck, who was a great player at the University of Southern California, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I said I was accepting this for right-fielders everywhere.

"One of my teammates was (former Urbana Mayor) Jeff Markland."

On college football
"It speaks badly for a university to have a good football team."

On the University of Illinois
"I didn't consider applying to the University of Illinois. I just wanted to go away from home."

For undergraduate work, he went to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., earning a religion degree. He studied philosophy, politics and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford, earning two degrees, and received master's and doctorate degrees in politics from Princeton University in New Jersey.

On Roger Ebert
"I knew Roger Ebert. We had a friendly rivalry. He was working summers at The News-Gazette when I was working for the (Urbana) Courier.

"I dimly remember competing with Roger on some stories about church arsons."

They did not often meet as their careers blossomed, with Ebert a proud liberal. They never had the chance to discuss their central-Illinois roots, Will added.

On State Farm Center
"I remember I poured concrete for the Assembly Hall one summer. So, they've sold the naming rights?"

Favorite presidents not named Ronald Reagan
George Washington and Illinois' own Abraham Lincoln.

On his family
"Everyone's happy in my family at the same time. That never happens."

On returning to C-U
"It's been a while since I've been back." He no longer has family here.

On teaching
"I don't miss it."

A diehard fan's favorite baseball team
"A Cubs fan forever," Will said resignedly. "My mother became a White Sox fan so she had something to argue about with me."

His favorite column
"I've written 4,400 columns. Some of the best ones were about my son (Jonathan) and Down syndrome."

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alabaster jones 71 wrote on December 28, 2014 at 5:12 pm
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So, he claims to be against war, and the military-industrial complex.

Yet, his pick for "greatest president" is Reagan.

Nope, nothing contradictory right there at all......

read the DI wrote on December 28, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Will is the answer to the question of what you get when you mix false erudition with a lack of integrity. Reagan doubled the federal budget and added thousands of new workers to the federal government. He was conservative in name only. And like Will, he got paid for doing nothing, proof that they are/were both welfare lovers in disguise.

kiel wrote on December 28, 2014 at 10:12 pm

You beat me to it. I don't think C-U should try to claim the Misinformer of the Year.