George Will has a book coming out this week. This normally would not qualify as news, since George Will always has a book coming out and it is usually disappearing quietly into the back catalog of the Conservative Book of the Month Club (The Woven Figure: Conservatism and America’s Fabric,1994-1997; The Leveling Wind: Politics, the Culture, and Other News, 1990-1994; Restoration: Congress, Term Limits, and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy  …).
But this week’s book is news, because this week’s book is about baseball. When Will writes about baseball, America pays attention. Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (1990), his first baseball book, outsold his 10 other books combined. It is also the best-selling baseball book ever. Will’s new volume, Bunts: Curt Flood, Camden Yards, Pete Rose, and Other Reflections on Baseball, collects 20 years of his columns and essays on the sport.
Will, who was supposed to be the Walter Lippmann of this conservative era, finds himself in a curious position. He writes a twice-weekly column that appears in nearly 500 newspapers and a biweekly column for Newsweek. He also appears every Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week. His pinched, professorial face may be the most recognizable mug in journalism. His starchy tenor is certainly among its most recognizable voices. Yet Will’s views aren’t news anymore. His columns don’t shape national policy and aren’t heeded by Washington’s power brokers. He’s no big deal.
Will titled his latest book Bunts because “bunts are modest and often useful things.” Will himself has become a bunt. Why this has happened has less to do with Will than it does with the state of the newspaper column.
The middle 50 years of this century were a golden age for newspaper columnists. When Lippmann launched his column in 1931, he had no competitors. Journalism was smaller, politics was smaller, and the power elite could be reached easily through a few newspaper op-ed pages. Lippmann and a few colleagues (Joe Alsop, especially) were more than just columnists; they were national actors, both shaping and reflecting popular opinion. When they spoke, Washington listened.
I n the early ‘80s, Will seemed poised to assume the Lippmann mantle. Born in 1941, he had jumped from Kennedy Democrat to Goldwater Republican while a student at Oxford in the early ‘60s. After a few years teaching political science, Will entered journalism in the early ‘70s as Washington editor for the National Review, making his name as one of the first conservatives to call for Nixon’s impeachment. In 1974, the Washington Post gave him an op-ed column. A TV gig, Newsweek column, and Pulitzer Prize soon followed. William F. Buckley Jr. had preached the conservative gospel to a relatively small following. Will, syndicated in hundreds of papers, was the first conservative columnist to reach a mainstream national audience. Will became opinion journalism’s enfant terrible, slashing the dearest liberal icons and pushing a hard-right foreign policy. (He was more terrible than enfant: Will never had anything youthful about him.)
Ronald Reagan’s election propelled Will to national fame. He was pegged as the journalist who would popularize the new conservative age. Nancy Reagan lunched with him; Ronald Reagan called him to chat. (His closeness to Reagan got Will.) His column was perceived as Washington’s official opinion. He was fluent in all media: His columns were stylish and eloquent–they were greased up with quotes from dead Englishmen–and they made readers feel smarter. His orotund style translated surprisingly well to television, where–even as a 40-year-old–Will managed to exude an aura of ancient wisdom (the bow tie and priggish manner helped). The Wall Street Journal labeled him “the most powerful journalist in America.”
B ut Will was not destined for Lippmannian omnipotence. The first limit on his influence was that he was not quite as much of a Reagan courtier as he was made out to be. often clashed with Reagan policy, and he was a savage George Bush critic. (He tagged Bush a “lap dog.”) More importantly, journalism wouldn’t permit another Lippmann. When Lippmann wrote, columnists were new and few. By the ‘80s, America was inundated by opinion. The TV talk shows diluted the influence of columnists. So did other columnists. Will, who was the mainstream conservative columnist in the ‘70s, found himself outflanked on the right by William Safire, Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, and Charles Krauthammer. He was just one smart voice among dozens.
Like everyone else on op-ed pages, Will became just a columnist, a twice-weekly habit. Now, after 24 years of punditry, he has settled into the role of the institutionalized wise man of journalism, mining quotes for our edification. (In just two minutes of our conversation he squeezed in Pascal, Aristotle, and John Stuart Mill.) On television, he can be relied on consistently to connect the Topic of the Day to first principles, to forsake the cheap quip for a larger point. And despite having written 2,500 newspaper columns, he (usually) avoids the dull mediocrity that mires so many regular op-ed writers (Anthony Lewis, Ellen Goodman …). Will is not totally predictable. During the past four months, he’s written about subjects ranging from Puerto Rican statehood to the Unabomber to the rape of Nanking, and only sparingly about Flytrap. His newspaper prose may not be deathless, but it’s not as lifeless as the piled-up clichés that pass for the average column. He is, in short, still above average. That is: He is mostly, rather than entirely, forgettable. (All columnists wish we could be so lucky.)
Will says he is comfortable with his place on the margins. He thinks Lippmann’s influence has been “wildly exaggerated.” He never aspired to be a Lippmann and rejects the idea of Government by Columnist: “I don’t want to live in a country blown about by gusts of wind raised by journalists. National policy should not be directed by Jovian thunderbolts from Washington journalists. That is not the way a great continental nation should live.” (“A great continental nation”–I love that phrase, but what the hell does it mean?)
But there is one place where Will’s journalism does seem to matter, where he does toss thunderbolts: baseball. Men at Work and the columns in Bunts are fresher, less rococo, less pretentious, than his political columns. In Men at Work, Will found a smart new way for an average fan to think about the game. Instead of indulging in the usual teary nostalgia about baseball (that means you, Ken Burns), Will considered it as a craft, explaining exactly why a manager calls a hit-and-run now and not on the next pitch, how a pitcher sets up his fastball, why a shortstop moves in a step for one kind of double play and out a step for another. Not terribly analytical about his politics, Will is a trenchant rationalist when it comes to hardball.
W ill’s baseball writing is so good, in fact, that he’s even being mentioned as a candidate for baseball commissioner. His name has been floated in the past few weeks, as it was in 1989 and 1994. He is a long shot: He lacks business experience, and he alienated owners with his pro-player stance during the strike. Will demurred when Larry King asked him about the commissioner’s job last week, and he gave me spin when I asked: He still likes writing his column, he says, and “it’s presumptuous to talk about accepting something that has not been offered.” Which is not exactly a “No.” Commissioner Will–it’s an appealing idea: He negotiates contracts, he stifles owners, he builds ballparks, he quotes Walter Bagehot.
And given that his columns are ephemera, why shouldn’t Will give them up for his true love? He’s been opining for 25 years. He hasn’t much changed America. Maybe he should step aside and let someone else take over the routine. No one would care that much. After all, he’s just a newspaper columnist.
Just how cozy were Will and Reagan? If you missed our previous links, click to read about 1) how Will’s relationship with the Gipper and 2) the between Will’s views and Reagan’s policies.