Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George F. Will *68, a noted conservative who advocated for voting out the GOP in the 2018 midterms, spoke with PAW about America’s current political climate, the dangers of recent federal spending policy, and why President Donald Trump is “intensely boring” — for a columnist, at least. Will recently was selected to deliver the Baccalaureate address for Princeton’s Class of 2019.
This is part of a monthly series of interviews with alumni, faculty, and students.
Brett Tomlinson: Welcome to the PAWcast. I’m Brett Tomlinson, and my guest this month is Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, George F. Will of the graduate class of 1968. In addition to writing a nationally syndicated column twice a week for more than four decades, he is the author of more than a dozen books about politics and about his other favorite topic: baseball. He received Princeton’s James Madison Medal, the highest honor for graduate alumni, in 1992. George Will, thank you for joining me.
George F. Will: Glad to be with you.
BT: We’re speaking a week after the midterm elections and there’s much to discuss in politics, but I wanted to begin, just, with a bit about your Princeton experience. You are the son of a philosophy professor; you came to Princeton to pursue a Ph.D. in the politics department. As a student, did you have an academic career in mind, or did you know from the start that you wanted to be in Washington?
GFW: No, I did have an academic career in mind. In fact, I came to Princeton from Oxford where I’d spent two years, and when leaving Oxford, I wasn’t clear whether I wanted to be a lawyer or an academic. So I applied to law school and to Princeton, and I chose Princeton, I sometimes think, because it was midway between two National League baseball cities: Philadelphia and New York. Otherwise I’d be a retired lawyer today.
But, in fact I went and got the Ph.D., went to teach first at Michigan State and then the University of Toronto intending to have a lifelong career in academia. But in September, 1969, Everett Dirksen, Illinois senator, Republican, leader of the Republicans, died in the senate and they shuffled the Republican leadership and a Colorado senator of whom I’d never heard was elected third-ranking Republican chairman of a policy committee; his name was Gordon Allott. And he said, “I want to hire a Republican academic to write for me.” Well this was the late ’60s and there weren’t any Republican academics, except me, and I was in Canada. But through serendipity, he heard about me. I went to Washington, and like a lot of people who go to Washington, I never left.
BT: And graduate students often have very close relationships with the faculty. Did you have trouble finding a mentor? As you mentioned, there weren’t many Republican academics. Who were your mentors at Princeton?
GFW: Well, I took courses with Stan Kelley, who specialized in American parties and politics. Alpheus Thomas Mason, great constitutional law, professor, biographer of a number of people — I think Harlan Fiske Stone, and I know William Howard Taft. And I’ve drawn upon that because I write more about legal matters than other columnists do and — almost — and then the other topic that I write about. Michael Walzer in political philosophy was here. Bill Beaney, who later went to the University of Denver and also dealt with courts and constitutional law, as did Walter Murphy. So, I had a lot of professors, all of whom I still think of fondly.
BT: And at a relatively young age, you began editing National Review and you joined The Washington Post as a columnist. Journalism has changed quite a bit in the interim, but it seems like your routine has not changed that dramatically as a columnist. What’s changed for you and what’s remained the same?
GFW: Well, as I neared the end of three years with my senator ,which is all the time I wanted to spend in the senate staff, I called Bill Buckley for whom I’d written a few things, and I said, “You need, for the first time, to have a Washington editor of National Review.” And Bill essentially said, “You’re right. I do, and you’re it.” That’s sort of the way Bill made decisions; he sort of collected the young people he thought were promising. So I began doing that and at exactly the same time, Vice President Agnew, Mr. Nixon’s vice president, had been crashing around the country complaining about the liberal media. He was really among the first to make an issue of this, and particularly the absence, he thought, of conservatives’ voices on the nation’s newspaper’s op-ed pages. So there was a scramble to find conservatives. So as I was starting with National Review, three of us, Pat Buchanan, and George Will, and Bill Safire, all started columns at the same time. Safire, who’d been a speechwriter, high-profile member of the Nixon White House, was the star of our little trio, and The Washington Post and The New York Times competed for Safire; the Times won, and the Post settled for me, that’s how it worked out. So, the bias in the media was a live issue 10 years before CNN was founded. It was, of course, the coming of cable television and that sort of sectarian, highly-charged, ideologically honed broadcast television entities that brought us to our current understanding of partisan journalism.
BT: Do you find yourself approaching columns differently or choosing topics differently today than you did back then?
GFW: Well, I do. I think I write more about complicated matters than I used to. I write more about, as I say, Supreme Court issues — you know, constitutional law issues — because I was trained as a political philosopher; I retained my interest in that, and the more I study American history and current events, the more I’m convinced that we do, as a nation, our political philosophy in Supreme Court arguments. That is, in arguing about the enumerated powers of the government, what rights are natural, what rights are retained by the people, all of that — the founders’ philosophy as it was expressed in the declaration, in the bright light of which the constitution should, in my judgement, be construed.
BT: As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re speaking after the midterm elections and before the start of the next congressional session, the broadest strokes of the political landscape are in place for the next two years. The Republicans will continue to have their majority in the senate; Democrats will set the agenda in the house. Obviously, President Donald Trump in the White House. You’ve been pretty adamant that Congress has not exercised its constitutional powers in the first two years of this presidential administration, that it’s been too differential to the president. Do you expect the divided Congress to be more effective?
GFW: No, but I think they’ll try and that will be progress. The Congress has been voluntarily ceding powers to the executive since the 1930s, it’s a bipartisan sin on the part of Congress, in fact there seems to be, we — everyone clamors for bipartisanship, I think often what we see that’s bipartisan is even worse than the partisanship. There is a bipartisan reflex on the part of both parties to cede power to presidents of both parties. That way, Congress gets out from under burden of legislating, gets out from under the burden of making difficult choices.
Take trade, for example. President Trump has vast discretion to impose tariffs, which are taxes. Now think about that: the president unilaterally imposing taxes under discretion granted him by Congress to regulate trade with other nations. It’s disgraceful; it is ignoring the many reasons why the framers, in their wisdom, make congress Article One, the first branch of government. It is my hope that the Democrats, who have been the worst offenders in celebrating the modern presidency from Roosevelt on, that the Democrats, now that all they have is the House of Representatives, will rediscover, as James Madison, good Princetonian, wanted them to discover, institutional interest, and institutional pride, and institutional jealousy in defending the prerogatives of where they sit.
BT: The president’s defenders, it seems, point first — or always point first to the economy; you can’t argue with the economy, but you’ve taken issue with this as well, and in particular the extraordinary federal deficits at a time of full employment. What do you see as the long-term consequences of the current spending policy?
GFW: [laughs] That’s a good question. The answer is we have no idea because no one has ever done anything like what we are about to do. What we are about to do is walk into the next recession, not if it comes, when it comes — I mean if Mr. Trump had outlawed and banished forever the business cycle, his native modesty would not have prevented him from mentioning it. So assuming that we’re not going to have an expansion forever, assuming that a contraction will come, knowing that the average post-war expansion is about, less than about 58 months and the current one that began in June, 2009 is twice that old, what we’re going to learn is what happens when you enter a recession with trillion-dollar budget deficits, and go from there. It’s going to be, to say no more, stimulating and interesting.
BT: Yeah, there’s not much of a place where you can go from that.
GFW: No. [laughs]
BT: At least historically. OK, speaking broadly, so you’ve been a devoted conservative voice who famously left the Republican Party before the 2016 presidential election. You advocated for voting out the GOP in 2018. As you look at the Republican Party today, do you see any signs of promise? Any leaders who could emerge who might make you feel more aligned with its agenda again?
GFW: Well, I’ll give one. I voted — I wrote in the name of Senator Ben Sasse, the first-term Nebraska senator, as my presidential vote in 2016. Pat Moynihan was a senator from New York, for four terms, was my closest friend in Washington, and when Ben Sasse was elected to the senate, his one request was that he be allowed to use the desk of the late Pat Moynihan. So there are a few folks around, like Ben Sasse, who could be the building blocks of a new and better Republican Party. I’m not terribly hopeful of that because it’s not clear to me that Ben Sasse will run for a second term; he finds life in the senate unsatisfying as almost any thoughtful and intelligent person would because the senate does very little. And if he runs again, he’ll be primaried and Nebraska might lose, so it’s a thin reed on which lean, but there are people like that.
BT: And what is it about Ben Sasse that inspires hope in you?
GFW: Well, he’s a Yale Ph.D. in history and a former university president of a small university [Midland University] whose fortunes were sagging and he turned them around in Nebraska. Thoughtful — he’s the written two books during his first term. I once said of Pat Moynihan that while he was in the senate, he wrote more books than his colleagues had read, and I think Ben Sasse is on his way to emulating Moynihan in that regard. A thoughtful man who sees problems in the light of history. I’ve often said, more than half seriously, that when I’m dictator of the country, the only permissible college major is going to be history, so we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.
BT: Of course, the concerns that you’ve written about with the president in particular, and the concerns that a lot of Americans have beyond specific policy points, point to the larger issue of our political culture. What, in your mind, is the prescription for remedying this culture that seems so toxic and so bitter, particularly in the last few years?
GFW: Well what you need is someone with not just a different, but almost the opposite temperament, and taste, and value. I write about this president much less than almost all other columnists do. A, because I think the president is intensely boring. He is one pedal on the organ and he works it all the time, and we’ve seen the act. There’s just — not much more to be said by way of disapproval. The problem is you can’t un-ring a bell, and you can’t un-say the things he has said and continues to say daily. The childish, schoolyard taunts and the indifference to facts and all the rest. Again, we’re in uncharted territory. We’ve never had anyone do this for four years let alone eight, which it could be. So we don’t know how you correct for this, but given the axiom that you can’t un-ring a bell, the effect will be out there, and what will be required is someone who comes along who’s calm, and quiet, and not angry, and who just says to the country, “Take a deep breath, simmer down.” And maybe repeat words from I guess the penultimate paragraph from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. When speaking to a nation where seven states had already voted to secede, he said, “We are not enemies. We must not be enemies.” And begin to reconstruct a more civilized vocabulary.
BT: Some will argue that the persona of the president is exactly what his supporters, you know, have wanted all along. That he — his behavior in debates and at rallies is exactly what he’s brought into the White House. Do you buy that idea that this is what voters, kind of, signed on for when they ticked that box for Trump in 2016 or do you think that voters, by-and-large, expected something different?
GFW: No, I don’t think voters expected different. I think there’s a group of voters who expected that he would become more presidential when he became president. I’d think there was another cohort of voters who said that he’s a mess but so is his opponent. Remember, before 2016, we had never had a single presidential nominee who, entering the general election season in the autumn, had higher disapproval than approval ratings. In 2016 we had two of them. Hillary Clinton may have been the only biped on the planet that Donald Trump could have beaten, and of course, but for 78,000 votes spread over Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, he wouldn’t have beaten her. And in any case, beating her, he’s lost the popular vote by about five — more than five times more than Al Gore beat George W. Bush.
There is, however, a significant — and we’re talking tens of millions of Americans — who like what he does, what he looks like, and how he sounds. We just have to face that. The persona isn’t ancillary, the persona is the point for them, that he’s being naughty, and he’s being politically incorrect, and he’s overturning norms, and he’s not behaving like the dreaded elites and all the rest. So, I think we have to distinguish those groups. But one of the groups is, in fact, delighted with the way he behaves.
BT: I’ve been focusing on life inside the beltway, but one of the great advantages of being a columnist is that you have discretion to take on all topics. I look at the last few months, even during this election season, I see you writing about criminal justice, and college sports, and social isolation, and all sorts of things.
One issue that seems to come up fairly often in your column, and I’ve heard you speak about this at Princeton several years ago, is intellectual life on college campuses and the sort of marketplace of ideas. What concerns you about campus culture today — not necessarily Princeton, but just colleges in general? And what changes would you like to see in a perfect world?
GFW: Well what concerns me is that universities are ingesting young people, many of whom have been raised by over-attentive, over-protective parents who then become helicopter parents, hovering over their children even though they go to college. And these children have been protected from the sharp edges of life, including disagreements and the need to negotiate with their peers their own accommodations, and they arrive on campus almost cultivating a cult of fragility — and safe spaces, and trigger warnings, and worrying about micro aggressions and all the rest. And universities fall into, all too easily and all to eagerly, the role of therapeutic institutions, that they are to protect and heal and cosseting these young people rather than setting about to use the four years to make them constructively uncomfortable by having them encounter different ideas and different ways of looking at the world.
Princeton, I think, has been remarkably successful in resisting these degradations, but these degradations are astonishing. The reason I write about it so much is this: It took us 800 years in the Western world to evolve through thickets of governmental and ecclesiastical interference what are today the great research universities. Mostly in the United States, we have our disproportionate share, but in England, Oxford and Cambridge, and elsewhere. And what it took 800 years to protect and perfect can be dissipated in a generation of bad academic leadership. These are fragile institutions and a whole lot easier to knock down than they were to build up and preserve. That’s what worries me.
BT: Shifting gears for, just, one final topic. As I’m sure many of our listeners know, you are a longtime Chicago Cubs fan. In fact, I’ve read that you said your choice as a young boy in Illinois to cheer for the Cubs instead of the Cardinals may have led to you becoming a conservative. How are you coping the new reality of Cubs baseball? A World Series champion and a playoff team in the last four seasons. I mean, they’re not the Yankees yet, but they’re beginning to have that very Yankee-like expectation of being in the playoffs every year. Have you come to terms with this?
GFW: Well, I have. I know that losing is supposed to build character, but as a Cubs fan through all those lean years, I developed quite enough character, thank you. Now I want to be spoiled rotten by the experience of excessive winning. And I’ll take whatever damage that does to my character.
BT: Well, George, thank you so much for joining me; I really appreciate it.
GFW: I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.
BT: George Will is a syndicated columnist and author whose books include Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball and A Nice Little Place on the North Side, about Chicago’s Wrigley Field. In November, he was selected to deliver the Baccalaureate address for Princeton’s Class of 2019.
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This interview was recorded with help from Dan Kearns at the Princeton Broadcast Center. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.