Willing America Right

Marking each chapter of George Will’s latest book, One Man’s America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation, is a simple graphic of the sort of round, wire-rimmed glasses that are as recognizable to Will as was the plain black suit and slim tie to Albert Einstein. 
One Man’s America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation
George Will, Crown Forum, 400 pages, $26.95
Marking each chapter of George Will’s latest book, One Man’s America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation, is a simple graphic of the sort of round, wire-rimmed glasses that are as recognizable to Will as was the plain black suit and slim tie to Albert Einstein.
The graphic is charming and also definitive. The glasses illustrate both Will’s erudition and the laser-like focus that he brings to bear on any particular topic, be it politics, society, education, books, baseball, or intelligent design; a focus that seems to burn away distracting edges to present a refined and exacting perspective.
That refinement exposes the reader to some provocative insight: In contemplating the almost knee-jerk disdain modern liberalism demonstrates toward average American values, Will frankly identifies President Dwight Eisenhower as the inspiration for such disdain, and John Kenneth Galbraith as the writer who gave it a lasting voice.
But Will does not spend a great deal of time thrashing out the who-did-whats of history. Rather, he tells what he knows and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Hence, as Will recalls Barry Goldwater’s liberty-preoccupied conservatism, the reader considers that, in some ways, John McCain resembles that brand much more than this season’s unenthusiastic conservatives may wish to admit. In Will’s aside that former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn did not socialize because “these Washington society women never serve chili,” one realizes that we have no characters in Washington anymore, only caricatures. As Will recounts the good-natured jibes William F. Buckley and Galbraith exchanged on their shared skiing trips, or how Daniel Patrick Moynihan contentedly battled both left and right in an effort to convey the truth, the reader cannot but consider how such noble and gentlemanly behavior has disappeared from American politics and letters. One reads Will’s thoughts about newsman David Brinkley, “how anachronistic the maxim ‘mind your manners’ seems in the harsh light cast by much of today’s television,” and the unspoken indictment against the likes of Keith Olbermann and Ann Coulter is fully communicated.
Indeed, throughout the book there is an overriding sense of sadness that such gentility and broad-minded mannerliness are absent from modern American discourse, sports, scholarship, and her society-at-large, but Will never actually articulates it. Rather, like a good professor, in each essay he burnishes one facet of a tantalizing jewel and makes the reader — who is appalled by all that cannot be seen — hunger to uncover the rest.
One finds oneself breaking a long-standing rule against writing in books to scrawl excitedly in the margins such notes-to-self as, “Read More Buckley!” “Remember Longfellow!” “Why don’t we love Geo. Washington more?” Will teases the thought that between the ironic conformity of “free-thinking” liberalism and the much put-upon lovers of the Brooks Brothers’ suit, there may reside a sensible road worth traveling together. His baseball columns leave the idea running about one’s head that perhaps “the game” — inclusive, singular, and daily renewed by inches — is a perfect metaphor for America itself.
Will does not use his pen like a Louisville Slugger, pounding those thoughts into the reader’s head; he merely guides the reader’s reason with the understated elegance of his wallop-packing prose.
And what prose! Undiluted by the vagaries of biweekly syndication, Will’s essays, read in succession, make the book nothing less than literary swag for lovers of language and wry toss-offs:
On Pope John Paul II:”Beginning in 1978, Europeans saw one man seize history by the lapels and shake it.”
On democracy: “. . . popular government rests on public opinion, which is shiftable sand.”
On totalitarianism: “Totalitarianism is a mortar and pestle for grinding society into a dust of individuals.”
On Adlai Stevenson: “Witty, elegant and problematic, Stevenson was the intelligentsia’s darling and a harbinger of liberalism curdled by condescension towards ordinary Americans.
On college campus conformity: “[Larry Summers] thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus.”
On feminism: “Is this the fruit of feminism? A woman at the peak of the academic pyramid becomes theatrically flurried by an unwelcome idea and, like a Victorian maiden exposed to male coarseness, suffers the vapors and collapses on the drawing room carpet in a heap of crinolines until revived by smelling salts and the offending brute’s contrition.”
On American literacy: “Reading is inherently private, hence the reader is beyond state supervision or crowd psychology.”
After stirring the synapses and tickling the intellect, Will — a professed agnostic — closes his collection with two very personal, very moving pieces that manage to sound sacred depths. His proud tribute to his son Jon (“Golly, What did Jon Do?”) is a quiet but forceful challenge to conventional mores and the nearly automatic aborting of Down Syndrome infants. In his loving remembrance of his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, Will manages to turn a difficult and long goodbye into a triumph any believer can appreciate.
As amply demonstrated in the stories Will tells here, one need not be in full agreement with any person in order to appreciate his gifts and his humanity. Will describes One Man’s America as illustrative of “how one conservative’s sensibility responded to disparate people, stories and events.” His essays demonstrate that his sensibility is both consistent and thoughtfully measured, whatever the stimulus. Regardless of one’s ideology or philosophy, that is a manner (and a habit) worth cultivating for the sake of the culture.

Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Caring for the Dying with the Help of Your Catholic Faith, a contributor to InsideCatholic.com, and the popular blogger known as The Anchoress.


  • Martin Morse Wooster

    Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center, a contributing editor to Philanthropy, and a education book reviewer of The Washington Times.

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