George Will – “That’s what I call progress.”

by Bernie Swain

The Wall Street Journal once called him “perhaps the most powerful journalist in America.” George Will is a Pulitzer-Prize winning political commentator that has had long running syndicated articles in a myriad of publications. Here he reflects on his father and his 40-year career.

I believe that the family is the primary transmitter of social capital, and I had the inestimable good fortune to be raised by parents who discussed, argued, and read voraciously, providing me with a childhood in which I marinated in words. Our house overflowed with books, and the dinner table was the center of the action.

I was born in 1941 in the university town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois; my father, Frederick Will, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois for thirty-seven years. He studied induction, deduction, and epistemology – how we know things. My mother, Louise Hendrickson Will, taught French in a public high school and was an editor of a children’s encyclopedia.

We were a warm and happy family, although hardly affluent. My parents cared more about ideas than money. Their politics leaned left; they were part of the intellectual culture of their day, which was influenced by the economic devastation of the Great Depression and carried a deep mistrust of unbridled capitalism.

Getting Started In My Career
In 1969, Colorado Senator Gordon Allott, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, announced he wanted to hire an academic to write for him. I was one of the few Republican academics at the time – and I was in Canada. But through a serendipitous connection to a graduate-school friend, I got the job. So I came to Washington, intending a short sojourn before returning to teaching. But of course, no one ever leaves Washington.

In 1973, I began appearing on Meet the Press. Timing was my friend, as it had been throughout my career because the country was transfixed by the Watergate scandal and the Nixon administration’s cover-up was about to crumble.

So there I was, the resident conservative on op-ed pages and television sets around the country when a Republican president was in the middle of a scandal. I understood early on that Nixon was guilty and probably wouldn’t survive his term, and I wrote and spoke accordingly.

It was awkward in some quarters, particularly at the National Review, which depended on contributions to keep it afloat. A lot of the magazine’s supporters were rallying around Nixon. My columns were met with a, let’s say, mixed reception. In fact, the Review, which analyzed their reader mail, had to start a category entitled: “Cancelled Subscriptions and George Will.”

I stayed with the National Review through 1975. I left when Newsweek hired me to write their last page, which had been written for many years by the legendary Washington insider Stewart Alsop, who had recently passed away. At that point, I became the first person ever to have a nationally syndicated newspaper column, a regular column in a national news weekly, and a regular television platform.

Making Progress
In 1977, I won the Pulitzer Prize for “distinguished commentary on a variety of topics.” My Dad called to congratulate me, but I don’t think he was all that impressed. Hegel and Kant and Hume impressed him, not his son. Quite rightly, too.

I’ve been in this business for over forty years now. Colleagues on the other end of the political spectrum (and sometimes on the same end) aren’t shy about meeting my fire with fire – it is part of the game, part of the fun.

I feel engaged in our national debate and dialogue, and at times it reminds me of the family dinner table back in Champaign. There are even occasions when I feel like I’m making a difference. Even with my Dad. After all, that former socialist voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980. That’s what I call progress.

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