Despite my liberal leanings, I have always enjoyed the great writing of George Will. The man can really turn a phrase, which usually includes a mind-boggling metaphor or two.
In re-reading his books "The Morning After" and "Suddenly", which include his columns from the 1981-1990 time period, I decided to take a special look at columns of Will at his worst, at this best, and at his most thought-provoking. This post will deal with Will at his worst.
1. Abortion. Will is at his absolute worst when he writes (harangues) about abortion. He is unable to comprehend that there might be a legitimate point of view different from his own.
In a column dated 11/5/81, Will insists, with no evidence whatsoever, that a fetus can feel pain. In another column dated 2/13/89, Will declares that "the indisputable fact is that a fetus is alive and biologically human". Again, Will does not explain why "indisputable" is correct here. It would be more accurate to say that the issue of when life begins is, and always will be, in dispute, and many religious traditions say life begins when the baby takes his first breath on his own, outside the womb.
In another column dated 6/19/83, Will goes on a long diatribe against abortion, calling it "The Court's Intellectual Scandal". Will cites instances where the law treats the fetus as a person for some purposes, as in the conviction of a defendant for murder for shooting a pregnant woman who then lost her baby. Will asks "how can anyone 'murder' something the Supreme Court says is only 'potentially' human?"
In another case, a pregnant woman was placed under court supervision to prevent her from damaging her fetus with her drug use.
Will asks, how can the fetus be a "person" for some purposes and not for others? What Will fails to understand, or fails to mention if he does understand, is that the two situations are fundamentally different. If the baby is gong to be carried to term and delivered, then acts one does to cause injury to that future baby can be actionable. But if the fetus is going to be aborted, that is a different situation. For example, if a woman on her way to get an abortion were to cause an accident and miscarry as a result, the same culpability wouldn't apply as it would if no abortion was being planned. Will, who is usually so good at making intelligent distinctions, completely losses his ability to do so when the subject is abortion.
Will returns to the abortion issue in several columns in the late 1980s. He insists it should be a matter for the state legislatures, not the courts. What he overlooks here is that the courts, under our system, have the duty to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority. A woman who is denied the ability to get an abortion is a member of a minority who would be oppressed by a (usually male) majority were a state to ban all abortions, as no doubt many would if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned.
In another column Will compares the issue of abortion to the issue of slavery. This is so nonsensical that no comment on my part should be necessary.
2. The Robert Bork Nomination. Will really made himself look silly in his long quest to convince us that Robert Bork would have made a good Supreme Court justice. His long crusade on Bork's behalf started in July of 1987, and didn't end until December of 1989!
In his opening salvo, on 7/2/87, Will ends with the prediction that "the confirmation process is going to be easy". Has there ever been a worse prediction? Will shows how out of touch he is with people of normal sensibilities.
A month later Will asserts that "Bork is the most intellectually distinguished nominee since Felix Frankfurter". He goes on to complain that committee chairman Joe Biden was allowing 71 days to pass between the nomination and the start of the hearings. Merrick Garland must be jealous of the relatively prompt attention given to Bork's nomination. Garland was nominated a year ago this month by Obama to be the newest Supreme Court justice, and was never even given a hearing by the Republicans!
Will's employer, The Washington Post, finally ran a long and thoughtful editorial explaining why Will was wrong about the merits of the Bork nomination. While granting Will's point that the process had been unfair, and that Bork was prejudged based on pressure from special-interest groups, the Post hit the nail squarely on the head by explaining what was wrong with Bork, when it said that "Judge Bork has retained from his academic days an almost frightening detachment from, not to say indifference toward, the real-world consequences of his views; he plays with ideas, seeks tidiness, and in the process does not seem to care who is crushed."
The Post went on to say that "What people like ourselves needed when confronted with this impression....was a simple assurance that, in addition to the forensic brilliance, the personal integrity and care for the law, Robert Bork's moral sensibility could be engaged with the questions on which he had pronounced so forcefully, that in these great cases that were to have so profound and intimate an effect on people's lives, he has a feeling for justice, not just for the law. They are not always the same."
This captures perfectly the feeling I got from watching Bork testify at those hearings. A colder, more aloof, more emotionally detached individual cannot be imagined. It seemed he had no social skills at all, no ability to connect with other human beings. He was like a teacher who is academically brilliant, but is unable to connect on a personal level with his students. That type of person does not make a good teacher, and neither can he make a good judge.
Will, not content to let the matter drop even after having been so clearly refuted, answered back with another harangue against Bork's detractors, which now included his employer. And after the Senate vote against Bork, he responded yet again with a diatribe against some of the reasons given by Senators for voting against Bork. Mind you, this is the George Will who celebrated "popular sovereignty" as the reason to support Bork; i.e., Bork favors deferring to the elected representatives of the people. Well, here, Mr. Will, is popular sovereignty at work. Don't Senators have the right, in their capacity of advise and consent, to use their best judgment in assessing which way to vote on a Supreme Court nomination? So what if they cannot articulate their reasons to your satisfaction, they are still entitled to vote their consciences.
But then the kicker came on 12/4/89, when Will again harped on the issue after Bork had published his book "The Tempting of America", explaining his views. Will refers the reader to pages 301-305, where a portion of the hearing transcript can be found, supposedly showing the ineptitude of a Senate questioner (Senator Specter). Since I have the book in my personal library, I looked this passage up; the most accurate appraisal of the passage is that both Specter and Bork were talking past each other. Bork had five days to explain his views to the Senate committee, and the fact that he was unable to do so reflects poorly on him, not the Senators. Indeed, if the allegations against him were as blatantly false as Will insists they were, it should have been an easy matter for Bork to simply correct the record, and clear up the confusion.
3. The Cold War. Will was an extremely militaristic cold war warrior. He consistently advocated for greater U.S. military action around the world against anything perceived to be Communist. He ranted against what he saw as a false "moral equivalency" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In other words, actions which we would condemn if done by the Soviets, were OK if done by the U.S., because we're the good guys.
Getting down to specifics, Will puts forth his own brand of revisionist history when he challenges the prevailing view that the 1947 Berlin airlift was a success. Will says the allies should have used military force to enforce its rights, instead of relying on the airlift. Will says that the West's "material strength was substantially nullified by its weakness of will". He speculates that the later Communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam might have been avoided had the West shown more willingness to use its superior military force in 1947.
Then in 1961 the U.S. acquiesced in the Berlin Wall built by the Soviets. Will says the U.S. should have "swept aside the barbed wire". The end result of tolerating the wall was that "we taught the Soviet Union to have contempt for our resolve". Will speculates that had we shown more resolve, the Soviets might not have put missiles in Cuba the following year.
Concerning that 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Will condemns our government for entering into an agreement with the Soviets which was limited to removal of the missiles; Will says this agreement "left Cuba free to serve Soviet military aims in many ways".
His views on Vietnam follow the same dreary pattern. He thinks that the U.S. "had the war won in September, 1967, and then renounced victory".
Will was an enthusiastic supporter of Ronald Reagan's 1983 invasion of Grenada, which he says did "more than the MX will do to make U.S. power credible and peace secure". He scoffs at the ideas advanced by the administration in support of the invasion, these being that there were Americans on the island that needed rescuing, and that Caribbean countries had urged us to act. Will says that "even if there had not been a single American on Grenada, and even if every nation in the world disapproved, an invasion to overturn an indecent regime would have been justified by the security needs of our decent society." This utter contempt for world opinion is alarming.
Will is contemptuous of the very notion of international law. He claims that "international law, such as it is, is an intramural code, useful among nations that share common values but not germane to dealings with totalitarian or gangster regimes."
The Russia-phobic mentality fostered by Will continues today, with the over-the-top hysteria over Russia's interference in our recent election. Here again, many have lost their moral compasses, as Will did during the Cold War. The fact is that our own CIA has interfered in the internal affairs of literally dozens of other sovereign countries. And interfering in other countries' elections is the least of our sins. We have bankrolled insurgencies, and worked to assassinate foreign leaders. In light of this deplorable background, how can we be so outraged at Russia's interference?
Some concluding observations.
An analysis of the three areas discussed above show that in these areas Will has abandoned his conservative principles, principles which in other areas he enunciates very clearly and persuasively. Conservative philosophy holds that the best government is one that interferes least in the daily life of its citizens. And yet, in the case of abortion Will advocates the government dictating to women what their private reproductive decisions should be. This is a total rejection of basic conservative principles.
In the case of the Bork nomination, Will rejects the principle of popular sovereignty which he claims to advocate. It's not that there's anything wrong with Will disagreeing with the decision made by the Senate to reject Bork. But what is wrong is the way that he impugns the motives of Senators, pokes fun at their reasons for voting as they did, and picks apart their reasoning like a schoolyard bully.
In the case of the Cold War, Will buys into a notion that he usually rejects, which is the efficacy of government to effect change. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Will is all for the idea that it died of the weight of its own inefficiency and heavy-handed governmental control of its economy. And yet, before the fall Will was adamant that we needed to be "tougher" to control Soviet aggression. The fact is that the people of Afghanistan probably did more to cause the Soviets downfall than anybody, when they bravely resisted the invading Soviets and finally forced them to retreat.
3/29/17 update. I recently read "Battle for Justice: How the Bork Nomination Shook America", by Ethan Bronner. Bronner reveals that Will and Bork were close personal friends, a fact which Will never reveals in his many columns on Bork, and which also helps explain Will's over-the-top defense of Bork.
Bronner goes into great detail on the hearings. He describes how deferential chairman Biden was to Bork, giving Bork every opportunity to explain his views. He describes how the Republican pro-Bork Senators would serve up friendly, softball questions to Bork to get him to expound positively on his views, and Bork would fumble the ball every time. Often the Senator asking the question would then have to go on to provide the answer, following Bork's failure to do so. All in all, Bork's performance was a complete disaster, as shown by the fact that before the hearing, the country was evenly split on Bork, but afterwards, the negative opinions outnumbered the positive ones by 10%.
At times during the hearing Bork would sometimes try to rebrand his views as middle-of-the-road, only to retract his retraction later when challenged. His waffling got so frustrating for his supporters that some even began questioning why they were supporting this guy if he wasn't really a conservative!
Bronner documents how in the 19th century Supreme Court nominees were rejected one out of four times, and the idea that a president deserved to have his nominees rubber-stamped is a 20th-century development, and one which was properly rejected in the Bork nomination process.
Bronner mentions an interesting argument not often made regarding original intent. The argument is that if the Founders intended for future generations to rely on "original intent", they would have provided a transcript on their deliberations. No such transcript exists; in fact, less than 10% of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention are preserved for posterity.
Bronner does not gloss over the unfair tactics of some of the Bork opponents, but points out that in the end the excesses are not what led to his defeat. For example, a survey taken after the negative confirmation vote showed that none of the electorate based their objections to Bork on the insinuation that Bork supported sterilization of women (in contrast to the 1988 presidential election the following year, when many in the electorate voted against Dukakis because of the despicable Willie Horton ads accusing Dukakis of being soft on crime).
All in all, the Bork defeat was a positive sign for our democracy, showing that the Senate could still function as the Founders intended for it to function. And my conviction that Will was completely off-base is even stronger now than it was in my original writing.
Bork's view is that the Constitution only grants the people such liberties as are specifically spelled out in the document. The contrasting view is that it really works the other way around; i.e., the Constitution is based on the idea that "We the People" are supreme, and government has only those powers which we the people have granted to it under the Constitution. Certainly the latter view is correct, otherwise the Ninth Amendment means nothing. Considering how important this distinction is, it certainly is the proper role of the Senate to closely scrutinize prospective Supreme Court nominees to determine whether the nominee understands the distinction, as was done with Bork.
What is crystal clear today is that the political views of the Supreme Court nominees are hugely relevant. The assertion by John Roberts in his confirmation hearings that a Judge is like an umpire, simply calling balls and strikes, is patently false, at least when it comes to Supreme Court justices, whose job is to say what the law is. The idea might have been plausible in the past, but since the horrendously political decision in the 2000 case of Bush v. Gore, noone can any longer say with a straight face that the Supreme Court is not a political body. It follows, then, that the Senate must scrutinize closely the nominees, and it follows from that that George Will is way off-base in his position, which he is now repeating in his commentary on the Gorsuch nomination.