George Will’s Spleen Defeats His Good Sense

By | 2019-01-25T21:21:24-07:00 January 24th, 2019|
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Once again, it is my unpleasant duty to take issue with my friend of nearly 40 years, the eminent commentator George Will. On January 18, he published a column in the Washington Post entitled, “The Shabbiest U.S. President Ever Is an Inexpressibly Sad Specimen.” Will has deployed his formidable polemical talents very consistently in describing the president before and since his inauguration as a vulgar, uncultured, impulsive, frequently infantile, erratic, shallow, and in his present position, dangerous man.

Unfortunately, some of the president’s less likeable foibles vest Will’s strictures with some plausibility. But as in his many previous verbal assaults on this president, Will’s policy objections to the administration are sparse and unsubstantial.

Will grants himself extreme liberties in psychoanalyzing the president, imputing motives to him, and mind-reading generally. He is, as he has sometimes said, like all of us, an “unlicensed psychiatrist,” an admission which acknowledges the unrigorous nature of these reflections, however entertainingly formulated.

Among President Trump’s many unusual accomplishments, he has reduced a number of America’s, and other countries’ most distinguished commentators to repetitive and vertiginously escalating invective almost devoid of serious analysis. Will and many others, every week, are just putting old wine in new bottles.

Will’s January 18 column describes “this incessantly splenetic presidency.” That is inaccurate as a description of Trump, but is a fair description of Will and many other commentators, who would, in earlier times, deserve to be read assiduously and considered seriously. Donald Trump is generally behaving more or less as he has in all the 40 years he has been a well-known public figure. It is George Will and many other generally less exalted observers of the Washington political scene who have abandoned all claims to reasoned analysis, and have been completely predictable and steadily more extreme in their disparagement of the president and his administration.

Will writes that the economic condition of the country is “good,” except that there will be a trillion dollar federal budget deficit, despite full employment and minimal inflation. He holds that as the economic cycle deteriorates, severe recession impends. Those who dislike Trump predict failure for him. But a full-employment, low-inflation economy enjoying about 3 percent annual growth, and without large new defense-spending increases, would have a shrinking deficit, and the high end of this economic cycle could be longer than most.

Will’s only other substantive grievance about Trump is that he fears the president might make preemptive concessions, though he hasn’t to date, to North Korea, to continue its currently relatively civilized conduct. This is pretty thin gruel for such a savage attack on this president. Will mocks the apparent hiatus in relations with North Korea as the only accomplishment of “the artist of the deal.”

Beyond that, the president is criticized for being the 11th consecutive president not to take action on entitlement reform to prevent the entire social safety net from eventual bankruptcy as the population ages. The balance of the ferocious onslaught of January 18 is a severe dismissal of the U.S. Senate for the servility of its Republican majority to the White House, and generally for the low quality of its legislation and debate.

In fact, the Republicans in Congress sat on their hands and did nothing for Trump for nine months, waiting to see if the incessant Democratic and media speculation about impeachment had any legs. In any case, the many shortcomings of the Senate are not to be laid at Trump’s door, and it is not the purpose of the U.S. Senate to obstruct and sandbag the president at every turn just because George Will disapproves of him.

Will appears to have reached a state of morose resignation that will cause his friends, including me, to worry about the state of his morale. Commendably, he turns his heavy guns on Trump’s enemies, but he blames their contemptible state and conduct on the president. “His media detractors have sunk to his level of insufferable self-satisfaction by preening about their superiority to someone they consider morally horrifying and intellectually cretinous,” Will writes.

It is not clear, though these reflections beg the question, how George Will imagines that he is not a leading member of these legions of “insufferable self-satisfaction.” Will has met the enemy and he is one of them, and one of the victims of his withering friendly fire. He is himself partly responsible for giving “American life its current claustrophobic feel.”

Having assimilated the president’s enemies to the president, and having widened his target range effectively to the entire American political arena, to the point of shaking the ground under his own feet, his not always obvious generosity of spirit comes to the fore. Thus: “Dislike of (Trump) should be tempered by this consideration: he is an almost inexpressibly sad specimen. It must be misery to awaken to another day of being Donald Trump.“ It would be, perhaps if it were George Will who was awakening each day to face that fate; he might be miserable (and doubtless the reverse would be true).

But one fact to which all who know Donald Trump can attest, is that he is a very happy person and that he loves being president. If Trump chose to reply to Will’s allegations—“historical and childlike ignorance . . . an entirely transactional life . . . of single-minded self-promotion”—he would probably cite his success at accumulating money, celebrity, and the world’s greatest office, and offer some formidably acidulous reflections on his accuser.

Almost all the president’s detractors, and certainly George Will, have legitimate criticisms. The president often alarms or disappoints his supporters, by his verbal excesses, and administrative syncopations. But he has done a number of things as president that there is every reason to believe Will approves, such as withdrawing from the Paris climate and Iran nuclear agreements, adopting sterner measures against ISIS, countering dishonest Chinese trade practices, and demanding that most of the NATO countries pull their weight. Though his January 18 piece confirmed that he is no economist or authority on commerce, I imagine he would approve most of Trump’s tax reform and deregulation.

If George Will and the others of the president’s more rabid critics who were previously taken seriously for their insights and causes, could even once agree with Trump’s initiatives, as Bret Stephens did when the embassy in Israel was moved to Jerusalem, their acerbities about him would have greater weight.

Will refers to the White House as a place “where much magnificent history has been made.” George Will thought President Clinton “a sociopath,” and that George Bush Senior emitted “the tinny arf of the lap-dog.” He has rarely been generous and often incivil with all the post-Reagan presidents. It is his job to describe political people and events as he sees them and it is all fair comment. But even distinguished commentators should not always describe presidents of the United States as toadies crooks, misfits, and morons. Will esteems the presidency, and it will not do to describe anyone whom his countrymen have elected to that office as “an inexpressibly sad specimen” (though he may not have composed the headline) and as a “horrifying cretin.”

Whenever and however the Trump era ends, his opponents weaken their position by escalating the practices they disapprove in Trump even if they do so more polysyllabically. As British politician Boris Johnson said as he moved from journalism to seeking election, when asked his motive by other journalists, “They don’t put up statues to journalists, do they?”

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About the Author:

Conrad Black
Conrad Black has been one of Canada’s most prominent financiers for 40 years, and was one of the leading newspaper publishers in the world as owner of the British telegraph newspapers, the Fairfax newspapers in Australia, the Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times and scores of smaller newspapers in the U.S., and most of the daily newspapers in Canada. He is the author of authoritative biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, one-volume histories of the United States and Canada, and most recently of Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other. He is a member of the British House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour.