George Will is a political conservative, but he’s not afraid to direct criticism to the right. Will offers some historical perspective on the current animosity in political life. “We've been through really violent times,” he tells Alec, “and we're in one of those periods now. And it will burn over.” With over 40 years in political journalism, George Will is a voice worth listening to.
Alec Baldwin: I'm Alec Baldwin and Here's The Thing.
With political discourse on television dominated by bombast, fact-twisting, and outrageous personal attacks, it's easy to dismiss every bit of it as a worthless sideshow; but one of the rare voices worth listening to is George Will. He won a Pulitzer in 1970 for his political commentary, much of which was critical of President [Richard] Nixon.
He has a column in both The Washington Post and Newsweek, and he's been a regular panelist on ABC’s This Week on Sunday mornings since 1981. While politically conservative, he's not afraid to direct his criticism to the right and extend dinner invitations to the left. George Will's passion for all things political started early.
George Will: Well, the first election I remember was Dewey Truman in '48. I was, I guess, seven years old.
Alec Baldwin: And you remember it how and why?
George Will: Well, I just remember the static on the radio, the stuff about it going on.
Alec Baldwin: Another chair you pull up with the adults.
George Will: Exactly. In 1952, I remember Taft was running for the Republican nomination against Eisenhower speaking in Champaign, Illinois and I went to see that. I remember Estes Kefauver, Tennessee's Senator who is running for, first in '52 and again in '56. In '56 when he became Stevenson's running mate at the convention when Stephenson threw the convention open to pick the vice president. So I saw a few of these national candidates and got interested.
Alec Baldwin: His career in political journalism started 40 years ago when he was hired to be editor of the National Review. Over the years, he's established himself as a consistent and respected voice in American political life. George Will is also a baseball writer and a passionate fan.
George Will: Can't remember life without it. And growing up in Central Illinois on the Illinois Central Railroad, the Mainline of Mid-America as it was called, taking trains to Chicago sort of fixated on Chicago. And this was pre-television, so baseball was literally in the air. There were two teams in Chicago and two in St. Louis. The St. Louis Browns were there. St. Louis was the western most outpost of baseball.
And I just got hooked on the radio, the voice of it all. It was my connection to metropolitan America, if you will. Sports, in particularly baseball then 'cause of its rich sediment of numbers, was one of the first things a young person could peg up with adults on – that is, you could know as much about Jimmy Fox as your father did.
Alec Baldwin: Will's book, "Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball," was a New York Times bestseller, but back to politics, namely the presidential election about which Will has no shortage of opinions. He considers the number of debates during the recent Republican primary season excessive. When I spoke with him earlier this year, he told me the primaries were just a mess, and he says the current race is far from over.
George Will: I certainly do not think this is a slam-dunk for either side. You know, give you a little background, in –
Alec Baldwin: Democrat or Republican side of it?
George Will: Either side.
Alec Baldwin: In the Senate or the White House or both?
George Will: White House, let's start with that. In 2008, Barack Obama had all the wind at his back, everything going for him. He was an African-American at a time when the country was eager to do that. The Republicans had, in the view of many of us, pretty much disgraced themselves at home and abroad for eight years. They nominated an implausible 72-year-old warrior and a really implausible running mate. The country was in economic meltdown. Just everything was going wrong.
Obama had been two years out of the Illinois State Legislature. He was a Rorschach test for the nation. You could project whatever you wanted onto him as a fairly unknown candidate. He could be all things to all people. Still, he got 52.8 percent of the vote.
Question, Democratic Party is the oldest political party in the world. How many Democratic candidates in the history of that party have gotten more than 53 percent of the vote? The answer is only three: Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lynden Johnson. The Republicans, a younger party, have had ten candidates get over 53 percent, which means that in 2012 Obama is probably going to get less than 52.8 percent of the vote.
Alec Baldwin: Why do you think the Democrats have a harder time getting above 53 percent?
George Will: I don't know.
Alec Baldwin: I have an opinion.
George Will: Tell it.
Alec Baldwin: Well, because they're typically very often, when they're at their best on both sides – I want to focus on them at their best – the Democrats are asking people to vote against their own interests very often; where the Republicans are asking people to vote for their interests which is an easier stone to push up the hill, I think.
George Will: Slightly tendentious presentation. When was the last time the Democrats asked the United Autoworkers to vote against their interests?
Alec Baldwin: Well, no, they –
George Will: When was the last time they asked the Teachers Unions to vote against their interests? I should think it's the exactly the reverse. The Democratic problem in addressing the country is that it is so much a mosaic of vested interests, that the Democratic Party has become, in my judgment, a paladin of reactionary liberalism. That whatever is should always be, only bigger.
Alec Baldwin: When I look at the, you know, what are considered liberal policies, Democratic policies, Progressive policies, I think to myself, well, at least there was an effort by them, albeit sometimes an ill-conceived one, to solve a real problem. Do you think that these people are not really trying to solve a problem or are they just trying to –
George Will: The Democrats?
Alec Baldwin: Right.
George Will: Sometimes they're trying to solve problems, sometimes the problem they're trying to solve is the unslaked appetite of an interest group.
Alec Baldwin: Right. You think Obama has a chance to win?
George Will: Sure.
Alec Baldwin: You do?
George Will: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think Romney's biggest problem is?
George Will: People don't warm to him. They don't dislike him, but they don't like him. That's different, and in some ways more deadly 'cause if people don't like you it's because you've said something or stand for something and you can always persuade them or change the position.
Alec Baldwin: You might be able to judo that into something else.
George Will: Right. If they just don't cotton to you, it's hard to –
Alec Baldwin: They don't really think about you at all.
George Will: Well, it's hard to repeal chemistry.
Alec Baldwin: And what do you think is going to be Obama's biggest battle in the election?
George Will: I think the sense that he's Jimmy Carter – amiable, decent, well meaning, and out of his depth. You know, there's an old saying in Washington at least, that overnight is a long time and a week is forever in American politics. We haven't heard the last from Spain. We haven't heard the last from various economic difficulties. If the economy stalls, which it easily could do –
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
George Will: – Who knows.
Alec Baldwin: Right. You mentioned earlier about the mess of the Republican primary season and what happened. And I was joking with some friends how I thought that to some extent the only thing Obama needs to do when he runs against Romney is show clips of all the things that Gingrich said about Romney during the primary period and he might be halfway there.
George Will: Well, except being criticized by Newt Gingrich is not necessarily a problem.
Alec Baldwin: Right, but in my lifetime, this was normally the realm of Democrats – the circular firing squad – and the Republicans, in my lifetime, were never like that. I mean the Republicans, they fell in line and supported the nominee. What happened do you think?
George Will: This time around? Well, first of all the varsity didn't show up, the best players didn't – the Mitch Daniels and others, Jeb Bush – and so you had people who were trying to establish a kind of status and purchase on the electorate that they didn't bring to the party.
Alec Baldwin: To become stars, if you will.
George Will: To become stars. And we had this lunatic proliferation of debates. When a baseball team – 30 baseball teams go to spring training and they know everyone of them is gonna win 60 games, everyone of them is gonna lose 60 games. You play the whole damn season to sort out 42 games. It's a little bit that way in politics. The Republicans are gonna vote Republican, particularly on this polarized climate. The Democrats are going to vote Democratic. We're really going to be fighting this fall, all this money and time and energy over 12 percent of the electorate.
Alec Baldwin: Wow. I think I watched you on Colbert and you said the parties were – you quoted whoever it was, you quoted where parties were systems by which we organize our hates and our –
George Will: Henry Adams.
Alec Baldwin: Henry Adams. I love that quote. But do you think for most people that's true?
George Will: No.
Alec Baldwin: Do you think that, for example, I vote the way I vote because I'm voting against someone as opposed to for someone else?
George Will: You're voting against someone else but not hatred. The American people are really not haters. We're big boys and girls. We've been doing this a long time. We're the most experienced democracy. We understand that people have different political sensibilities. Those people cluster. We call the clusters parties. We fight it out. Big deal.
Alec Baldwin: But when you say that people – there's not a hatred involved, would you agree that in your lifetime, in your career, you've seen that it's reached a kind of ugly time now in terms of media, meaning especially in the conservative media where – liberal, too, because I mean obviously Olbermann and there's a whole MSNBC crowd which seems to have been wanting to mimic their counterparts over at Fox – but do you see that the rhetoric has changed over the last several years in your career?
George Will: Yeah, somewhat, although, I mean it used to be –
Alec Baldwin: Why?
George Will: It used to be Republicans against Republicans. My first vote for President was in the Goldwater election. I was a cheerful Goldwaterite. In fact, I will –
Alec Baldwin: Is it a button you're gonna give me?
George Will: No, no, but our listeners can't –
Alec Baldwin: I didn't bring a Teddy Kennedy button for you.
George Will: Our listeners can't see this, but anyway, I've got a Goldwater button is the wallpaper on my cell phone. Some of us never forget. But again, a little perspective, in the 1790s, in the Great Election of 1800, the Adamsites said, 'If Jefferson's elected, they will confiscate the Bibles and women will not be safe on the streets.' The Jeffersonians said, 'If Adams is elected, we will have a monarchy installed in this country and we'll be subservient to France.'
In the 1850s, Preston Brooks of South Carolina, a congressman, goes on the Senate floor accompanied by an aid holding a gun to hold off the other Senators on the Senate floor. He used his cane to beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts so severely, he was out of the Senate for three years. People of South Carolina were so approving of this, they inundated his office with new canes. We've been through really violent times, and we're in one of those periods now. And it will burn over.
Alec Baldwin: But in your profession, in the political professional class, the punditocracy, whatever you want to call it, now we have a whole network which is very, very tilted in one direction. Did you see that coming?
George Will: You have two – you have two whole networks. Well, look, 30 years ago – CNN was founded in '81, I think – 30 years ago at the dinner hour in this country, 80 percent of all television sets in use were turned to Cronkite, Chancellor, and Peter Jennings. Today we have this cornucopia of news sources. People define journalism on their own terms, get it on their own time.
I was told by an activist in South Carolina during the primary this year that a survey showed that 72 percent of all Republican primary voters in South Carolina get all, not most, all of their news from Fox News. When a Republican candidate buys an ad on Fox News, he's not broadcasting, he's narrowcasting right into Republican voters.
Now, in a way, this too is a reversion. When the party system developed in the 1790s and early 1800s, American newspapers were largely factional papers. Some of them were paid by the parties. So we may look back upon the, some would say the pretense of objective journalism or nonpartisan journalism as an episode, a parenthesis in our national history.
Alec Baldwin: But it's the latest incarnation of something?
George Will: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: Have you ever been approached by some of those folks? I would imagine that they would've been dying at Fox and Ailes for you to come work for them. Did you –
George Will: No, I know Roger –
Alec Baldwin: Did they ever approach you?
George Will: I know and like Roger Ailes and Brent Hume. These people are friends of mine. No, I've been with this one show on ABC for 31 years.
Alec Baldwin: Right. And there was never an attempt by anyone to try to poach you –
George Will: Nope. Nope.
Alec Baldwin: – to enhance their credentials?
George Will: No, no.
Alec Baldwin: No?
George Will: No, no.
Alec Baldwin: To have a truly sober voice among that crowd?
George Will: Ah, they've got sober voices.
Alec Baldwin: They've got a couple.
George Will: Now, look Bret –
Alec Baldwin: Both sides, too, by the way.
George Will: Bret Baier's 6:00 news program on Fox is as good as it gets.
Alec Baldwin: Right. What do you think about those labels? If you had to, how would you prefer to labeled? Not that you’d like to –
George Will: A conservative.
Alec Baldwin: A conservative?
George Will: Sure.
Alec Baldwin: To you, that's defined by what today?
George Will: Limited government.
Alec Baldwin: Limited government.
George Will: The Madisonian project that we shall have a government of dual sovereignty, national and state; and that the national government shall be, as he said in Federalist 45, the proposed constitution – these were, Federalist papers were newspaper columns advocating ratification of the Constitution. The powers granted to the Federal Government by the proposed Constitution are few and definite. This is the argument in the Supreme Court over the healthcare plan. That is, if the Commerce Clause is so elastic that it can accommodate the action of mandating the purchase of healthcare, then we really do not have any longer the Madisonian vision of a government of limited delegated and enumerated powers.
Alec Baldwin: But do you think that the way that those powers have shifted and do you think that the way that the government has and its role in our society has evolved over the last 200-something years, do you think that some of that has to do with the fact it was an agrarian society that was fueled to a large degree by slave labor over 200 years ago?
George Will: Obviously a change in the role of the central government was inevitable. You can accommodate a lot of changes in the central government without undoing the principle of limited government and enumerated powers.
Alec Baldwin: If you could pick three things that are policy issues right now that you really think need to be changed, what's best for the country, what do you think that they would be? What areas would they be?
George Will: First of all, I would strike down the mandate and with it the entire healthcare plan because I think it doubles down on all that's wrong with the healthcare system. Second, I would deregulate American politics. McCain, Feingold, and all the rest have made a perfect mess of things.
Alec Baldwin: Why do you think that is?
George Will: They've set out to do something flagrantly unconstitutional.
Alec Baldwin: Which is?
George Will: Ration the quantity, limit the content, and dictate the quantity of timing of political debate.
Alec Baldwin: So Citizens United, you approved of that decision?
George Will: Oh, of course, certainly.
Alec Baldwin: Really?
George Will: Oh absolutely. The funny thing about Citizens United is some of the people who most vociferously dislike it are so enraged, they haven’t had time to read it. New York Times editorially said, what Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul, has been doing in contributing money – at least $15 million to the Super PACs supporting Newt Gingrich – is an example of what Citizens United has done to our politics. What Sheldon Adelson is doing has nothing to do with Citizens United. What he's been doing has been done in America since George Washington's day and it's been a Constitutional right since Buckley v. Valeo in 1976.
Alec Baldwin: But what do you think campaign finance reform regulation was an attempt to address? Do you think it was just drawn out of thin air or do you think there was a real problem you need to address?
George Will: I'm gonna shock you by telling you where I think it really began.
Alec Baldwin: Where?
George Will: It wasn't Watergate.
Alec Baldwin: It wasn't?
George Will: No, it was 1968. Gene McCarthy set out to challenge Lynden Johnson. You know how he did it? He couldn't do it today because it's illegal. He got about 11 wealthy liberals to give him, what in those days was serious money, $100,000 apiece or something. And with this large liberal money, he mounted a campaign. Democrats were so horrified by this disruption of their party's Presidential selection that they began, because of Gene McCarthy, an attempt to make it more difficult for that to happen. I think you can put the entire necessary and Constitutional regulation of campaign finance in seven words – no cash, full disclosure, no foreign money.
Alec Baldwin: So transparency is something that you're not opposed to?
George Will: Not opposed to.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think about –
George Will: No cash, full disc –
Alec Baldwin: What do you think about public financing? I can just guess, but go ahead anyway. Let's have it. I'm just teeing up the ball here for you.
George Will: Food stamps for politicians.
Alec Baldwin: I disagree.
George Will: It is the most regularly and inaccurately polled issue in our country because every April 15 when people complete their tax returns, Americans vote on this. The little box they can check and they can give three bucks I think and that goes to fund politics. It doesn't increase their tax liability at all, and 90-some percent of the American people refuse to do it.
Alec Baldwin: Sure. It's the one act of tax defiance they can exhibit perhaps when they're filling – especially when they're filling out that form at that time of year.
George Will: But anyway, it's not gonna happen.
Alec Baldwin: You know this is an issue I've spent a lot of time working on and - you know, to me, the problem that exists that led to the recent culture of campaign finances is we just have lousy people running for office. A lot of people don't want to run because they don't want to raise money.
It's gone from one full day. Now my friends tell me that in all honesty it's two. They spend 40 percent of the workweek raising money.
George Will: I'll solve that problem in 10 minutes. Repeal the limits on giving. They're raising money in these little dribs and drabs.
Alec Baldwin: You don't think there's quid quo pro attached to that fundraising?
George Will: I do not think that corruption or the appearance thereof, should be addressed that way. Let them take a $100,000 from anyone. Let them take $100,000 from Philip Morris. Put it on the Internet at the close of business every day. Let the journalists wallow around in it. Let the country make up its mind. The problem –
Alec Baldwin: So you're saying the transparency is more the issue?
George Will: The transparency is at most the issue. What I'm saying is this, the lion's share of political money goes to disseminate political speech; therefore, as Justice William Douglas said, a liberal icon on the Supreme Court, "to regulate political spending is to regulate the quantity of political speech." We're constantly hearing from the political reformers, there's too much money in politics. There's no other way to translate that than saying there's too much political speech. I disagree. Money is not all-powerful.
You know who the great money raisers have been in politics in the last 50 years? The really exciting ones? George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, and they did it with small contributions. This country is awash in money. They said earlier this year, turns out probably not true, but they said, you know, Barack Obama and the Republicans might each raise a billion dollars this year. Gosh, every year in March and April, the American people spend $2 billion on Easter candy. This country is swimming in money. That's not a lot of money.
Alec Baldwin: But at least with the money that's spent on Easter candy, they're getting their money's worth.
George Will: In my judgment, the most remarkable fact is how little money we spend on politics considering the stakes, the trillions of dollars influenced by political decisions, we spend remarkably little.
Alec Baldwin: Including money that's spent on lobbying?
George Will: No, that's different. I'm talking about the political, the electoral politics. No, we spend much more money on lobbying and sensibly so.
Alec Baldwin: Why sensibly so?
George Will: Well, as you know, lobbying is one of the few professions – I'm in one, journalism. Clergy is a second and lobbying is the third profession protected by the First Amendment. It's called petitioning for regress of grievance. It's pressuring the government. It's a good thing to do.
Alec Baldwin: You said that earlier that the people that showed up this year were not the stars in the Republican primary period, and you mentioned Mitch Daniels was one. Were you hopeful Daniels was gonna get into the race even just in terms of pure interest, not in terms of your own favoring him as a candidate?
George Will: Oh, I was for him.
Alec Baldwin: He was your candidate?
George Will: At about 11:00 at night on Saturday, May 21 as I recall, I got a call at home from him, both Maury and my wife and I are old friends of his, and he says 'I'm not gonna go.' At that point, I decided I didn't have a dog in this fight.
Alec Baldwin: And what about Jeb Bush?
George Will: Well, you know, if his name were Jeb Smith, it would be a different matter, but once you've had Bush, Clinton, Bush –
Alec Baldwin: You believe he'd be a worthy candidate?
George Will: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: Even if his name were Jeb Smith?
George Will: Yes. Certainly.
Alec Baldwin: Why? Based on what?
George Will: First of all, his tremendous accomplishments with particular regard to primary and secondary education in the state of Florida. He's just a grown up, sober, happy, cheerful politician.
Alec Baldwin: How do you look back on his brother's presidency now, the eight years he was in office?
George Will: Well, I'm not a compassionate conservative.
Alec Baldwin: Do you think he was for limited government?
George Will: No, certainly not.
Alec Baldwin: That's what irked you.
George Will: Well, he said at one point, "When somebody hurts, government has to act." No, not really. Certainly not the Federal Government. The grafting on a new entitlement onto Medicare, the Prescription Drug Entitlement – the first entitlement we've ever had with no dedicated funding, just throw it out there and say we'll pay for it somehow. He campaigned in 2000 promising a more humble foreign policy. That didn't work out so well.
Alec Baldwin: When you say – I mean I had a friend of mine once explain to me in so many words – and this is many years ago so I might not get this verbatim, but he articulated a kind of a Libertarian view, which I think sounds similar to yours. His take was that the mantra of the Republican Party was "I'm a winner, and I just don't want you to ruin my party. You know what I mean, I want to be able to put my feet up at the end of, after 18 holes at the clubhouse, and I want to enjoy myself." Do you believe that in our society, that people – the Federal Government is an attempt to address, to give something to the losers, if you will, to placate them? To-
George Will: The welfare state, Alec, is a huge regressive transfer of wealth from the working young and middle aged to the retired elderly in the form of pensions and medical care; and because the elderly, after a lifetime of accumulation are the wealthiest cohort in the country, the welfare state is a regressive transfer of wealth. The idea that the welfare state exists primarily to help the poor is refuted by a cursory reading of the Federal Budget. I believe –
Alec Baldwin: The transfer goes to the elderly?
George Will: Sure, the transfer goes to the organized, most muscular interest. Big government is big because it has big ambitions. It knows how wealth and opportunity ought to be allocated. Big government is therefore, inevitably, responsive to big, powerful interest groups. I subscribe to what the poet Robert Frost said. He said, "I do not want to live in a homogenized society. I want the cream to rise." Certainly you do not want an egalitarian society dictated that regardless of your ability to add value to the economy –
Alec Baldwin: Everybody gets a trophy.
George Will: Yeah, it's like soccer for eight-year-olds. You showed up, give them a trophy.
Alec Baldwin: Is there anything about the healthcare bill that you like or the spirit of it that you like?
George Will: Nothing about the spirit.
Alec Baldwin: Nothing.
George Will: But I'm sure in 2,700 pages it'd be the law of averages, you had to get something right.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think is the proper way to address the healthcare crisis? How would you recommend we would solve that problem of health insurance for Americans?
George Will: The amazing thing to me is that John McCain got it right in 2008. I say that's amazing because John is not interested in domestic policy. If it doesn't fly or explode, he doesn't care. But John McCain said, 'Look, tax all employer provided health insurance as what it obviously is, compensation, but give people a large tax credit to go into a national market' – I'll come back to that in a minute – 'and shop for healthcare among competing approved plans.' That is basically what all federal employees have including Barack Obama. That's how we do it with federal employees.
National market is crucial. You know, turn on your television, you're gonna see State Farm auto insurance competing with Progressive auto insurance competing with AllState auto insurance competing with GEICO auto insurance. You're not going to see that with healthcare insurance. Why? Because we are not allowed to buy healthcare insurance across state lines, which is so dumb even a caveman can understand it.
Alec Baldwin: Why is that?
George Will: Because the state legislatures like to keep this captive industry so that when the acupuncture lobby comes to Springfield, Illinois and says, we will show our gratitude to you if you will just put- make it mandatory that acupuncture has to be covered in the state plan.
Alec Baldwin: Give us some of that insurance money.
George Will: Sure. So the plans get more and more comprehensive and lavish and people are forced to buy things they don't want to buy – acupuncture coverage.
Alec Baldwin: Therapeutic nail trimming.
George Will: And up, up, up goes the cost of health insurance. Let's have a market and competition.
Alec Baldwin: So they want to just have it like – each state wants to be a closed shop.
George Will: Each state is a closed shop.
Alec Baldwin: Is a closed shop. Even though you said you're not a compassionate conservative, what's something you think Obama could do, you think he has it in him to do, you might even be doubtful about it, but what's something you think you hope Obama will do in his second term if he gets elected? He may come to his senses, in your ideology about?
George Will: Well, this is not coming to his sense, but something he's uniquely qualified to do – he's an African-American. He's an exemplary husband and father and family man. The immeasurably biggest tragedy in American life today is that 74 percent of African-American children are born to mothers without husbands. We know the whole range of social pathologies that accompany this, particularly a large constantly renewed cohort of un-parented, adolescent males – meaning chaotic neighborhoods, schools that can't teach, all the rest. I would like to see Barack Obama address that.
Alec Baldwin: His community, that he can –
George Will: His community. That he could, I mean it's not his community. His community is the American community, all of us.
Alec Baldwin: But as President, but his roots in the inner city.
George Will: Yes. But I mean because one of the most, the greatest things about American life today in 2012 is the picture of the Obama family.
Alec Baldwin: Is that something that's especially deeply held to you about family and about –
George Will: Pat Moynihan was, at the time of his death, probably my best friend. Pat, in 1965, brought down upon his head a rain of acid abuse and accusations of racism because he – then he was an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson Administration - published a book on the crisis in the Negro family. He said there is today a crisis in the Negro family because the out of wedlock birthrate is – I think it was 24 percent, 74 today. For American society as a whole it's 33 percent. Sixty percent of children, all races and ethnicities, 60 percent born to women under 25, born to single women. Family disintegration is at the heart of most of our problems.
Alec Baldwin: You think that’s a result of what, feminism?
George Will: No one knows. No, no one knows what it is because it's happened in Wales. It's happened all over the world. No one knows what it is.
Alec Baldwin: Everywhere where there's contraception?
George Will: No, it's not just – no one knows. And anyone who thinks they do hasn't looked at the problem.
Alec Baldwin: I live in the time, and I’ve lived in a time where I never dreamed Obama would beat Hillary Clinton. Never. And it's interesting in those comments you made on the television show I watched where you said the Clintons have lost a lot of their allure and everything. At that time, I just couldn't conceive that Hillary would lose the nomination. I really, really thought she was gonna win.
George Will: I think I told George Stephanopoulos in March 2007 – March 2007 - I said, Barack Obama will be nominated and elected. I just could not see the country saying, “We're nostalgic for the Clinton years,” which they weren't.
Alec Baldwin: Right, they weren't. What do you think her political future is?
George Will: Zero.
Alec Baldwin: Zero? She's not gonna run?
George Will: There's a whole generation of coming candidates.
Alec Baldwin: Andrew.
George Will: Andrew Cuomo in New York, Governor O'Malley in Maryland, countless people, Paul Ryan, all kinds of good people out there, governors, the rest.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think Gingrich's future is?
George Will: Doug Pixon. No, yeah, it's a –
Alec Baldwin: Books and talking on TV and commentating?
George Will: Talking. He does lots of that.
Alec Baldwin: You mentioned in one conversation you had that you thought Bill Buckley was the most consequential journalist of the 20th century. Did you have a personal relationship with him?
George Will: Yes, he was a friend.
Alec Baldwin: Describe him. You were friends with him. How did you meet him?
George Will: When I was a college professor at the University of Toronto, I wrote a few things for National Review. Then I went to work in Washington for a senator from Colorado, Gordon Allott, '70 through '73.
Alec Baldwin: You moved to Washington when?
George Will: '70, 1970.
Alec Baldwin: And why?
George Will: To work on the Senate staff from the University of Toronto. As '72 dawned, I decided three years was enough. I wanted to go into journalism, so I picked up the phone and I called Bill and I said you need a Washington editor of National Review, and Bill said essentially, you're right, I do, and you're it. He hired people like that – Gary Wills, Joan Didion, people like that, and me and others who just struck his fancy and he hired them. He was good at that.
I started work for National Review the week Sirica's sentence caused James McCord to crack and the Watergate thing began to unravel. So here I was the Washington editor of the flagship conservative publication, and I was quite convinced that Nixon was guilty and was gonna have to go. And it was really hard on National Review. Bill was a wonderful editor and that –
Alec Baldwin: Did Bill agree that Nixon had to go or he wanted to stick it out?
George Will: Well, I'll tell you a story. No, no, no. Bill's brother, Senator Buckley as he then was, Jim Buckley was the first to call for Nixon to resign, first of the Republican Senate contingent. But we were meeting down in the National Review offices down on 35th Street and Bill was at one end of the table and I was at the other. He said, "George, what's gonna happen?" And I said, "Nixon's guilty and the system works." Bill flashed that electric Jack Nicholson smile and said, "I think he's guilty and the system doesn't work."
Alec Baldwin: Why?
George Will: Well, he just meant that he’d get away with it, but he –
Alec Baldwin: Carl Bernstein said in a thing we were talking about – I did a program with him and Carl said that Watergate was the last time quote/unquote the system worked in this country because both sides of the aisle worked together to try to restore the dignity of the Presidency and it was Republicans and Democrats who both were seeking the truth and thus as a result of that thought that Nixon had to go.
George Will: I think the system works more often than people think. It doesn't work in a tidy and pretty way, but no one ever said democracy is –
Alec Baldwin: Do you think it worked during Iran-Contra?
George Will: Yeah, as a matter of fact, sure do.
Alec Baldwin: You do? How so?
George Will: Well, they stopped it. It was revealed. It was investigated. God knows it was investigated to death by congressional committees, by independent counsels –
Alec Baldwin: But do you think both sides are – I don't want to accuse one side or the other of this – do you think that both sides – 'cause I look at the whole world I've grown up in as a pre-Watergate/post-Watergate world.
George Will: And you would not want to know how Franklin Roosevelt used the FBI and how Franklin Roosevelt used the IRS to punish enemies and people like that.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, no, I'm sure that they all do.
George Will: They did. They don't do it anymore. I mean the system is much more policed and self-policing.
Alec Baldwin: I believe that's true. So Buckley said the system didn't work?
George Will: No, Buckley was the – I caused National Review a lot of trouble because National Review, then as now, relied, as small magazines generally do on contributions to keep it going, and National Review had analyzed its mail and the memo had a category called "Subscription Cancellations and George Will" 'cause they were the same thing. I was making people mad. Bill never once, not once tried to restrain what I said about Nixon. He was a wonderful guy and tremendously fair.
Alec Baldwin: When you look back on Nixon now, what do you think of him? It'll be 40 years next year that he resigned, next year.
George Will: We're getting old.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, you can say that again.
George Will: Nixon was – you don't want someone in politics who doesn't enjoy it. He was so miscast for a profession that is 98 percent making small talk with strangers. You have to kind of like it. And Nixon was an unhappy man in the profession. You want happy people in politics.
Alec Baldwin: When did the television thing – from Buckley, when did the television thing begin? Got started?
George Will: Almost immediately. I started with National Review in '73, and I started a syndicated column in '74, and I started doing television on a regular basis.
Alec Baldwin: How did that happen? Who approached you?
George Will: The Post/Newsweek stations. They owned five owned and operated stations at that time.
Alec Baldwin: Who owned The Post then? The Grahams?
George Will: Katharine Graham.
Alec Baldwin: Do you think that you're being so even handed with Nixon is what had Katharine Graham want to hire you for a television show?
George Will: No. I'll tell you exactly what happened. I left the Senate staff to become a writer at the end of '72 and Agnew was crashing around the country and mow-mowing the press about being too liberal and the press was responding by desperately seeking conservative columnists. And Bill Safire left the White House, and Safire, Will, and Pat Buchannan, another White House guy, all started columns at the same time. The Post, [The] Washington Post and The New York Times competed for Safire. The Post lost and settled for me. That's exactly what happened.
Alec Baldwin: And you started with them then?
George Will: Yeah, 1973.
Alec Baldwin: You still enjoy TV?
George Will: Yeah. It’s, as you know, television is survival of the briefest and it's inherently unsatisfying.
Alec Baldwin: You like writing better?
George Will: Oh, much more. Yeah, it's wonderful pleasure, tactile pleasure putting together a nice paragraph.
Alec Baldwin: So do you have a – I mean, when I think of – you'll help clear up this image. I have an image of an office of yours with a gigantic corkboard and there's about 250 post-its on it with different ideas. I mean you must have just a limitless, bottomless –
George Will: Absolutely.
Alec Baldwin: – number of ideas for columns you want to write?
George Will: Actually I have in my pocket – this is not suitable for radio, but I have always a list in my wallet with the next columns I want to write. I have about a dozen now.
Alec Baldwin: The pots that are on the stove now.
George Will: When I started writing, I asked Bill Buckley the question that I now know is the most commonly asked question of a columnist, which is "How do you come up with ideas of things to write about?" Bill said "The world irritates me three times a week." I would simply say the world irritates or amuses or peaks my curiosity.
Alec Baldwin: Who do you read in the paper, in print, radio, listen to, and watch on TV?
George Will: I don't listen to radio.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
George Will: Because when I'm in my car, I'm listening to books, audio books always. I listen to audio books. I've got my little Smartphone here. I have 20 books on here I'm listening to right now. A biography of – coming up to the studio, I was listening to a biography of President Monroe. Television I watch, you know, if it isn't on ESPN, I'm apt to miss it. I go in the morning, turn on the Major League Baseball Network at 7:30 and turn it off when I leave. I read my good friend, Charles Krauthammer, Bob Samuelson writes about economics for the –
Alec Baldwin: You read The Post every day.
George Will: The Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: All the newspapers.
George Will: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: In print, not online?
George Will: God no.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, me, too. All my friends laugh at me.
George Will: I want to tear it up and file it.
Alec Baldwin: When you're not working, what do you do?
George Will: Go to baseball games.
Alec Baldwin: You're a Nationals fan?
George Will: No, I'm a Cub fan.
Alec Baldwin: You're a Cub fan.
George Will: Ugh, yeah, it hurts to say so.
Alec Baldwin: By proximity, you're there at a Nationals game.
George Will: Yeah. I have a handicapped son who works in the clubhouse at the Nationals there.
Alec Baldwin: Oh does he?
George Will: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: How old is your son?
George Will: Forty.
Alec Baldwin: And you have how many children?
George Will: Four.
Alec Baldwin: And you have been married? Twice.
George Will: Twice.
Alec Baldwin: Twice. And you have how many kids with your first wife?
George Will: Three.
Alec Baldwin: And you have one child with your second wife?
George Will: Yep, and he's a sophomore in college.
Alec Baldwin: So I've been dying to ask George Will this question. What's your advice to me on my second marriage?
George Will: Well, you know, it's the definition of second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.
Alec Baldwin: Or as I say to people, even people from the Deep South visit Grant's Tomb every now and then. We gotta put the past behind us.
George Will: Love's more wonderful the second time around.
Alec Baldwin: I hope so.
George Will: All The Great American Songbook, The Great American Songbook contains all the philosophy anyone needs.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Maybe you're right.
Alec Baldwin: George Will, The Washington Journalism Review named him Best Writer - Any Subject. After talking with Will, one question stayed in my mind.
George Will: Hello?
Alec Baldwin: Hello.
George Will: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: So I called him up.
Alec Baldwin: So my question for you is, your political philosophy, if you will, makes me think that you believe that people will do the right thing if left alone without government interference, without government regulation. That you trust that people will do the right thing if left to their own devices. Do you still feel that way?
George Will: Not exactly. Universal, free, public education, the requirement to send children to schools of some sort indicates a powerful belief and retained by the enlightenment founders of our country, that people need to be schooled in the virtues necessary for a free society – farsightedness, discipline, all of that. So the more freedom you have, the more care you need to take in nurturing people suitable for it. I do believe that the American people have fairly sturdy virtues and that left to their own devices, which is to say left to make voluntary arrangements and transactions with other free people, will more often than not, A, do the right thing or, B, do better than any alternative arrangement for advancing society.
Alec Baldwin: I lost the bet.
George Will: Ha, ha. Which was, what was the bet?
Alec Baldwin: My bet was I would ask you if left to their own devices, would people do the right thing and you would simply say, "Yes" and hang up the phone.
George Will: Ha, ha. No, not that simple.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin. Here's The Thing is produced by WNYC Radio.
[End of Audio]