George Will is such a sucker for power that he undercuts his professed elitism. He has a talent for making contrarianism look like sycophancy. He’s useful only when he’s useful, such as his opposition to the Iraq war (on which he demurred only when the bodies started to mount and the chatter at Cokie Roberts’ Sunday afternoon brunches turned grim) and his indifference to McCain’s silly national security credentials. I couldn’t take Will seriously again after Eric Alterman’s evisceration of him in Sound and Fury. Will’s purported Toryism and mastery of polysyllabic words, to paraphrase Alterman, serve as tokens of erudition; his vacuous columns, which adduce Edmund Burke and Madison, coat received Beltwayisms in prolix displays of learning. Will’s splendidly appointed home sports a library, but the only purpose its books serve is as repositories of epigraphs he can pilfer and insert into a column, like a fourth grader using a stencil to juice up a book report title page.
But back to my first point. Today’s column is a mea culpa for not endorsing John McCain and his running mate. He actually takes Michele Bachmann seriously; he calls her an “authentic representative of the Republican base” without a hint of irony. She’s so authentic that he takes the trouble to note the deliberateness with which she put on jeans and “a tattered sweatshirt” to attend a town hall meeting in 2000. She’s jus’-folks, you see (her hagiographer, it’s important to remember, had to ask those in the know whether jeans were appropriate attire to the infamous Bruce Springsteen show he attended in 1984 — the one at which Will concluded that Springsteen implicitly endorsed Reaganomics).
But this is my favorite morsel:
Born in Iowa but a Minnesotan by age 12, Bachmann acquired what she calls “her family’s Hubert Humphrey knee-jerk liberalism.” She and her husband danced at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. Shortly thereafter, however, she was riding on a train and reading Gore Vidal’s novel “Burr,” which is suffused with that author’s jaundiced view of America. “I set the book down on my lap, looked out the window and thought: ‘That’s not the America I know.’ ” She volunteered for Reagan in 1980.
Analyze this passage for a second. What “Hubert Humphrey knee-jerk liberalism” means to anyone born after 1970 is anyone’s guess, but it’s probably better than Will’s; besides, by the late seventies Humphrey, perennial loser and party hack, was as dangerous as a chocolate bunny. Will’s next point is correct: whatever else you might think about Gore Vidal and his “jaundiced view of America,” Burr does indeed force you to put down the book, stare thoughtfully out the train window, and say, “That’s not the America I know.” It’s a devious, petty, jejune, and marvelous America — the kind of America in which Aaron Burr himself might vote for Ronald Reagan for the sake of a good dinner party conversation. Will, who serves as court historian on This Week With George Stephanopolous, would have recognized this America had he read any history; but all he can remember is what he wants to forget, before remembering again. What poetic sense it makes that Will once indentured himself to Reagan as a debate adviser: these consummate performers could forget facts as soon as they sensed a camera in the room. Someone can correct me, but I don’t remember Reagan slipping into a tattered sweatshirt for the sake of populism — or wearing a bow tie for intellectual clout.