♪ ♪ (theme music plays) RUBENSTEIN: Hello, I'm David Rubenstein, and I'm gonna be in conversation tonight with George Will, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and the author most recently of "American Happiness and Discontents".
Coming to you, from the, Robert H. Smith Auditorium of the New York Historical Society.
Thank you very much for agreeing to be in this conversation.
WILL: Well, thanks for including me.
RUBENSTEIN: So your new book, "American Happiness and Discontents" is a compilation of your columns from 2008 to 2020?
RUBENSTEIN: So roughly 200 columns or so.
RUBENSTEIN: So you've been writing a column for 48 years.
So do you ever have writer's block when you're doing that?
WILL: No, I-I'd rather write than do anything a, outside a Major League ballpark.
I don't understand writers who say it's, it's agony.
I, the great sportswriter Red Smith once said, "Nothing to writing, you just open a vein and bleed."
(audience laughs) When Henry James was dying, he was on his deathbed and he had the sheet pulled up to here, his hand was moving and as though he was writing.
I, I, I hope to be that way.
I'll tell you that when I first became a columnist I asked Bill Buckley what I now know to be the most commonly-asked questions of a, of a columnist, "Do you ever have trouble thinking of things to write about?"
Bill said, "No, the world irritates me three times a week."
The world irritates me, or amuses me, or piques my curiosity.
And there's, I, I have never had a day when there weren't at least five things I wanted to write about.
RUBENSTEIN: When you're writing a column, do you wear a tie when you're writing your column?
WILL: I wear a tie in the shower.
(audience laughs) RUBENSTEIN: Okay.
So, um, what is it with baseball and you?
You really seem obsessed with baseball, where did you get that from?
WILL: Um, I don't remember life without it, baseball.
RUBENSTEIN: When you grew up in Illinois... WILL: I grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, a university town, and my father taught at University of Illinois, midway between Chicago and St. Louis.
And at an age too tender to make life-shaping decisions, I had to choose between being a Cub fan and a Cardinal fan.
All my friends became Cardinal fans and grew up cheerful and liberal.
WILL: I, I became a dyspeptic conservative.
RUBENSTEIN: The Cubs hadn't won a World Series since 1908, or something like that.
RUBENSTEIN: So you went to Trinity College.
WILL: I did.
RUBENSTEIN: And then you won a, a Fulbright to go to Oxford?
WILL: No, no, I didn't, no, I just went to Oxford.
RUBENSTEIN: You went to Oxford.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay, and in Oxford, what did you study?
WILL: Uh, PPE, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.
WILL: And I had, like a lot of people I'd sort of not been maximumly diligent as an undergraduate.
So it was, Oxford was where I sort of, the kindling, the sparks hit the kindling.
RUBENSTEIN: And then you got your PhD at Princeton.
WILL: I did.
RUBENSTEIN: And what do you do with a PhD in that... WILL: Political philosophy?
I went out to teach.
I went first to Michigan State University and then to the University of Toronto.
WILL: And was quite happy teaching.
RUBENSTEIN: And then all of a sudden you got a call that changed your life?
WILL: Yes, the, the most important thing that ever happened to me is that Everett Dirksen died.
He was the leader of the Republicans in the Senate in the '60s, they shuffled the Republican leadership, a Colorado Republican of whom I'd never heard named Gordon Allott, became chairman of the policy committee.
He said, "I wanna hire a Republican academic to write for me."
Then as now, Republican academic was almost an oxymoron.
WILL: But he found me at Toronto, and I went to Washington intending to go back to Toronto, but no one ever leaves Washington, as you know.
RUBENSTEIN: So what you did for him is write speeches, or things like that?
WILL: Speeches, that's right.
RUBENSTEIN: So how did you wind up with William F. Buckley?
WILL: Well, I, I was gonna leave the Senate, and, uh, I, I, I'd written a few things for Bill's magazine, and I called him up and said, "You need," something he'd never had, "You need a Washington editor of National Review."
And Bill said, so he said, "You're right, I do, and you're it."
Bill was like that, he liked to collect young people that he thought had some promise.
Gary Wills, uh, Joan Didion, a lot of people.
RUBENSTEIN: So, you were working for William F. Buckley, "National Review", you were writing some columns under your own name.
RUBENSTEIN: And then how did "The Washington Post" come along and say, "We're gonna syndicate you for the next 48 years?"
WILL: Uh, "The Washington Post", in 1973, started a syndicate basically to syndicate David Broder, their political columnist.
And it's just as cheap to syndicate two or three or four, and so while I was still on the Senate staff, I was at a little conference in Gambier, Ohio, at Kenyon College, on politics and the press, something like that.
And I was there and Meg Greenfield, who was the, then the deputy-editor of The Washington Post Editorial Page, was there, and she said to Bob Novak, who was sitting next to her, "Who's that smart aleck at the end of the table?"
That was me.
And, uh, she came up and said, "When you, what are you gonna do next?"
I said, "I work for, write for National Review."
She said, "Sub, submit columns to the Post," so I did.
And in '74, they began to syndicate me.
Agnew was going around the country saying their, the press is biased against Nixon and we need conservative columnists.
So people were ready for this, so "The Post" and the "New York Times" competed for Bill Safire, who'd been a Nixon speechwriter.
"The Times" won and "The Post" settled for me, frankly.
Uh, and, but the, they were gonna market me, at last, someone who'll support Nixon.
So I became a columnist in January '73, just when Judge John Sirica's draconian sentences of James McCord and others caused the Watergate thing to unravel.
And very soon I was, um, extremely anti-Nixon.
And, uh, at "National Review", where I was also writing simultaneously, "National Review", then as now, was supported by, not just by subscriptions and advertising, but by generous donors, uh, a, a lot of whom didn't like what I was writing about Nixon.
WILL: And "National Review" would do an analysis of their mail every week, and they'd say, they had a, a, a category called subscription cancellations and George Will.
They're, they were the, they were the same thing.
And Bill, to his great credit, I was costing Bill money, and Bill never said a syllable to try and rein me in.
RUBENSTEIN: So the modern conservative movement, post-World War II, was started by a number of, let's say, uh, academics and... WILL: Yeah.
RUBENSTEIN: And people like William F. Buckley, and Russell Kirk, and, and people like that.
So were you influenced by their writings in those days?
WILL: Yeah, when the postwar conservative movement began, it was a rather bookish outfit.
Uh, one of the first of the canonical texts was by University of Chicago... RUBENSTEIN: Right.
WILL: Professor Weaver, called "Ideas Have Consequences".
Then came "God and Man at Yale" by Buckley, and "Up from Liberalism" by Buckley, and "The Conservative Mind", by Russell Kirk, and "Witness", by Whitaker Chambers.
Uh, to the point at which the person who became my very best friend in Washington, the, Senator Pat Moynihan, uh, said in the late '70s, "Something momentous has happened, the Republican Party has become the party of ideas."
Very bookish group, and it was a party of ideas, just as the Democrats were becoming a party, a sort of mosaic of interest groups.
RUBENSTEIN: So Patrick Moynihan, I would be surprised that that was your best friend, because he's a liberal Democrat in... WILL: Yeah.
RUBENSTEIN: Some circles, but you've had lots of Democratic friends... WILL: Yeah.
RUBENSTEIN: And so forth.
So did you talk to him a lot about ideas, and he... WILL: Yeah.
RUBENSTEIN: Disagree with you a lot, or... WILL: Yeah, he was the finest social scientist surely to ever serve in the national legislature, and he was interested in facts, in data.
And his, one of his axioms was "“the social sciences can't tell us what to do, they can tell us the results of what we're doing.
"” And in the '60s and '70s, around a little magazine called "The Public Interest", that had, at its peak, maybe 6,000 readers.
Uh, Irving Kristol, who was the editor, said, "If a small journal gets more than 7,000 readers, it's doing something wrong."
WILL: And this was Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, James Q. Wilson, Pat Moynihan, Irving Kristol....
Tremendous impact of this small magazine.
RUBENSTEIN: What happened to the conservative movement and, and the conservative intellectual movement?
It doesn't seem to be as vibrant.
WILL: You noticed?
Uh... RUBENSTEIN: What do you think has happened to the conservative movement?
The, the people who were the intellectual leaders have died off in many cases, but there's nobody succeeding them, and what has happened to conservatism?
WILL: A, a political persuasion without a political party is an orphan in a chilly world, and conservatism right now has no political party, because what was its political party, uh, is no longer a political party in a meaningful sense.
Uh, it's a cult of personality.
Do you remember the 2020 Republican platform?
It's a trick question, 'cause there was none.
It said th... All it said was, uh, uh, "We liked what we said in 2016.
We like the president, and anyone proposing a resolution to amend and extend the 2016 platform will be ruled out of order."
So having nothing to say, they said nothing.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay, so, uh, let's talk about, uh, some of your views on famous presidents, for example.
You've been around a number of presidents.
Of all the president's this country's ever had, who would you say is by far the best president, most important president?
WILL: Not by far the best, or not clearly the most important, Lincoln is my favorite.
Washington is second.
The third most important American is John Marshall, the most important man never to be president, I think.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, Lincoln, you're from Illinois, so you... WILL: Yes.
RUBENSTEIN: Might have a bias towards Lincoln, but why do you think he was so great?
WILL: Saved the country, he didn't just save the country, he reconnected the country with the founders' principles, This is very important to conservatives, that the most important word in the Declaration of Independence is "secure."
All men are created equal, endowed with their, by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and governments are instituted to secure those rights.
First come rights, then comes government.
Governments must be strong enough to protect our rights, but not so strong it can threaten them.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, you once said that the, or wrote that the man of the millennium was Thomas Jefferson.
I made a mistake.
But you still think he was a good president?
WILL: Uh, good preside, yes, I mean, the Louisiana Purchase qualifies him as a top rank president by, by itself, yes.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay, uh, what is your view on Teddy Roosevelt?
WILL: Of all the presidents, the one you'd want to sit next to at dinner.
As president, he left much to be desired, in my judgment.
He had what he called the stewardship idea of the president, which was a president who's free to do anything he's not explicitly forbidden to do, and since I think the major problem in American governance today is the uncontrolled executive, I'm not a Teddy Roosevelt fan.
When people say, "How do you tell whose a conservative?"
I say, "Who would you have voted for in 1912?"
It's the election of three presidents.
Former President Teddy Roosevelt, the current President William Howard Taft, and future President Woodrow Wilson.
If you'd vote for either Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt, you're not a conservative.
RUBENSTEIN: All right.
Well, let's keep going on the 20th century.
So, uh, Woodrow Wilson, what do you think of him?
WILL: Uh, I'll tell you what I think of him.
Uh, h-h-he's, he was obviously a deplorable man in many ways.
He-he was a, an active racist.
The first movie ever shown at the White House was "Birth of a Nation", which he did, which he loved, he called it, "“lightning in a bottle.
"” He re-segregated the partially desegregated federal workforce.
When some African American students understandably got incensed at the ubiquitous presence of Woodrow Wilson in the Princeton campus, they had a protest, and Princeton began to adjust this.
And I mentioned to my friend, the president of Princeton, Chris Eisgruber, that I would volunteer to come to Princeton and teach people have a more capacious dislike of Woodrow Wilson.
Uh, Woodrow Wilson's the first president to criticize the American founding, which he did not do peripherally, he did root and branch.
He said the entire Madisonian architecture is wrong.
He said it was fine to have separation of powers and all this when we were a nation of four million people, 80% of whom lived within 20 miles of Atlantic tidewater.
But now, he said, we're a continental nation united by steel rails and copper wires, and therefore we need a nimble president, unfettered by the separation of powers.
And, uh, I don't think that's what this country ever needs.
RUBENSTEIN: So, uh, some people would say conservatives' ideal president was Calvin Coolidge.
WILL: Ah, the last president with whom I fully agreed, yes.
RUBENSTEIN: Because, why, why do they like him so much?
He didn't do that much, did he?
WILL: That's, you just hit upon it.
The, uh... RUBENSTEIN: All right.
WILL: Calvin, he was of course known as "Silent Cal", um, because he was parsimonious with words.
He was at a dinner one time, he was at the head table, and a woman came up and said, "I bet my friends that I can make you say more than three words."
Coolidge said, "You lose."
By the way, Calvin Coolidge, uh, people say, "Well, he was a dull, boring New Englander."
Uh, as a wedding present to his wife he, he gave her his own translation of, of Dante's Divine Comedy.
I don't know how many of you guys have done that, but... (audience laughs).
RUBENSTEIN: So, some people would say conservatives' biggest enemy in the 20th century would've been FDR.
So do you like FDR, do you admire what he did?
WILL: I admire what he did, of course I do.
He was a man of, uh, uh, tremendous courage, coming, uh, back from polio as he did.
Took the country through, uh, a depression and a war, a, a, a, a great man.
RUBENSTEIN: So many conservatives at the time, certainly, hated him?
WILL: Well, th-they, they, hate's a strong term.
I mean, I disagree with a lot of what he did, I think, uh, I think the New Deal objectively prolonged the Depression.
The point of the New Deal was to put the country back to work.
The unemployment rate in 1939 was higher than it was in 1931.
So the New Deal as a domestic policy failed.
But Franklin Roosevelt understood the country's need to be, to put, to have a spring back in its step.
It's interesting that a man confined to a wheelchair got the nation to stand up.
RUBENSTEIN: What about his successor, Harry Truman?
WILL: Uh, he made all the big decisions right.
Truman Doctrine, uh... RUBENSTEIN: Mm-hmm.
WILL: The use of the, the, of the atomic bomb, et cetera.
RUBENSTEIN: Now Eisenhower, I assume he was a person you would've admired a lot.
WILL: I do admire Eisenhower.
I think he's probably the most underrated president of the 20th century.
He got us through an extremely perilous decade.
Uh, he resisted the worst advice that he got, because he was a military man, he could stand up and say, "We don't use nuclear weapons to support the French at Dien Bien Phu, et cetera.
John F. Kennedy.
WILL: Well, I mean, a man of such elegance and fun.
I mean, I was born in '41, so I was 20 years old when he was inaugurated, and, uh, he gave my generation a sense of style.
RUBENSTEIN: But did you admire his policies or you liked his style, or... WILL: Yeah, but remember, he was president really before civil rights burst, and for civil rights, to the extent that it existed then, was forced on him.
The Freedom Riders in the south, the integration of, uh, Oxford, Mississippi... RUBENSTEIN: Right.
WILL: And then University of Alabama.
So on, on the big coming issue he, he had a blind spot.
RUBENSTEIN: So your state was the key state, Illinois, uh, that helped get him elected.
RUBENSTEIN: And, uh, it was said that John Kennedy called Mayor Daley that night and said, "How are we doing in Illinois?"
And the mayor said, "With the help of a few friends, we're gonna win Illinois."
And turned out there were a few friends there, right?
Uh, early in the evening, I was in, uh, uh, in Connecticut, in, in Hartford, and John Bailey, who was the party chairman, Democratic Party Chairman in Connecticut, one of his relatives came into the hotel room and said, "Daley says we're gonna have as many votes as we need."
RUBENSTEIN: So the first president you probably knew was Nixon.
Did you know Richard Nixon?
WILL: I did.
Not well, but I did.
RUBENSTEIN: And what did you think of him?
WILL: Painfully insecure.
95% of politics is making small talk with strangers, and he had no aptitude for it, and he hated it, and he was terrible at it.
RUBENSTEIN: Gerald Ford?
WILL: Well, as he said, "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln."
And, uh, but we were, we were lucky, we were lucky to have him.
He was just the kind of conspicuously open and decent man needed after Watergate.
RUBENSTEIN: Jimmy Carter?
WILL: Uh, good man, wrong job.
RUBENSTEIN: So, um... WILL: I know he's your fella, but... RUBENSTEIN: Well, I did work for him in the White House for four years, and I was trying to get him reelected, and I was working on his debate, but I didn't know that Ronald Reagan had a debater-better debate preparer, and his name was George Will.
WILL: Well, I... Well, I'll tell you a story.
Uh, I got in a world of trouble, and I should've, uh, a few years later when it came out that I'd helped Reagan prepare for the one debate that, with Carter in Cleveland, and, uh, I went out there and asked him some questions, we had a mock debate, you've been through all these things.
And Jim Baker, who was running the campaign, said to me, "Will, you're a writer.
Write something to respond if Carter does these personal attacks."
The issue at that time was the meanness issue, Carter was saying Reagan is a vicious man, and he'll pit White against Black, old against young, North against... et cetera, et cetera, the meanness issue.
So I sat down and I wrote something about, "This is lowering the tone of our politics and unworthy of a president," and all that fustian stuff.
Got to the point in the debate, Carter turns to Reagan and says something about, oh, Medicare and the elderly and how Reagan's mean.
And I said, "Here he goes, gonna use my thumping paragraph."
Reagan said, "There you go again."
And that's, that's why he's president and I'm a columnist.
RUBENSTEIN: But you...
But you didn't come up WILL: I did not, no, that's the point.
RUBENSTEIN: Did somebody prepare that, or he just... WILL: No, Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan was good at this stuff.
RUBENSTEIN: Um, is it awkward to be writing columns criticizing him, and did you write many columns criticizing him, and did you ever hear from Nancy Reagan about that?
WILL: Uh, Nancy was a, a very good friend, and we, we were lunch partners.
We'd go off to Bull Run and places like that.
She, no, she, she didn't complain.
He did once.
When Gorbachev came along, I thought he was Khrushchev with a better tailor, and, uh... And, uh, and so I was very wary of Reagan's romance with Gorbachev, and wrote that repeatedly.
So one day I'm sitting in my office and the phone rings, and the operator says, "This is the White House, please hold for the president."
So I said yes, and he comes on, he says, "George"... "Uh, I'm not enjoying reading you as much as I used to."
And I said, "Mr. President, I'm not enjoying watching you be president as much as I used to."
And he laughed, which was his way, and said, "Well, come on down to the White House, we'll talk about it."
Which I did, and we did.
WILL: And, uh, he didn't convince me, and I didn't convince him, and he, by the way, was right, and I was wrong so... RUBENSTEIN: So George Herbert Walker Bush, did you know him well?
Uh, I, I knew him a bit.
I wrote a column, however, that made him so angry that... RUBENSTEIN: You wrote the column that the, that he was... WILL: "The thin, tinny arf of a lapdog", yes.
WILL: Um... RUBENSTEIN: So you didn't get invited to any state dinners with George Herbert Walker Bush in the White House.
WILL: I did not.
So, uh, what about, uh, Bill Clinton, did you know him?
WILL: Uh, just a little bit.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay, and after Bill Clinton, did you know, um, George W. Bush?
WILL: Yes, because George W. Bush is a serious baseball fan.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay, did he know a lot about baseball?
WILL: Yes, he did.
So, uh, you... WILL: More about baseball than about weapons of mass destruction, it turned out.
RUBENSTEIN: Barack Obama.
WILL: I, I, I didn't know him well.
RUBENSTEIN: What about, uh, Donald Trump.
Did you know him?
WILL: Uh, I met him.
Um, as a result of Donald Trump's, uh, efforts, you resigned from the Republican Party?
WILL: Yeah, on, uh, the 2nd of June, 2016, my friend, who I admire, admire so much, Paul Ryan, who was Speaker of the House and in an awkward position, and it was clear by then Trump would be the nominee.
Paul Ryan endorsed him, so eight hours later I came into my office and became an unaffiliated voter.
Uh, because I thought if someone as decent and intelligent and policy-oriented and cheerful as Paul Ryan thinks they can normalize this man, I'm outta here.
RUBENSTEIN: So, uh, the events of January the 6th, how did that affect you, and how do you think it affects our country going forward?
WILL: Uh, it affected me hard.
It's a big moment in my life.
Paul Ryan told me he wept that night to see that happening.
I know exactly how I felt.
Uh, it was a big event, uh, in American history.
Uh, it's not symptomatic of the larger country.
I mean, the American people are not like that, but it was a, it was an, an, a momentous thing to see a president urging people to disrupt, which they temporarily did, a constitutional process.
RUBENSTEIN: So, um, you've been around Washington a long time, as I have been.
Have you ever seen anything where it's, it's so bad, where it's so bad, where Democrats and Republicans really don't even talk to each other, let alone legislate, um, or do you think this is, uh, a permanent kind of thing we're gonna have for a while, or you think it's, uh, a passing uh, fad?
WILL: I, I haven't, uh, I haven't seen it this bad, uh, partly because we've, you know, the... 60 years ago the political scientists said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could sort out our parties, and all the liberals would be over here and all the conservatives would be over there?
Wouldn't that be splendid?"
Well, we've got that.
Is everybody happy?
I don't think so.
RUBENSTEIN: But if you were president of the United States, uh, what would you do now to kind of bring the parties together or make things happen?
WILL: I would, uh, lower the temperature.
I'd tell people to relax.
You said a moment ago, uh, is this gonna go on, will this change?
The basic conservative insight in two words about life is, nothing lasts.
And this current fever we're in, this distemper, uh, like most fevers, will burn out.
And like most fevers, it will burn out before it kills its host.
RUBENSTEIN: So, uh, if there's one message you would like to convey to people about what you really stand for and what is the most important thing to you, what would be the message you would like people to take away from this conversation?
WILL: Well, a-a-aside from nothing lasts, uh, uh, what I'd like them to take away is that what I care about lasting most is the American founding, which is three propositions, basically.
Uh, there is such a thing as human nature, that is, we're not just creatures who acquire whatever culture we're situated in.
Because there is such a thing as human nature, there is such a thing as natural rights, rights essential for the flourishing of people our natures, and government exists to protect those rights, and therefore it must have a Madisonian architecture.
Madison is my hero, of all the founders.
Uh, separation of powers, two branches of government, different leg...
Different electoral rhythms, different constituencies, veto, veto overrides, judicial review, all kinds of things to slow it down, to filter and refine majority opinion.
Madison said majorities are going to rule, but we must make the majorities sensible.
RUBENSTEIN: So if you had a chance to sit down and have dinner with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, who would you like to have dinner with that's somebody that you would admire but you, obviously had passed away before you got around to talking to them, is there somebody you would really like to meet, some great figure in history?
WILL: Yeah, John Marshall, I think.
Uh, a-again, as I said, the most important American never to be president, because he really firmly, uh, established judicial review, meaning he established the judicial supervision of the excesses of democracy.
So will we be able to have a conversation in the five years, five more years of columns, you'll do this another five years, you hope?
RUBENSTEIN: 10 years?
Well, it was a very interesting, uh, book to read.
I enjoyed our conversation, thank you for being with us.
WILL: I enjoyed it, thank you.
(applause) (music plays through credits) ♪ ♪