James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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My breakfast with George Will, and correcting his errors

Posted by James McPherson on October 16, 2012

Today I had the opportunity to have breakfast with noted conservative political commentator and baseball fan George Will, someone I’ve both admired and criticized at times in the past. OK, saying I had breakfast with him is stretching things: In truth, it was me and several hundred other people eating breakfast, while Will addressed the crowd and then answered a few questions as part of an event hosted by my university.

I wore my best suit and sat at a table sponsored by my local newspaper, chatting before and after the speech with the publisher, the business manager, and and a few editors of the Spokesman-Review. I met Will during a reception after the event, and I’m sure he didn’t remember my name 15 seconds later. Nor should he have.

As would be expected from someone as intellectual, witty and well-paid (typically $40,000+ per speech) as Will, he gave an interesting speech about politics, well-illustrated by baseball anecdotes. Several of the lines I’d heard before, but they were well-delivered, often funny and greeted with appreciation. He didn’t come across as a big fan of Mitt Romney, which might not be surprising considering Romney’s inconsistencies and the fact that Will’s wife has worked for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry during this campaign.

Still, Will got some things wrong in his speech. For one thing, Will offered the common conservative complaint about inheritance taxes. You can take all your money and blow it in Las Vegas, and that’s fine with government–but you can’t give it to your kids, he said. And of course that’s a blatant mischaracterization long promoted by “death tax” folks. In fact, if you choose to toss away all your money in a casino, the casino will pay taxes. Likewise, you can give away anything you want, to anyone–but the recipient should expect to pay taxes on the gift. Despite what Will and others would have you believe, it’s not the giver who is taxed; it’s the receiver.

And most of the time, if we’re talking about inheritance taxes, even the recipient isn’t significantly affected. Only the estates of millionaires like Will actually get taxed at all by the federal government–a fact that would Founding Father and “Common Sense” author Thomas Paine would find appalling. It is ironic that so many Will-style conservatives who promote “equality of opportunity” have no problem with the children of millionaires starting out with little chance of having personal stupidity bringing them down to the economic level of the smartest and hardest-working children born into poverty.

Will also criticized the format of the presidential debates, and I happen to agree with him in that regard. These tightly regulated political events are not “debates,” and (like me and many others) Will suggested he would like to see Lincoln-Douglas-style debates in which each candidate talks, uninterrupted, at length. But then Will added something like, “Can you imagine either of these guys being able to string together coherent paragraphs for an hour?” Many in the audience chuckled at the implication that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney would be smart enough to keep up with someone like, say, George Will.

But in fact, I can imagine it. In fact, though it will never happen because of cowardly party handlers, I love to imagine such a scenario. Neither of the presidential candidates got where he is by being an idiot, and having the opportunity to speak for an hour or so at a time–which both men have undoubtedly done numerous times in their noteworthy pasts–and then to answer an opponent’s comments might actually force each to stray from pre-scripted jokes and talking points. Obama might even prepare (though after his first debate performance this year, I assume he’s done a bit more prep for tonight’s version).

Will’s mischaracterizations of inheritance taxes and of the intellects of Obama and Romney are common ones, of course, and today’s errors were pretty minor compared to some in his past. And to be fair, someone who spends as much time in the public eye as Will does is bound to be wrong or to speak too flippantly some of the time. I’ve criticized him in a book (something I didn’t bring up today) for a couple of things: helping Ronald Reagan practice for a debate with Jimmy Carter (using a stolen Carter briefing book) and then praising Reagan for his performance after the debate, and for repeating a myth that Al Gore (rather than a supporter of George H.W. Bush) was the first to “use Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis” in 1988.

I started reading Will’s column when I was a kid, and have always admired his intellect, his use of the language and his love and understanding of baseball–but frankly I thought he went a bit nuts during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, letting his disgust over Clinton’s personal behavior color his perspective on more political issues. Since then he seems to have reverted to his more rational self, and I do enjoy reading his column and listening to him on Sunday mornings. But I never forget that he’s every bit as biased as I am, and therefore prone to errors that support his own side.

And even when we’re not factually wrong, sometimes we’ll just disagree. For example, Will criticized early voting, because he misses the civic exercise of going to a polling place on election day. I miss it, too–but I’d rather have more people voting while diminishing the prospect of having an “October surprise” swing an election. The old system favors financially secure conservatives, while early voting aids those who work long hours. I wish Will–a lifelong fan of perhaps the ultimate working-class team, the Chicago Cubs–had more empathy for their struggles.

Next day: After the breakfast Will went on to San Francisco to provide debate commentary for ABC. Afterward he declared Obama the winner and indicated that the debate was far, far better than what his words of that morning indicated he expected: “It was a very good fight. I have seen every presidential debate in American  history since the floor of Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. This was immeasurably the  best.”

7 Responses to “My breakfast with George Will, and correcting his errors”

  1. millianaires ~ can you change this to the correct spelling before I tweet it out? I love your work.
    or too speak ~ correct this too, if you are willing.

    Not being nit picky. Just want your work well-represented to some conservative followers who will read it because it’s about Will.

    Thanks.

  2. James McPherson said

    Fixed–thanks, MzJackson. The hazards of writing and posting too quickly–I had it spelled correctly in one place, wrong in the other.

  3. Strawman said

    Oh course George Will voice on the TV back in the day would draw me in for listen. I have a habit of leaving the TV on and just going about my business until I here a person like George Will and Charles Krouthammer (Sorry Spell check can’t help with Charles last name) talking then sit and listen. Something today’s generation does not do anymore when it comes to our government or politics, they pick up catch phases and run with them. I would say George has turned more Liberal, but that would not be true as the years have gone by both parties have gone farther in the opposite directions. Examples are on both sides, Presidents Reagan and Kennedy would be taken out in the first round in today’s extreme edges. Maybe, no probably our answer to our current situation is a lesson from the past. Work with all that are sent to Washington, no matter what the party. Back in the day they would fight all day for the reporters, then go out drinking and socializing that same night. I am certain more real work got done on the night shift then.

    Good read thanks James.

    The debate last night I saw no clear winner. Still Romney 273 without Ohio. that would mean Obama 265. If correct they could contest almost any state they choose to turn it. That why as part of my prediction it included lot of Lawyers making lot of money the next day. If it is that close, it will not be a mandate for either. It will be difficult to govern with such a equal divide, maybe. Equal in numbers massive in the current directions both have staked out.

  4. James McPherson said

    Thanks. Krauthammer also called the debate for Obama, though I thought it was pretty much a draw. As poorly as Obama did in the first one, though, a draw is better than what most folks may have expected. And you’re right–Reagan and Kennedy would be toast early on.

    I still think Obama will win it, though I’m less certain. I’m actually more sure that Dems will hold the Senate, which I wouldn’t have bet on a couple of months ago. Either way, we can probably look forward to four more years of bitterness, partisan posing and stalemate. And lawyers getting richer. :-)

  5. jm said

    >McPherson

    This is a great post.

    I do not have to tell you that effective blogging calls for skills much different than those used in writing effective copy. You do it quite well.

    It bordered on being laughable for Mark Levin to purport to be taking on Will and Krauthammer in analyzing the debate. He wrote:

    “This election is not about Mitt Romney, as much as I strongly, strongly support him in this election,” Levin said. “This election is about you. It’s about your children. It’s about the Constitution. It’s about your unalienable rights. We take this election personally. That’s what Charles [Krauthammer] doesn’t get. That’s what George [Will] doesn’t get. I’m not saying this to attack them or be critical of them. I’m saying open your eyes and look. It’s not the Nixon-Kennedy debates. Everything’s on the line, right now.”

    Read more: http://dailycaller.com/2012/10/18/mark-levin-takes-issue-with-george-will-charles-krauthammer-debate-analyses/#ixzz29cm4gtQ8

    Levin cannot possibly believe that such loose political rhetoric gives him the stature of Will or Krauhammer.

    He certainly lacks their influence.

    Among the better lawyer bloggers are;

    >>Amy Althouse:

    But, good lord, it was nasty! What a strange world we live in where men of the highest stature make the center of a town hall meeting feel like like a boxing ring. They paced around each other, poking pointy fingers. Were you listening to what they said or wondering aloud whether they’d come to blows?

    Read More: Link: http://althouse.blogspot.com/2012/10/46-say-clinton-won-debate-39-say-romney.html

    And, >>Hugh Hewett:

    Some conservatives are upset that Romney didn’t deliver a second obviously crushing series [of] blows to the president, but Romney did turn in a confident, assured performance.

    Read More: Link: http://www.hughhewitt.com/blog/g/1b778d94-d22c-42e7-be56-2bcb3942a533

    In any event, the era of the classical political debates like the Lincoln-Douglas Debate probably will not repeat itself; but, as modern era Presidential debates go, I agree with George will-it was one of the better ones.

  6. [...] I’m in agreement with Professor James McPherson, Media & Politics Blog: “Obama will win it.” READ MORE: LINK: http://jmcpherson.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/my-breakfast-with-george-will-and-correcting-his-errors/ [...]

  7. […] Doris Kearns Goodwin and then (at her request) sent her a copy a book I wrote. (Unlike a similar event with George Will a year earlier, I didn’t notice any errors worthy of correction here.) Later that month I […]

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