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 and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for October 16th, 2012

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.”

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