BRIAN LAMB, HOST: George F. Will, author of "Restoration: Congress, Term Limits, and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy," one word I think probably got more attention in your book than any other. The word was "careerism." What are you getting at?
GEORGE WILL: I'm getting at the fact that something has changed in American politics, that we now have people entering politics, particularly legislative life, hoping to, planning to, determined to have careers there, to stay there as long as possible, and using all the many facets of the modern government that permeates our lives in so many ways, all its myriad regulating and subsidizing activities, to further their career. The Founding Fathers didn't worry about careerism in part because the general sense was that people rotated in and out of offices naturally. They'd go to Congress; then they'd go back, say, to Virginia, which they considered far superior in dignity and importance to the federal government anyway, which in many ways it was. So the idea that people would come to Congress, living in rooming houses in a smelly, disgusting city and make a career of it was no problem to them, because the motivation wasn't there. What's changed is the modern state. We now have a modern government that makes it worthwhile wielding this power, and it makes it possible to bend public power for the essentially private purpose of maintaining a career.
LAMB: If you had to pick a group of Founding Fathers to sit around and chat it up with, who'd you pick?
WILL: Madison to start with. I mean, he was the most reflective and most thoughtful. Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton. Madison could vaguely referee, although he was a little more sympathetic to his fellow Virginian, Jefferson. Although they came to different conclusions and had different goals for the country, they did begin by saying, "What is human nature, and how does it intersect with the realities of power, and how, therefore, should we conform power to the facts of human nature?" That's the most sophisticated political analysis the world has ever seen is that which took place in this country roughly from the middle, well, the last quarter of the 18th century. It's a miracle, simply a social miracle, that so much prodigiously intelligent and articulate and passionate and farsighted and learned argument took place from common people to the upper reaches of New York and Virginia society.
LAMB: What would their reaction be if they were to just drop back in here right now and took a look at what's going on around them?
WILL: Hamilton would say, "Ha, I planned it this way, approximately." He'd say, "This is my country. I wanted a vast industrial, commercial power with a strong central government." Madison would say, "I planned half of this. I founded an extensive republic," his words, "so that we could have more factions." The more factions the better because you're less likely to have one faction coagulate into a stable, tyrannical majority. Jefferson would, I think, be 98 percent appalled. He's thought of as the most cheerful and optimistic of the founders, and in many ways he is, but he's also deeply pessimistic in one strain. He said, "Democracy will work." That's what most people hear from Jefferson, but then there's a codicil. "If," he said, "if, but only if, you don't have industries, banks, speculators, cities" -- if you don't have modern America, in other words. He was deeply anxious about the possibility of democracy flourishing where you did not have a majority composed of rural yeomanry trained to the virtues of independence and self-reliance by the facts of rural yeoman life.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
WILL: In the rural yeomanry. No, in the Midwest in Champaign, Ill., which is a university town. At that time, it was just a university surrounded by lots of cornfields.
LAMB: You say in your book that your father was a professor?
WILL: Professor of philosophy. He's retired and lives in Urbana, Ill., right now. Sure.
LAMB: Can you remember when you first got interested in all this stuff that you're talking about in this book?
WILL: Politics? Basically I was interested in baseball until I was a junior in college approximately. Then I began to get interested in other things. I remember the Truman-Dewey campaign of '48. I was 7 years old at the time. I remember the hoopla, and it was all very exciting. I remember, I believe, in 1952 Taft while contesting for the Republican nomination against Eisenhower and others, came to Champaign High School, and I remember going to see him there, but I didn't really get interested in politics until late in my college life.
LAMB: Was your dad political . . .
WILL: Not really.
LAMB: . . . or your mom?
WILL: They were sort of academic liberals. They voted in the '30s for Norman Thomas several times, I think, a Socialist candidate. As most academics were and certainly in Illinois, they were supporters of Governor Stevenson against Eisenhower, but they followed, I won't say their son, but they followed the trend of the country a little bit to the right since then.
LAMB: Did you have brothers and sisters?
WILL: I have a sister. Lives in Newport Beach, Calif.
LAMB: Is she political?
WILL: Not terribly, no.
LAMB: You talk about term limits. That's the meat of the book, but I want to ask you about midnight basketball and Pat Schroeder. What do midnight basketball, Pat Schroeder and term limits have to do with each other?
WILL: It was kind of an epiphany. I know all the arguments against term limits, because I used to make them. I was opposed to term limits for a long time for lots of reasons -- you don't change the Constitution lightly, you do not limit choice lightly. You have to have a good reason. Then one day I found myself making the usual talk, and I said, "I'm against term limits because if we didn't have the seasoned professionals we have in Washington today, we wouldn't have the good government we've got today," and I said, "You can't say that with a straight face." And I used to say, "We can't have amateurs in Washington." Then it dawned on me that the word "amateur" comes from the French word meaning "to love." It's somebody who does something for the love of it, not a bad motive even in a federal city.
But one of the little epiphanies I had on the road to conversion on the subject of term limits occurred when I got up in Denver one morning and read a headline in the Rocky Mountain News that said that Congresswoman Schroeder had got one of her committees to vote an appropriation to make a federal project out of the midnight basketball program. Let me tell you what that is. Midnight basketball actually, I think, started somewhere around Washington and suburban Maryland but basically became a conspicuous and well-publicized phenomenon in Chicago where it plays basketball leagues in the middle of the night. It takes at-risk young men, basically inner-city black men, 17 to 22 or 23, and gives them something to do after midnight when they might otherwise be in trouble. It's funded by the private sector with some help from the city government of Chicago -- uniforms, referees, award banquets, league standings, the whole thing -- great program. I wrote a column about it. Big mistake, because then it came to the attention of the people in Washington whose premise is that any good idea should be a federal program. It just goes without saying.
So Mrs. Schroeder got a bill through, and it suddenly dawned on me that this epitomized the complete absence of any sense of what is and is not a proper federal responsibility, but, more than that, it was what a strange mentality it was that a congresswoman who's been here, by now I guess she's been here 20 years, should not think there's any question, any problem with the federal government making midnight basketball in Chicago a federal program. At the time I was reading a biography of Henry Clay, and I was just at the spot -- all these came together in this epiphany -- where Clay arrives in Washington in about 1806. He's jarred into town from Tennessee. He's come over corduroy roads and up the rivers on the steamboats and barges and it was hell getting here, and he gets to town and Congress is arguing with President Jefferson over whether or not to pass a national roads bill, and Jefferson said, "All right, I'll sign this, but I'm warning you it doesn't say anything in the Constitution that Congress shall build roads, and if you're not careful, in 150 years you're going to be subsidizing basketball in Denver."
Jefferson didn't say quite that, but that was the import of what he said. Jefferson understood that it's very important to keep some sorted-out distinction between what is and what is not a proper federal responsibility. There's none anymore. Once you lose the sense that not everything is the federal government's business, the floodgates are down, and everything in American life becomes fair game for career politicians to use the federal government's omnipresent, omniprovident role to bolster their careers. You see, some intelligent men and women in America think the government doesn't spend enough for the gross national product, and some intelligent men and women say it spends too little, and some no doubt even believe the federal government is spending just the right amount of the national wealth. No one, no one can defend the pattern of federal spending, because it is driven, in large measure, by careerist impulses.
LAMB: You say in the book that you finished this in July. You keep referring to July.
WILL: That's right, that's right. I mean, this book was rushed out.
LAMB: It was rushed out.
WILL: It was. I started writing it less than a year ago, turned the manuscript in, quit making changes on it in July, and it was shipped in late August. That's very fast for a book. And we did it, in part, because there are 14 states this year -- 15 until they've knocked it off the Nevada ballot -- but there are 14 states that have term limits on the ballot where they're going to try by state action. It may be constitutionally problematic to litigate it later, but by state action to limit the number of consecutive terms of their U.S. congressmen and senators concerned, the reason they're going that route in these states is, of course, that the careerists in Congress won't even let term limits come to a vote.
Ask yourself this: Poll after poll indicates that between 70 to 80 percent -- I saw George Mitchell, the Senate majority leader concede the other day about 80 percent of the country favors term limits. Every region, both parties, both sexes, all ethnic groups -- everyone's for term limits. Can you think of anything else in this country that 80 percent of the people want? Congress will not even allow it to come to the floor for a debate and a vote. Where is the term limits bill? It's bottled up in the Judiciary Committee of Jack Brooks, who's been here, I believe, 40 years and is himself an eloquent argument for term limits.
LAMB: Term limits has never been brought to the House floor in the history of the House?
WILL: I don't think so.
LAMB: You tell the story about an O'Daniel from Texas.
WILL: Pappy "Pass the Biscuits" O'Daniel. Great man.
LAMB: Is that the only time it's come to the Senate?
WILL: I think so.
LAMB: What's the story?
WILL: Well, they finally let it come to the floor, and, of course, I think it lost. There were, what, 96 senators, 95-to-1, something like that. O'Daniel was on his way out to be replaced by Lyndon Johnson, I think, but it was considered an eccentric and kamikaze mission to bring it to the floor.
LAMB: You dedicate your book: "To Pat and Liz Moynihan and to Jack and Sally Danforth. Were more of the people who came to Washington like these four, this book would have not been written." Who are those folks, and why did you say that?
WILL: Well, they are two senators, one Republican, one Democrat; both they and their wives are good friends of mine. They're exceptional people. They've both been here longer than term limits would allow them to stay in most recipes. Most term limits would be two terms for the Senate. They bring a seriousness and a gravity to public life that rises well above careerism. It is something I own up to in advocating term limits. It is a strange reform in that one of the very few things that you know for sure about it is bad, that is, it would end some great careers -- Moynihan's and Danforth's. I say in my book that one of the really probably the only real hero I've had in my 22 years in Washington was Scoop Jackson, who would have been removed from national life by term limits before I got here even, because he came in 1941, the year I was born. I didn't get here until 1970. I think he'd have been out by '74, or rather '64. It's an adult requirement that you face the fact that not only this reform won't solve all our problems -- what reform would? -- but this reform causes problems. Most reforms do, and this would cut off some of the long and great careers. I have faced that fact. All I'm saying is that on balance, the weight of evidence is heavily on the side that there's a greater gain than loss.
LAMB: Back to Senator Danforth and Senator. Moynihan. Tthey don't think alike, do they?
LAMB: How would you define the politics of Pat Moynihan?
WILL: He's been all over the map. He's been prematurely correct on a number of issues, the black family, most notably. He got in huge trouble 25 years ago for anticipating what has come to pass, the crisis in that institution. He's one of the very few genuine intellectuals in politics. I'm not saying you want politics full of intellectuals, but a leavening, sprinkling of people who actually read books and write, and more than I write, is very good for the institution. Jack Danforth is a thoughtful, educated man, ordained Episcopal priest, graduate of the Yale Law School. I think he got a Yale divinity and a Yale law degree the same day. I don't think anyone's ever done that.
LAMB: Are they for term limits?
WILL: Jack, no, surely. Pat, emphatically not. I mean, Pat believes in seniority, which he's got lots of now, believes in a professional, political class, and Jack I don't think does either, although I think he's a bit more ambivalent on the subject.
LAMB: You list that who, in your opinion, are the ten strongest presidents in our history. I remember George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and, I think, Andrew Jackson.
WILL: Jackson. Probably Polk, Lincoln, Wilson, the two Roosevelts, Ronald Reagan.
LAMB: You did not mention Gen. Eisenhower or Jack Kennedy or Richard Nixon or lots of others. How come?
WILL: Nixon was not a strong president. Lots got done under divided government, by the way, since we're talking so much about that nowadays. There was a huge outpouring of important legislation under Richard Nixon, but that was just because he wasn't interested. He was going to save the world and go to China and negotiate with the Russians, and he actually said once that the country pretty much runs itself. You need a president for foreign policy. You can't be a strong president, and the way I would use that term and govern that way. Eisenhower was, again, it's a little harder for a Republican to be a strong president, at least a modern Republican because he really doesn't hanker to use the federal government energetically. That's what the other party believes in.
LAMB: Let me read to you . . .
WILL: In fact, you know, one of the arguments in my book that I think will interest readers, because it will surprise them, is my argument for deflating the presidency -- that we have this really grotesque elephantitis of the presidency now, that we tend to look upon him as a moral leader and as the man who sets the agenda for the country.
When I use the word "restoration" as the title of the book, it was precisely to say I want to restore Congress by term limits, by the end of careerism, by bringing in a more deliberative kind of legislator. I want to restore Congress to its rightful place as the first branch of government. Conservatives used to believe in this profoundly, particularly conservatives shaped by a reaction, as modern conservatism was shaped by, a reaction against Franklin Roosevelt. Conservatives for years argued, with James Burnham and others, that Congress is the first branch of government. It's Article 1 of the Constitution; it sits right here on Capitol Hill where, symbolically, where the four quadrants of the Federal City touch. It is the place where American democracy ought to be most vital, and I for one do not rejoice, as I suppose some conservatives do, in the utter disgrace of Congress at the moment. I do not think you can love your country and despise its central institution of democratic expression, which is Congress. If I were to rule or ruin conservatives, someone whose conservatism was simply, "Let's bring government into maximum disrepute," I wouldn't be for term limits." I'd say, "Go right on the way you're going. You're doing fine, because the you have brought the institution into ridicule and disdain."
LAMB: Let me ask you about your conservatism, and one way we might do that is to find out where you fit in comparison with two other people. I remember reading a Bill Safire column one time, and he said, "There are two kinds of conservatism: libertarian and traditional." Let me pick a traditional, Paul Weyrich, who you worked with in Senator Gordon Allott's office at one time, and Bill Safire, who said he's a libertarian. Where do you fit in that, and what does that all mean?
WILL: I'm probably a little closer to Bill Safire, although not entirely. The traditional conservatives now are those who, as I think you're using it, who believe that the culture is as much the problem as the economy, that American values need looked after and that the government has a role in husbanding and nurturing the cultural temper of the country. I broadly agree with that. I wrote a book long ago, read by dozens, called "Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does" was the subtitle, and I argued that government cannot avoid soulcraft, that is worrying about the values of the people. It does it through education, it does it through what activities it criminalizes or tolerates, that it has lots of values. Civil rights laws express values. Capital punishment for certain behavior expresses values, and so government ought to think about that. So Paul Weyrich , I think, is right to say the government has a role in this. However, I'm strong libertarian bent in that I believe markets are far and away the best allocators of wealth and opportunity and that when you politicize more and more decisions -- economic or otherwise -- you are, you're ...
LAMB: Let me drop back to Champaign, Illinois, and Springfield and Urbana. You left at some point. What was your reason?
WILL: I left there at 18 to go away to Trinity College in Hartford.
LAMB: Why did you pick Trinity?
WILL: They had a scholarship program for kids from Illinois, that's why. My parents were college teachers and didn't have a lot of money.
LAMB: What did you major in?
WILL: I think I had a double major in government and religion.
LAMB: Why did you choose those two?
WILL: I think I liked professors, particular ones, and was attracted to their courses.
LAMB: What did you think of Trinity? What impact did it have on you?
WILL: I was a slow awakener to the academic side. I went to Trinity and got involved in the newspaper. I was from central Illinois, and New York was right down the road, and it was New York at that time before it became the mess it is today, and it was charming. You could go to Washington Square and Greenwich Village, and it was sort of the last flowering of New York as a romantic Babylon on the Hudson. I got interested in politics then. As a sophomore, I guess it was, during the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, I was active in the Connecticut Students for Kennedy, but I say in my defense, people need to remember that that was before the Democratic Party was transformed by Vietnam and by the McGovernite takeover. This was when Kennedy was, in many ways, running to the right of Nixon. He was running on a missile gap, that the Eisenhower administration hadn't been resolute enough in the Cold War.
LAMB: Did Jack Kennedy bring you into politics then?
WILL: I suppose in some way. I suppose anyone who had been running then, I would have got interested, but certainly my quickening interest in politics coincided with the Kennedy campaign.
LAMB: What happened after Trinity?
WILL: I went to Oxford for two years, came back and voted for Goldwater. In England, I was struck by three things. On my vacations I went to Berlin twice, and the Berlin Wall went up in August '61, so it was a fresh phenomenon, and it was quite a stunning experience. If you wanted to learn the cost of modern politics and the stakes of modern politics, you had to see the Berlin Wall. I mean, I was there shortly after Peter Fechter, the young man who tried to escape and was shot and left to bleed to death, the wall, there's still a little altar there to Peter Fechter actually helped a guy escape from East Germany before I left Europe for two years. That was one thing, seeing the Berlin Wall.
The other was seeing Britain having its social energy suffocated by statism, Tory socialism as much as Labor socialism, just a general sense of government overreaching and overbearing and vanity of a government that thought it could plan the energies of a complicated people.
Third, there were, just by luck, at Oxford at that time a number of Americans who were interested in Friedrich von Hayek. Milton Friedman had just published Capitalism and Freedom. There was a little organization in Eton Square in London called the Institute of Economic Affairs, which was Hayekian-Milton Friedmanite. George Stegner was publishing some of his libertarian defense, moral as well as economic, defense of capitalism. So there was a very lively culture there then, a young, very young, female, conservative politician named Margaret Thatcher was interested in what the Institute of Economic Affairs was doing.
LAMB: Did you know her then?
WILL: I didn't know her then. No. Later, however, she included some of their people on the honor's list.
LAMB: So often people that are sitting in that chair you're sitting in say they went to Oxford. How did you get there?
WILL: My father had taught there. He'd just been over and had been a lecturer there and spent some time there, and he knew some people at Magdalen College.
LAMB: Why do so many of you want to go there?
WILL: Well, then it was quite preeminent, more so than it is now. It's interesting that in this presidential campaign, George Bush has said, "This man, Clinton, he went to Oxford and hung out with all those left-wingers and acquired a thirst for social engineering." As I said, I went to Oxford and came back and voted for Goldwater. It didn't have, at all, that effect on me. But Oxford was, I have to say, more luminous then than it is now. Oxford made a huge mistake. It made an exception to its general policy and refused to give Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree, and she didn't get mad, she got even, and I think Oxford has had some funding problems. There's been a brain drain from Oxford, principally to the United States.
LAMB: Were there others there with you that are now in American politics here?
WILL: At Magdalen, when I was there, a young man named David Souter, now on the Supreme Court.
LAMB: Did you know him?
WILL: I did know him, yes.
LAMB: Does it surprise you that he's now on the Supreme Court?
WILL: Yes, it would surprise anyone. I mean, any guy you eat breakfast with at age 22 you don't think of as a justice.
LAMB: You came back from Oxford what year?
LAMB: What did you do?
WILL: Voted for Goldwater. But beyond that, I'll tell you, I voted for him by absentee ballot from Illinois while I was at Princeton for three years, '64 through '67 getting a Ph.D. in political philosophy. I remember vividly that there was a faculty poll, and Goldwater finished third. I don't remember who it was finished second, of course, Humphrey, Johnson-Humphrey ticket and then some madman from California that was appealing to the liberals on the faculty.
LAMB: What did you do then?
WILL: I taught for a year at Michigan State.
LAMB: Why did you pick that?
WILL: They picked me. They offered me a job, and I was glad to go back to the Big Ten, back to the Midwest, and then I got a very attractive offer and went to University of Toronto, where I was when, one day out of the blue, I got a call from the office of Gordon Allott of whom I had never heard. He was the senior senator by then from Colorado.
You were, at this time, working for the other Colorado senator, Peter Dominick, and they said that Dirksen had died, and they were shifting the Republican leadership around, and Gordon Allott became, I guess, the number three ranking position. It was then chairman of the policy committee. He had some more staff slots to fill, and he wanted a Republican academic to do some writing. Well, Republican academics were pretty thin on the ground in those days, and through sheer luck, someone at the University of Denver who'd known me at Princeton told him I was in Toronto, and the phone rang. So he said, "Come to Washington." I never looked back.
LAMB: Did you ever find out how they found you?
WILL: Yes, through a colleague from Princeton who was teaching at Denver, and I guess Gordon asked.
LAMB: But was it them, oh, it was a senator that found you and wanted you on the staff.
WILL: That's right.
LAMB: What was that experience like?
WILL: Working on the Hill? It was great. Three years was probably long enough, but it's a crash course on American politics, a great immersion and a wonderful institution, and I loved Congress then, love it now. It's one of the reasons I wrote the book.
LAMB: What impact did it have on you working up there?
WILL: I got to admire a great many of the people, a great sense that there's a lot of talent there, a lot of public spiritedness, a lot of intelligence, a lot of the opposite of that, also. And the question is how to find the balance and how to encourage through, perhaps, institutional reform, one of which I think term limits is, an increase in the ratio of public spiritedness to mere careerism.
LAMB: After that, where did you go?
WILL: After that I started writing a column instantly.
WILL: I called, I had written a couple of things both as an academic and while on the senate staff for National Review, and I called Bill Buckley and said, "I think you need a Washington editor," and essentially he said, "OK, do it." That's the way Bill often ran National Review. He'd spot people, you know, most great editors are that way. They trust their instincts, and Frank Meyer, who ran the back of the book was at that time very ill, and it was terminal cancer, and Bill could see he was going to have to replace someone to do the book review and that, and he said, "Can you do both?" and I said, "Yes," so I did.
LAMB: Did you make enough at that time working for National Review to make a go of it?
WILL: I did actually, but beyond that, in my third year and final year on the Senate staff, I had attended a conference on one of those politics-in-the-media things at Kenyon College, and it was attended by Meg Greenfield. At that time, she was the deputy editor of the editorial page of the Washington Post, and she liked some of the stuff, what I said. She said, "What are you going to do?" and I said, "I'm going to leave at the end of the year and start writing for National Review." She said, "Well, submit some stuff to us." So I did right then in 1973. At that time, the Washington Post was just starting the Washington Post writers group, its in-house syndicate principally to syndicate David Broder to a wider audience, and I think they figured it's just as easy to do it for two as for one, so I went along as ballast. They said, "Do you want to start a syndicated column?" and I did, I guess, in January of '74. That's how it started. I'd love to say it was a heroic, uphill struggle, but it was effortless. I kept saying, "Make me a columnist," and they kept saying, "All right," and off I went.
LAMB: What did you notice first when you started writing a column that people responded to?
WILL: Interesting. Before I was syndicated, when I was just submitting them to Meg, I saw a movie called Billy Jack that just enraged me, and I wrote a movie column about Billy Jack and The Graduate and one other movie.
LAMB: Tom Laughlin?
WILL: Yes, all of which offended me.
LAMB: Current presidential candidate?
WILL: Yes. The phone starts ringing off the hook, and also the Washington Post at this time did one of their deep, sociological think pieces. They went out to Reston, Virginia, and talked about the representative yuppie couple struggling to get by in Washington, and it struck me kind of silly, pop sociology. I wrote a column about what they'd find if they came by the Will house to do their sociology. The phone starts ringing, people are saying wonderful stuff, and it dawned on me that if you write a column about nuclear war or disarmament, people will read it and nod and then go on to something else. You write a column about your dog or your children's pets or the things people actually care about, those are the refrigerator-door columns. Those are the ones people cut out and stick on a little magnet on their refrigerator door to keep.
I have ever since -- not that I need to try because it's my inclination -- to write at least a third of my columns off the news, that is, not just on stuff below the fold of the front page of the Washington Post, but not even in the Washington Post maybe. A few days ago -- I know we're taping this to be shown a little later -- a few days ago, I wrote a column on the movie The Last of the Mohicans, because it strikes me that James Fenimore Cooper and Hawkeye are interesting American figures. People will like reading that, and I'll say, I don't have to read about Clinton and Bush today. It's like a day at the beach.
LAMB: All right. A column in the Post, Washington Post writers group. When did you give up the National Review?
WILL: 1975 was my last year. I did it '73, '74, and '75 and in '75, Newsweek came to me and said, "Would you like to participate in the back page as a contributing editor?" and I said yes.
LAMB: How did your life change because of that?
WILL: Not much, just more writing. But I love to write. See, most journalists hate to write. They like the research, and they like hanging around in the journalist culture, and at the end they like to see their name in print, but that middle thing of actually writing they hate. I love to write.
LAMB: How do you write?
WILL: Yes, I just noticed I did that. Most people would do that. I write with that, with a fountain pen.
LAMB: Big, huge Mount Blanc pen.
WILL: Everything with a fountain pen, and I write books with it.
LAMB: What do you write it on?
WILL: Yellow tablets.
LAMB: Richard Nixon used to do that.
WILL: Yes. I don't care. I still do it.
LAMB: Where do you write?
WILL: In my office in Georgetown, on airplanes, everywhere. I have an itch to write. I would explode if I couldn't write.
LAMB: How often do you write?
WILL: I write five columns every two weeks to begin with, and then I write book reviews and I write books.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
WILL: Eight. Some of them are compilations of columns, so they don't count maybe. They're books, but I didn't write them as books.
LAMB: Are you still on the board of the Baltimore Orioles?
LAMB: How much time do you spend doing that?
WILL: Not much. I mean, it's largely honorific but great fun.
LAMB: Do you speak for a living?
LAMB: How often?
WILL: I don't know. It varies. I've got a lot of rules.
LAMB: How important is all this?
WILL: It's not that important. I won't travel on weekends, not too much in the summer. Don't travel in the middle of a Newsweek week, which is every other week when I write the Newsweek column, so I have so many rules that I hold it down. I turn down more invitations than I take.
LAMB: And how about television? When did that start?
WILL: Almost right away. There was a program in town then called "Agronsky and Company." Martin Agronsky was the host. It was distributed a little bit by the Post-Newsweek broadcasting organization. It was four or five people sitting around arguing, and there was a man on there named Peter Lisagor, died of cancer, and I was sort of the fifth wheel. I was the substitute, and then when he died I became a regular.
LAMB: How did television change your life?
WILL: I think it helps get people to read you. There's an obvious synergism in this, that people find you interesting on television, and God knows usually on television, you're not on as we are today for an hour. You're on for 20 seconds at a time, and it can, at most, whet people's appetite. They say, "Well, that's an interesting mind. I'd like to encounter more of it." You can do that in columns and in books.
LAMB: After all this time being in the public spotlight, if you had to abandon all the things you do now, what other profession would you take up?
WILL: You mean I couldn't write anymore?
LAMB: Couldn't write anymore.
WILL: Oh, I can't imagine. I might go back and teach, because the beauty of my life is -- someone once asked me, "If you could design the perfect job, what would it be?" I said, "I've done it. I've got it." I have the best job in America. I'm handsomely compensated to read and talk to interesting people and write. What a wonderful thing. When I first started writing, I asked Bill Buckley -- and it's the most frequently asked question of me now -- I said, "Bill, don't you ever have trouble coming up with things to write about?" And he said, "No, the world irritates me three times a week," and the world irritates or stimulates me or amuses me many more times than that. I have never, ever had a day when there weren't four or five topics I could have written about.
LAMB: In your book you say, "poor George Bush." And you say things like this: "Bush has at least been useful by demonstrating what happens to that reliance when the president is a stammering cipher." I might stop to ask you what a stammering cipher is, first of all.
WILL: That's someone who has nothing to say and doesn't say it very well.
LAMB: "Bush is the most narrow-gauge president in living memory, and even his narrow interest and supposed competence is ill-suited to his moment on center stage."
WILL: That's right. He really trained all his life to conduct the presidency in a way that suddenly became anachronistic. That is, he was going to be the administer of the Western side of the Cold War. He comes to power January 20, 1989. November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall comes down, and suddenly that model of the presidency, which was inadequate even for the Cold War hero, was utterly anachronistic.
LAMB: I'm not sure I remember this right, but I think in one column you called him a lap dog?
WILL: I did.
LAMB: Did you think about that before you wrote it?
WILL: Yes. It was January 1986, and he was campaigning in a way that I considered demeaning and unacceptable and saying things about people that were flat not true. Actually, he finally gave the speech that finally snapped my patience. George Bush had been a guest several times in my home. I've been in his swimming pool in Houston -- not a man I had a grudge against. But I just had enough. I called Marlin Fitzwater, who at that point was his press secretary as vice president, and I said, "Tell me. When he said this, did he have a text? Was he reading that or was he winging it?" You know, at the end of a day, you're tired and you're winging it. That's forgivable. He said, "No, he had a text," and I said, "That's enough," and I wrote the column.
LAMB: Did you ever talk to him since that day?
WILL: Once. He was on the Brinkley show in February '88 during the Iowa caucuses.
LAMB: Was he cordial?
WILL: Chilly. I don't blame him. I've said harsh things about him.
LAMB: What happens when you do that in a town like this?
WILL: Nothing much.
LAMB: Do you get closed out of social events?
WILL: No. I mean, people said, "Oh, you'll never get invited to the White House dinners." I was friendly to the Reagans, and I only went to two White House dinners. I went to one early on and found it such a tedious sort of formal bore that I said I wouldn't go to any others. I would get invited, and I say, "Thanks, don't invite me." And I finally went to my second one because Gorbachev was there, but that's not why I went. First Lady Nancy Reagan called me and said, "If you come you can sit with Joe DiMaggio," so I did. It was a great experience.
LAMB: Another man you criticize in your book is Newt Gingrich. One would think given the politics of Newt Gingrich and your politics that you'd like him.
WILL: There's a difference -- a yawning, growing difference, I'm afraid -- between Newt Gingrich's rhetorical and his actual politics. I make a case in there about an example of the way he campaigned this year in his primary election down in, essentially a new district, in Cobb County, Georgia, which struck me as just exactly what's wrong with career politicians, that is, that someone saying, "Send me to Washington and I will regard it as a foraging expedition, and my role will be to do as much for Cobb County in the way of bacon, pork, and other goods and services, that I can bring home."
And I said, "That's not deliberative democracy." See, most people advocate term limits because they say, "We want to make Congress closer to the people." Not me. I want term limits to establish a kind of constitutional distance. I believe that's a phrase that I got from Professor Harvey Mansfield of Harvard. I want people who are not determined to be responsive to every tremor of appetite from every organized interest in their district. I want people who say, "No, I'm going to be able to say no. I'm going to be able to cast some unpopular votes, because if I'm defeated, it's not personal oblivion. It's not annihilation, because I never planned to make my life in Congress."
LAMB: What's this?
WILL: That's a Rorschach test, and what I see in it, doctor, is a congressional district. Which one is that? That, I believe, is Chicago. Can you tell? Yes, that's Illinois. That is a congressional district drawn by a computer in order to produce, I believe, an Hispanic legislator. We now have so twisted and distorted the Civil Rights Act of '65 and as amended in '82 that we produce things like this, because we have decided that as part of the new racial spoils system, as part of our entitlement system, certain government-approved ethnic groups are entitled to safe seats. That's absolutely astonishing. This is all part of the careerism, by the way, and the arrogance that has overtaken our dynastic Congress. Once upon a time the theory of democracy, quaint but rather nice, was that the constituents pick their elected leaders. Now the elected leaders pick the constituents with a little help from the computers.
LAMB: Television and the presidency and the Congress. What's television? You wrote a lot about the impact of television on the presidency?
WILL: Let's take the presidency first. It is no accident, comrade, as the Marxists used to say, that television and the Cold War arrived in America almost simultaneously, late '40s, early '50s. Television is -- and here I must bite one of the hands that feeds me -- television is a slave to an inherently superficial news-gathering instrument, a camera. It has to be pointed at something. They need pictures. The most convenient thing to point it at is a president, one guy. Congress is 535 people, most of whom aren't known. The president is known, and, indeed, now, for years and years, part of the evening newscast has come from the president's front lawn -- Donaldson, he's got his stand out in front here at the White House today. Oh, gosh, the president, the center of our lives comes into our house every night at dinnertime. We lose sight of the fact, don't we, that the president is the executive at the top of one of the three branches of one of our many governments in this federal system. He is not pope, he is not a bishop, he not our moral leader, he is not our spiritual advisor. He's a politician, chief executive, but he has become a kind of tone-setter for the country and looked upon this way. Hurricane in Florida, get the president down there. Got a riot in Los Angeles, get the president there. What? He's going to wait five days? Intolerable! Where do we get this idea that the presidents must sort of flit down from the sky bringing healing and moral sustenance and insight? He's just a fellow. There's something profoundly unhealthy, but more to the point, to put it in the context, as I do in the book, of classical republican, small R, the idea of a republic, something wrong about investing a political leader with this kind of almost sacerdotal function. Just a guy.
LAMB: You testified back at one point in the middle '80s against the idea of televising the Senate.
LAMB: How come?
WILL: I thought that it would close -- to refer to the phrase I used a moment ago -- that it would further close the constitutional distance that ought to exist between the represented and their representatives. The theory, the core principle of republican government -- this is a republic -- is the principle of representation under which the people do not decide issues. They decide who will decide, and they send them to the Capitol to deliberate, to reason together as representatives and come to conclusions, hopefully, thinking about the next generation not just the next election. I thought -- still think somewhat, but I'm less alarmed -- that by televising, by bringing an audience in to look over the shoulder of these people, as it were, you would close this distance. You would encourage a more plebiscitary, more direct democracy, but the people would be constantly feeling the pressures, constantly feeling people looking at me -- how do I behave? -- and that is the enemy of deliberation.
LAMB: Have you sensed a negativism that's come out of both the House and Senate being televised?
WILL: I would be loathe to blame the recent decline of Congress and its behavior, its effectiveness and its standing on television. I don't think its had quite the effect I thought it would. I think Senator D'Amato might have sung during his filibuster anyway, even if television weren't on. I blame D'Amato, not television.
LAMB: You show some statistics. The average term spent here is 12 years. Senate staff is 5.7 years, House staff, five years.
WILL: These numbers are skewed a little bit. The average for staff can be five years, but the most important staff, the staff directors, the important committees and all the rest -- they stay longer. Similarly, it's all very well for Tom Foley and others to say, "We've had a 90 percent turnover since the Goldwater election or since the Watergate election of '74." That's not what's crucial. The crucial is how many of the senior committee chairmen stay on and on and on. And more than that, what is crucial is what motives bring people to Washington.
See, term limits is a very Madisonian kind of reform. It says we are going to, with a surgical, little few words in the Constitution -- we would say, "can only serve so many consecutive terms" -- four, six in the House, two in the Senate. The result will be that you cannot come here with the motive that now activates a great many people of staying here forever, and, therefore, you will have an incentive because when people say, "Well, can't do anything to reduce the deficit because it'll make so-and-so mad," I say, "Look, I make someone unhappy. That's all right, because I'm going home anyway."
You know, one of the reasons the courts have become so central to American life, rather than being as they ought to be, peripheral, is that a career legislative class has been only too eager to let the courts handle abortion and race and capital punishment and all the rest. Take the hot potatoes. Let us deal with the bridges and roads and pork barrel and all the rest, because the really difficult and vexing issues of our democracy are divisive and dangerous.
LAMB: There are a lot of different people you cite in here that you enjoy reading, a couple I want to ask you about. Why is it so many people cite Alexis de Tocqueville?
WILL: Because no one has ever written about democracy generally, but our democracy so acutely.
LAMB: No one.
WILL: No one. I don't think so. Not Lord Bryce, not even all the great Americans. He was a foreigner, so he brought the fresh perspective that sometimes comes with the way you and I might see Rome in a way that a Roman couldn't. Beyond that, he came at just the right time, about the 1830s. The founding generation had passed. The second and third presidents famously died hours apart on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826. The country was feeling the founding generation has passed, and the great heroic age has passed perhaps, and the virtues that they exemplify are in danger, and there was a great anxiety in America about whether or not you could have republican -- again, small R -- republican virtue in a changing, expanding, immigrant nation of aspiring capitalists and commercial people. De Tocqueville arrived with his acute intelligence at exactly this moment of great national introspective. We're always an introspective nation because we are dedicated to a proposition defined by ideas and ideals, and, therefore, condemned permanently to worry about living up to them. But the moment de Tocqueville got here was one of particularly acute anxiety, and he made the most of it.
LAMB: You have a chapter "From Bristol to Cobb County." Where's Bristol?
WILL: Bristol is in the coast of England. It is where Edmund Burke was elected to serve in Parliament, and he got up to give a speech thanking the electors of Bristol, as was the custom then and still is in many ways, and he said, "By the way, thanks for sending me to Parliament, but I have some news for you. I know you have a practice and a habit here called instruction where you send directives to your representative telling him how to vote." And he said don't bother, essentially. He said, "That's not what I owe you. I owe you my industriousness and my energy, but I also owe you my independent judgement, because I'm not sent there as an ambassador from Bristol to a foreign capital of London to represent your interests against others. I'm there as an Englishman to represent the collective corporate interest of the nation and to do so with independence, so don't bother jerking my leash. I'm taking the leash off." Very nice.
LAMB: Who is Gibbon? -- "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire."
WILL: Edward Gibbon. He went to my college at Oxford, actually, 200 years earlier. Wrote the funniest book perhaps, the most sustainedly witty book in the English language, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
LAMB: Is it worth reading, by the way?
LAMB: Does it relate at all to what we're talking about here in this country?
WILL: Absolutely. It's about an overextended, sprawling political entity that lost touch with its virtues. Make of that what you will.
LAMB: Quote from your book: "America is still a world-class producer of something: cynicism." Why?
WILL: In part because we have high expectations for us, that we had this luminous, founding moment. We had this elegant, founding generation. We have these great founding documents. We are dedicated to a proposition, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, and we have always, therefore, a natural gap between these great standards and our actual practice so that needn't produce cynicism, but it produces skepticism. But also we are skeptical about government as an enterprise. Our philosophy of government from Locke down says, look, government's necessary but it's a necessary nuisance, and it's not central to our lives. It's to iron out the imperfections of social man, and, therefore, it's not a great enterprise and should be kept at a distance and kept down and kept in its place. So we tend to be skeptical and sometimes cynical about people who want to go into government. What are they doing that for? They should go work for IBM, do something useful. So then, third, there is the fact that the behavior of the modern political class has made people cynical. Just ask. People look at them, and they say, "They are thinking of themselves. They are thinking of their careers."
LAMB: What do you think of what people have said about you over the years, that you are the conservative liberals love to endorse?
WILL: I think may have once, but I don't think they do so much anymore. They started saying that about me early on, because I started writing a column the week that the Watergate coverup began to unravel before Judge Sirica, and I decided early on that Nixon knew, that Nixon was guilty and that he was going ... I mean, very early on. And this was, by the way, a big problem for National Review, which had just hired me, and it was a problem for Bill Buckley, because a lot of his supporters didn't like this. To Bill's great credit, not once, not once -- and I was costing him money and contributors to the magazine, and I was costing him subscribers and costing him mental suffering -- not once did he try and deflect me from judgments and course. But, anyway, I was early on anti-Nixon, and that endeared me to some people who later, when I was an advocate of Ronald Reagan, decided that I wasn't such a good guy after all.
LAMB: As you look ahead, and if Bill Clinton wins this election, what will it do to your life?
WILL: It'll be good for me in several ways. Politics will be more interesting, because the Bush presidency has been so singularly sterile of ideas, on the domestic front particularly. The great arguments of political philosophy about fairness and equality and liberty and justice basically concern domestic affairs -- how people ought to live together under a common sovereignty, and when you have an administration bored to tears and boring about domestic affairs, it's harder to find interesting arguments with it. Second, it'll be more fun to have a Democrat in for a while, because as a conservative and, therefore, someone basically disposed to the Republican Party, the Bush presidency has been embarrassing because it's taken the great momentum and enthusiasm and political energy of the Reagan years and dissipated it.
LAMB: Just a short time left. What will Ross Perot's place be in history?
WILL: A blip.
LAMB: What was his impact on this year?
WILL: I haven't seen much impact. I mean, he did add, when he got the representatives of the two campaigns down there to kowtow and grovel and pander and stroke his ego, he did add, I suppose, a cubit to the public cynicism about both parties, but beyond that I don't think he's had much effect.
LAMB: Other books in George Will's little catalog that he wants to write?
WILL: Yes. I don't know what they are just yet, but if I'm not writing a book, I feel I'm not doing my job.
LAMB: One last question: If you had to live in another time period besides this one, which one would you favor?
WILL: I suppose the Gilded Age when America was terrifically creative, assimilating vast hordes of wonderful immigrants and uniting the nation with steel rails and building its industrial base. The Gilded Age is a much maligned era.
LAMB: That year would have been, best year?
WILL: Best? Oh, I don't know, 1890. Pick a year.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like. It's George Will's latest called "Restoration: Congress, Term Limits and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy." Thank you for joining us.
WILL: Glad to.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1992. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.