George Will’s Serious Historical Credentials

by Eric on November 9, 2015

The estimable Heather Cox Richardson sympathizes with George Will in his despair over Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing Reagan. Will decries “today’s cultural pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.”

Just so. But one recalls this example of “the Magisterial Mr. Will” (oh yes, dear readers, for that is how he was billed in his own byline) taking on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, David M. Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: “There they go again,” the high-minded magister wrote, borrowing from Ronald Reagan, “The Pulitzer prizes have been awarded, and the prize for history went to David M. Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear.… Kennedy’s volume can be skipped.”

Why? Kennedy mentioned that Americans might have reflected, after the Allied victory in the Second World War, that they had been slow to recognize the Nazi threat, reluctant to offer sanctuary to refugees, and dependent on Russian bodies to win the war; that they should have avoided committing atrocities in the Pacific, interning Japanese Americans, and indeed perhaps war with Japan; that they had fought with a racially segregated military; that the air war qualified as “terror bombing”; that Roosevelt’s postwar planning depended on nothing so much as Roosevelt being in charge of it—which, of course, he was not.

Some of these points are arguable, I believe. But Mr. Will did not argue them, magisterially or otherwise. Instead, he retorted,

Well, yes, they might have “reflected with some discomfort” on that coagulation of late-20th-century academic conventional wisdom. They preferred — silly them — simply to say: We won, and a good thing, too.

Do not read this book. And if any of your children wind up at Stanford, where Prof. Kennedy teaches, tell them to shun his classes.

Now, this magisterial maelstrom manifested itself some years after my own time studying at Stanford so I have no idea whether bowtied bands of magisterially motivated protesters hoisted signs demanding Kennedy retract his remarks and approve forthwith of isolationism first and wartime atrocities second (in that order), but stop for a moment and contemplate what counted for serious historical critique from Mr. Will back in those days: asking for a boycott of a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian’s lectures.

To my eye, admittedly untrained in the nice distinctions between bowtied bombast and the Fox News flavor, that magisterial move looks rather symptomatic of a “pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.”

Mr. Will has, to borrow from one of those unapologetic air warriors, sown the wind, and reaps accordingly.



Jason Weidner 11.09.15 at 6:11 pm

Let us also not forget that Will is a leading global warming denier.


Eric 11.09.15 at 6:16 pm

But surely he does it magisterially.


marcel proust 11.09.15 at 7:03 pm

But surely he does it magisterially.

Ah, but he and climatologists have non-overlapping magisteria: he blows hot air, while they study it.


JK 11.09.15 at 7:06 pm

But wasn’t it Kennedy’s job to provide a safe space where conservative students could feel at home? If he couldn’t do that shouldn’t he just have resigned?


Bloix 11.09.15 at 7:39 pm

You do understand that Will’s major beef with O’Reilly is that O’Reilly said something unflattering about Reagan that may well be true, don’t you?


Henry (not the famous one) 11.09.15 at 9:10 pm

@bloix at 5: Neither of those articles mentions an anecdote from 1981 in which Reagan did not recognize Samuel Pierce, his own Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, at an event at the White House, and greeted him instead as “Mr. Mayor.” 1981. His own Cabinet member. Not to get all Doctor Frist on Number 40, but that sure looks like early onset to this layperson.


RJ 11.09.15 at 9:46 pm

Will is a good representative, perhaps the best, of a kind of conservative who thinks that people who aren’t conservative simply fail to recognize points of plain common sense. Unlike him, of course.

This appears to be a sociological point that is quite projectable to many other situations and contexts. The smarter conservatives think that leftists and liberals all are systematically deluded; the less smart, that they all are evil, traitors, defenders of the work-shy, and/or secret Islamicists. Either way the l’s and l’s have nothing to say to them.

We’re really in a pickle when it comes to opening up a broad discussion of where our world is going. Maybe there are some conservatives out there that have a point, that are willing and able to respond to a leftist critique; but I never hear of them. It’s almost as though real life is more complicated than “[w]e won, and a good thing too”.


Sandwichman 11.09.15 at 10:22 pm

I propose a cage match between the two of them, armed with loofah sponges and bow ties.


Number Three 11.09.15 at 11:02 pm

My favorite point in GFW’s Sunday column critiquing O’Reilly’s book:
One of Will’s main sources is *his wife*.
Now, I have no objection that Will married another conservative activist, and she is entitled to her version of history. But this is the state of the WaPo op-ed page: your leading conservative columnist gets to base an entire paragraph of a column on his own wife’s testimony. No editor sends that back! Seriously?
You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. Or even your spouse’s testimony to support your opinion.
O’Reilly’s sin is that he suggests that folks in 1987 were concerned that Reagan’s mental acuity was slipping. Um, as someone who was alive in 1987, this was pretty much apparent to everyone . . . even, apparently, Reagan’s chief of staff (I actually find this somewhat heartening). Why this is a crime against Movement Conservatism, I cannot understand.
This is the state of the world in 2015 — Bill O’Reilly is a better source of information than the right-leaning WaPo op-ed page. For the life of me, I can’t understand why George F. Will is still writing for the WaPo. He shot his credibility in 1980. He hasn’t written a coherent column since . . . ?? So 35 years channeling right-wing propaganda through our nation’s papers — how long can this national nightmare last?


Peter T 11.10.15 at 12:48 am

re not the famous Henry @6, Lord Salisbury (British Conservative PM 1900) also failed to recognise fellow Cabinet members on several occasions. His biographer attributes this not to dementia but beards.


Joseph Brenner 11.10.15 at 12:56 am

David Kennedy is the guy they brought in to do a hit piece on Krugman’s “A Conscience of a Liberal” in the New York Times Book Review.

Just let the nee-con’s eat each other, I say.


Barry 11.10.15 at 2:51 am

At this point I’d put Slate and Salon in the same cage, and tell them that only one gets out. When only one is alive, I’d say ‘I lied’, and drop the cage onto a fire ant nest.


Barry 11.10.15 at 2:54 am

Peter T 11.10.15 at 12:48 am
“re not the famous Henry @6, Lord Salisbury (British Conservative PM 1900) also failed to recognise fellow Cabinet members on several occasions. His biographer attributes this not to dementia but beards.”

I can’t find it, but there was one British politician in the late 1800’s who was face blind (Prosopagnosia).

In Reagan’s case, there seems to be a lot of evidence that he was out of it by his second term, and the only question was how much/how earlier.


yastreblyansky 11.10.15 at 3:10 am

What I understand from the video is both men agree vociferously that RR was not demented. They are divided only by the question of whether it’s kosher to mention the fact that some people wondered whether he was or not, O’Reilly suggesting that since that actually happened it’s OK for historians to mention it, Will regarding it as “slander” or should I say lèse-majesté. Like one North Korean historian slamming another one for acknowledging the rumor that Kim Il-sung might be dead. “I didn’t say he was dead, I just said the idea had been mentioned in the decadent and sensationalist Western press.”

It’s amazing that there is someone in the world who can make O’Reilly look like a good historian. I think we must consider the possibility that Will is being paid to do this and burnish Bill’s reputation.


Alan White 11.10.15 at 3:13 am

Does anyone not recall Nancy quietly prompting Ron during an impromptu news conference on the ranch? That was big news then.


sharculese 11.10.15 at 4:02 am

Say what you will about Matt Taibbi (and there’s a lot to say about Matt Taibbi) he nailed Will to the wall over ten years ago and nobody who’s gotten it better since:

Will uses big words and pompous literary references to dress up what are basically the brutish and vulgar thinking patterns of a non-union meat-packing plant owner. He is a pig in a lace hat.


dilbert dogbert 11.10.15 at 5:04 am

One might go to the author of the book, “Dutch” for a comment. If my memory serves, the author had a tough time writing the book and produced a semi fictional account of Reagan’s live.


Pat 11.10.15 at 5:57 am

It is a shame George Will didn’t decide just to write about baseball.


bad Jim 11.10.15 at 8:06 am

I will link, once again, to the redoubtable Charles Pierce, who wrote a book about his father’s dementia.

As to the effect of trauma, or of anesthesia, on sufferers of Alzheimer’s, I’ll adduce the case of my mother, who was pretty far gone when she broke her hip. The surgery was successful as far as her leg went, but she was for practical purposes lost. A well-educated woman, she could still begin sentences with eloquence, but never complete them.


HoosierPoli 11.10.15 at 11:02 am

George F. Will, the F stands for “Fucking”.


tcs 11.10.15 at 2:51 pm

Regarding Reagan’s memory lapses, see Stansfield Turner’s memoirs, some where in the first ten pages; while traveling to Japan, with a stop in Detroit to confer with Auto CEO’s, the President had to be reminded he was using the wrong set of briefing cards.


montag47 11.10.15 at 3:35 pm

The only thing missing in this fight is the pig bladder. Otherwise, it’s pure vaudeville.


Quite Likely 11.10.15 at 4:04 pm

The treatment of George Will in the media is so bizarre. He’s just another buffoon, but he talks and dresses like a professor and people treat that as if it’s evidence of intellectual bona fides.


Jim Harrison 11.10.15 at 4:50 pm

Let us be fair to Will. I remember reading Statecraft as Soulcraft and disagreeing with the critics who found it derivative and pretentious. After all, work of that quality will win you a master’s degree from any reputable teacher’s college in west Texas or central Pennsylvania.


Rakesh Bhandari 11.10.15 at 5:02 pm

Didn’t Reagan win in 1980 with a majority of about half the electorate that did vote. Not quite a mandate.
Forgetting that Reagan came into office with perhaps only 27% of the voting age population having voted for The Great Communicator has probably been the first step in today’s Republican having lost a sense of reality.

Of course there was his kicking off his campaign in Philadelphia, MS as well; but that is another issue.
NYT: “The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”’


mrearl 11.10.15 at 5:33 pm

The O’Reilly/Will exchange on Fox recently was hilarious. Not Buckley/Vidal hilarious, Marx Brothers hilarious, ending with O’Reilly snarling “You’re a hack!” It was right up there with “Why a duck?”


Theophylact 11.10.15 at 8:55 pm

Hack, meet Hackenbush.


LFC 11.10.15 at 10:50 pm

Peter T @10
Lord Salisbury … also failed to recognise fellow Cabinet members on several occasions.

Completely off any topics of this thread, but my favorite line from Salisbury is his remark in a letter, re the supposed need to protect certain ‘strategic’ territories, that “If they [i.e. soldiers] were allowed full scope they would insist on the importance of garrisoning the moon in order to protect us from Mars.” An imperialist, but one with a skeptical streak, at least here.


LFC 11.10.15 at 11:01 pm

p.s. Salisbury writing to Evelyn Baring, in 1892.


Bloix 11.11.15 at 12:15 am

#19 – as this thread is now meandering far and wide, I will say that I had a similar experience with my mother.

Public service announcement: If an elderly parent or relative needs surgery, talk to his or her doctor and do some research into hospital induced delirium and resulting permanent cognitive disability. Steps can be taken to reduce the risk and to manage the condition if it emerges.


Mike Schilling 11.12.15 at 10:58 pm


Obviously, Pat is not someone who cares about baseball.


Pat 11.13.15 at 12:23 am

Pshaw. Men at Work is still a great baseball book. He’s not Bill James or Bob Adair, but Will’s in the larger baseball canon.

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