One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation - George F. Will (2008)
Among the shortcomings of the current administration of the universe is the fact that Alistair Cooke is gone. The British-born journalist, who died in 2004 at age ninety-five, was one of the scarce bits of evidence that there really is an Intelligent Designer of the universe. Cooke lived in this country for sixty-seven years, producing a body of work of unrivaled perceptiveness, affectionateness, and elegance. One of his books, published in 1952, was titled One Man’s America. The title of the book you are holding is one man’s homage to Cooke.
Living in Manhattan and traveling around the forty-eight, and then the fifty, states, Cooke developed a thoroughly American sensibility—cheerful, inquisitive, egalitarian, droll, and enthralled without being uncritical. His delicate sensibility was apparent in his description of Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker in 1925 and editor of it until his death in 1951, as a man “who winced for a living.” Cooke was so well-disposed toward America, and so utterly at home and so exquisitely well-mannered, that he did not wince promiscuously or ostentatiously. Still, wincing is, inevitably, what conscientious social commentators often do, not only in America, but especially in America.
Matthew Arnold, for example, was a fastidious social critic and hence an accomplished complainer. When he died, an acquaintance (Robert Louis Stevenson, no less) said: “Poor Matt, he’s gone to Heaven, no doubt—but he won’t like God.” American social critics wince when this country, in its rambunctious freedom, falls short, as inevitably it does, of the uniquely high standards it has set for itself. But different things make different people wince, because sensibilities differ. And nearly four decades of observing American politics and culture have convinced me that, in both, sensibility is fundamental.
That is, people embrace a conservative (or liberal) agenda or ideology, or develop a liberal (or conservative) political and social philosophy, largely because of something basic to their nature—their temperament, as shaped by education and other experiences. Broadly—very broadly—speaking, there are, I believe, conservative and liberal stances toward life, conservative and liberal assumptions about how history unfolds, and conservative and liberal expectations about how the world works. This is one reason why we have political categories like “liberal” and “conservative”: People tend to cluster. That is one reason why we have political parties.
This collection of my writings is not designed to recapitulate the large events of recent years. Consider this volume an almost entirely Iraq-free zone. Rather, it is intended to illustrate, regarding smaller (but not necessarily minor) matters, how one conservative’s sensibility responds to myriad provocations and pleasures. At a moment when there is considerable doubt and rancor about what it means to be a conservative, perhaps this collection will provide a useful example.
Time flies when you’re having fun, and also when you’re not. Time is, of course, magnificently indifferent to whether or not people enjoy what occurs as it passes. The first years of the twenty-first century have not been, on balance, enjoyable for Americans. These have been years characterized by a miasma of anxiety about a new and shadowy terrorist threat to security, and a torrent of acrimony about the dubious inception and incompetent conduct of a war that became perhaps the worst foreign policy debacle in the nation’s history. (Well, I said this book would be an almost entirely Iraq-free zone.)
Lucretius (as translated by Dryden) wrote about the enjoyment people sometimes derive from watching other people in peril:
’Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore,
The rolling ship, and hear the tempest roar.
But Americans have not felt safe ashore—not safe from foreigners who wish them ill, not safe from unusually virulent domestic squabbles. And Americans have not suffered from any insufficiency of journalism and other hectoring. The simultaneous arrival of saturation media (broadcast, podcast, Internet, etc.) and uncivil discourse might be a matter of mere correlation, not causation. It would, however, not be rash to think otherwise.
Anyway, it would be almost impertinent to ask readers to revisit commentary focused on the largest, and painfully familiar, events of these bleak years. I do not do so in this, the eighth collection of my columns, book reviews, and other writings. If, in any given year, more than a dozen of my columns were not about books, I would think that I had not done my job properly. This is because, for all the fascination with new media, I believe that books remain the most important carriers of ideas, and ideas are always the most important news. Hence books themselves are often news.
With this volume, I am taking a different approach. The essays in the first seven were selected and arranged in order to give readers a retrospective tour d’horizon, a look back at the political and cultural controversies of the four or five years from which the writings were drawn. In this volume, I hope to illustrate how one conservative’s sensibility responded to disparate people, stories, and events.
In the past forty or so years, conservatism has grown from a small, homogenous fighting faction in an unconverted country to a persuasion at least at parity with liberalism in terms of political muscle and intellectual firepower. In the process, conservatism has become large enough to have schisms, and hence an identity crisis. This volume makes no attempt to distill a coherent political philosophy from episodic writings in response to disparate events. Perhaps, however, the skeleton and ligaments of one conservative’s philosophy can be discerned in the response of his sensibility, or temperament, to the people, events, and controversies featured herein. This is, I think, even so (perhaps especially so) when considering the ethics of competition and craftsmanship on what General Douglas MacArthur called “the fields of friendly strife”—that is, sports.
The basic approach to writing columns and other periodic journalism resembles what used to be the unwritten but understood rules regarding Catholic confession: Be brief, be blunt, and be gone. In commentary, this approach is not optional, because print journalism is governed by two scarcities. One is a scarcity of space: Columnists who cannot get said what they want to say in 750 words should consider another vocation. The other scarcity is of time: Americans are harried, and their attention spans are not lengthening. Increasingly clamorous media, covering an always turbulent world, are constantly tugging at Americans’ sleeves, urgently saying, “Pay attention to this!”
Saturation journalism, ravenous for the attention of a jaded and distracted public, ratchets up the hyperbole, like the character in a Tom Stoppard play who exclaims, “Clufton Bay Bridge is the fourth biggest single-span double-track shore-to-shore railway bridge in the world bar none.” Gosh. One character in the American drama, Richard Nixon, said of the first landing by men on the moon, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation.” A friend and supporter, the evangelist Billy Graham, thought that was a bit over the top and notified the president that there had been three bigger events: “1. The first Christmas. 2. The day on which Christ died. 3. The first Easter.” Nixon, not exactly chastened but certainly prudent, scrawled a note to his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman: “H—Tell Billy RN referred to a week not a day.”
The first human step on the moon, although not quite competitive with Creation as a headline, was a grand event. But with the passage of time—usually not very much time; a day often suffices—the subjects of most media cacophonies turn out to seem small indeed. But from many unheralded events and obscure people, large and durable lessons can flow, as I hope the essays in this volume demonstrate. Be that as it may, the essays that follow will perhaps remind readers how endlessly entertaining and instructive the unfolding American story invariably is.
The passing American scene certainly is that, always. Still, any sensible journalist should develop the habit of periodically lifting his or her gaze from the crisis du jour in order to remind himself or herself of this: Journalism is evanescent. But, then, this, too, is true: Under the eye of Eternity—or, less grandly, just given time—almost everything is evanescent. Everything, that is, other than the value of the simple virtues and decencies that can make communities flourish and that have made America great and exemplary. That is what Alistair Cooke believed, and what this conservative’s sensibility tells him.