George Will Defines What Makes America Interesting

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.

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