No Comment — October 25, 2008, 6:26 pm

Best of the ’08 Campaign III: Best National Columnist

In a sense, a presidential campaign provides the ultimate test of the mettle of the political punditry. Does the pundit simply disintegrate into political hackery by reciting the talking points of the campaign to which he is beholden? That temptation is all too often more than the weak writers and minds in this pack can resist. Or does the writer operate from a set of political and philosophical convictions and hold rigorously to them notwithstanding the temptation to answer the siren call of partisanship? Does he meet the highest standard–is he what Pythagoras would call–in his famous comment on the Olympic Games, a “spectator,” a man who seeks for truth? Scanning the horizon of America’s pundit class today, there are shamefully few positive examples. Much of what we find is maddeningly predictable; intellectual prostitution is prevalent. Still there are a handful of political writers who should be called out for their commitment to principle.

In my view, the best of the best is George Will. He holds to a set of Tory principles that, whether you subscribe to them or not, withstand the test of time and belong to the heart of the American political dialogue. In America, what has been called “conservative” has undergone dizzying transformation in the last eight years. It ends, somehow unsurprisingly, in a total reversal of accepted measures–with a massive nationalization of private debt and a partial nationalization of the nation’s largest banks. That can be explained as a failure of the old conservative vision, but more likely it is something else: the substitution of a weak counterfeit for that vision. The counterfeit involves the adoration of a leader, whose every decision and attitude is then qualified as “conservative.” Few commentators have stood as rigorously against this nonsense and as firmly for old, sober conservative values as George Will. Although I am far from agreeing with George Will on many points of policy, his writing about the ’08 campaign has been exemplary. I always learn something from it.

What impresses me most about Will’s writing is his steady-at-the-tiller analysis. He resists the prevalent tendency to hyperbolize and magnify strengths and weaknesses. And he is relentless in analysis. Indeed, he has been perhaps the single most penetrating and effective critic of both major candidates. I am particularly taken by Will’s criticisms of Barack Obama and the lofty rhetoric of his campaign. Will clearly recognizes in Obama a politician of extraordinary skill and potential, but he is adept in bringing Obama’s shortcomings to the surface–in highlighting the unreasonableness, even the foolishness of some of his campaign rhetoric. There is never a mean-spirited word uttered in this process, however–it appears that Will is anticipating an Obama presidency, and is taking pains to offer a constructive critique. Will senses the rising tide against Republican leadership; he sees a shift to the left. He opposes this with a firm and persuasive argument for old conservative values. If Obama does prevail, the nation’s conservatives will face some serious introspection. They will need to reexamine the premises of what is “conservative.” The Republican Party, the nation, and Barack Obama would do well to listen carefully to George Will in the process.

Here are a handful of the best George Will columns from the last several months:

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Artwork by Imre Kinszki © Imre Kinszki Estate
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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Balazs Gardi
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"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley

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