Best of the '08 Campaign III: Best National Columnist | Harper's Magazine

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Best of the ’08 Campaign III: Best National Columnist

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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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