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With a Happy Eye But...: America and the World, 1997--2002

With a Happy Eye But...: America and the World, 1997--2002

by George F. Will

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Newsweek columnist takes on the presidents Bush, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, Y2K, 9/11, trickle-down economics, Brooks Brothers suits, the essence of golf, and of course, those damn Yankees.

"It has taken me sixty years to identify the three keys to a happy life," writes George Will. "A flourishing family, hearty


The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Newsweek columnist takes on the presidents Bush, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, Y2K, 9/11, trickle-down economics, Brooks Brothers suits, the essence of golf, and of course, those damn Yankees.

"It has taken me sixty years to identify the three keys to a happy life," writes George Will. "A flourishing family, hearty friends, and a strong bullpen." The title of this book — Will's seventh collection of newspaper and magazine pieces, book reviews, speeches, and occasional writings — is taken from the W. H. Auden poem "The Horatians," which dictates that we look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.
And so it is with a happy eye indeed that Will shares his vision of America just before and after the birth of the twenty-first century. Featuring five years' worth of observations on politics, current affairs, and international relations, With a Happy Eye But...is a brilliantly diverse collection from America's most widely known commentator at his sober, happy, and controversial best.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The New York Times Book Review A collection of columns by George F. Will, each an exemplar of considered judgment and nuanced expression...their craftsmanship is defined by detail.

Library Journal [Will's] writings are valuable to readers across the political spectrum.

The seventh essay collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator George F. Will includes pieces on the Washington political scene; the crisis of the Republican party; Bill Clinton; the election of 2000; cultural icons and fictional heroes; and, of course, baseball. Perceptive, wry, and politely opinionated, Will wins our nomination as the curmudgeon for all seasons.
Publishers Weekly
The fifth collection of conservative pundit Will's columns (The Morning After, etc.) shows his usual erudition (the title comes from Auden), but they seem more outdated this time around. The terrorist attacks figure prominently in an overwrought introduction ("The scream of the incoming aircraft was a howl of negation"), but most of the "current events" addressed the battle between gay activists and the Boy Scouts, pressure on members of the European Union to accept the euro, disabled golfer Casey Martin's fight to use a golf cart on the pro tour feel like curious relics of a pre-September 11 world, and his longstanding complaints about the wickedness of Oliver Stone and the decline of civilization on liberal college campuses come across as cranky grumblings. He gets in plenty of digs at Bill Clinton: "not the worst president the republic has had, but... the worst person ever to have been president"; he even finds occasional fault with George W. Bush (though the worst adjective he can think of to describe Bush's initial waffling over the Enron scandal is "Clintonian"). The final chapters are heartfelt memorials to Will's father and to columnist Meg Greenfield, but one wishes that Will had applied the level of sustained reflection they show to a fuller analysis of one or two subjects, such as the contested 2000 election or the war on terrorism, instead of the jumbled impressions offered here. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This book is the seventh volume of Will's collected columns, essays, and addresses to be published since 1978. Given his fame as a syndicated newspaper and Newsweek columnist (he won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1976) and as a television personality (he has served as an analyst with ABC News since the early 1980s), readers come to this work with high expectations that are not disappointed. In this book, Will describes contemporary Americans as "naive optimists." Within the context of the Clinton years, the 2000 elections, and the shadow of 9/11, he opines on the inevitability of war, the necessity of the death penalty, the need for the military to remedy moral values, the fundamental flaws of a (liberal) intelligensia "too short on certitude," and his impatience with a society "too squeamish to call evil by its right name." An accomplished essayist, Will provides a model for writing that dismisses alternative viewpoints, and though his writings are valuable to readers across the political spectrum, they may leave liberals spluttering. Recommended for general collections in high school, public, and academic libraries.-Jean S. Caspers, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR
Kirkus Reviews
Columns published over the past five years provide conservative pundit Will's trademark curmudgeonly commentary on the gilded Clinton years and the dawn of the more troubled W. era. King of the Beltway pundits in the 1980s, Will (The Woven Figure, 1997, etc.) was ever so gently dethroned in the '90s. On the right, there were the more red-blooded types, and on the left there was Bill Clinton, unlikely to ever invite George to an Oval Office confab. Will, however, has always been better as a contrarian than an insider. He takes on such distasteful (to him) features of the high '90s as the use of the courts to enforce entitlements, the tastelessness of the first Bubba in the White House (including, of course, the sexual peccadilloes that lead to his impeachment), the unctuousness of the first lady, and the expansion of a bureaucratically powered government into ever-new areas of private life. This time, Will's best essays are on cultural rather than political topics, with particular attention paid to what he sees as the threat to the "seamlessness" of cultural memory embodied in dumbed-down pop culture and "leftist" academic culture. Will's faults are evident in here too: for instance, his tic of larding columns with enough quotations to make Bartlett want to sue. He also has a penchant for intemperate, off-the-cuff anathemas. His conclusion about Clinton, for instance: "the worst person ever to have been president." Really? Worse than, say, slaveholder and would-be ethnic cleanser of Indians Andrew Jackson? The gold standard among conservative columnists remains William F. Buckley Jr., who can be enjoyed as literature even if you don't agree with him; the same cannot be said of Will.Nonetheless, a must-read for aficionados of Beltway journalism.

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Read an Excerpt

We can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective. — W. H. Auden, "The Horatians"

What? Look at the world with a happy eye, even after 9/11/01? Yes, indeed, especially after the terrorism that abruptly rang down the curtain on a remarkably carefree, and remarkably uncharacteristic, era in modern American history.

Who are the "we" who supposedly are "made for" a happy stance toward life? Auden intended the pronoun's antecedent to be humanity generally. And maybe humanity is so made. That depends on a philosophical, even theological judgment as to whether all of humanity has a common Maker, as well as an opinion on His disposition. Be that as it may, for the portion of humanity privileged to be Americans, looking upon the world cheerfully is simply doing what comes naturally. And the reasons why Americans should be of good cheer were underscored by the nature of our nation's enemies, who announced themselves at 8:48 a.m. Eastern Daylight Savings Time on the eleventh day of the second September of this millennium.

When the first hijacked aircraft, traveling much faster than commercial aircraft are authorized to fly in that space, came screaming low over the Hudson River and into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, the country was paid a huge, if unwitting, compliment. To the perpetrators of this mass murder, the United States is a provocation. It is because it is, as the sixteenth president said, a nation dedicated to a proposition: that all men are created equal. And that proposition is a distillate of the rich cultural inheritance of Western civilization, with its due regard for individual autonomy and rights, and a society of duties and disciplines that incubate respect for rights and competence in the exercise of autonomy.

The scream of the incoming aircraft was a howl of negation. As such, it was remarkably sterile. The terrorists' critique of Western society lacked the analytic rigor of Marxism, and consequently it lacked the brio that Marxism briefly acquired — until events proved uncooperative — from its doctrine of historical inevitability. History was supposed to have an inner logic. The unfolding of that logic — the "march of events" — could be accelerated or retarded a bit by this or that political program, but the outcome was predetermined. The terrorism was neither logical nor deterministic but reflexive, a wild recoil from what America is. Terrorism does not articulate or advance an alternative vision of human community remotely capable of coping with the world of applied reason that the West has made, a world the vast majority of people desire once they have glimpsed its possibilities. It is a sobering responsibility for America to be the clearest expression of this vision. However, it is safe to say that on 9/10/01 many Americans did not look upon their circumstances, or those of their nation, from a sober perspective. It is not even clear what counted as sobriety during the years covered by the columns and other materials in this collection.

In the last years of the last century, and through the first twenty months of this one, looking upon the world with a happy eye was easy for Americans. Indeed, their challenge was to avoid giddiness about their good fortune in living in such times. The nation was not merely at peace, it was feeling less threatened from abroad than at any time since the 1920s. And Americans were almost startled — somewhat as in the 1920s, come to think about it — by their own prodigies of wealth creation.

Certainly sobriety was utterly absent during the mass irrationality and exhibitionism in the week following the death of Princess Diana, an episode that historians will, I suspect, find deeply symptomatic of the temper of the times before the eruption of terrorism. Auden once wrote that

Our intellectual marines, Landing in little magazines, Capture a trend.

Columnists try to be trend capturers, and this columnist wonders whether the Diana death hysteria tapped, among other things, a hitherto unsuspected hunger for a poetic dimension of life, a dimension sometimes scanted by that of the West's commercial civilization.

Money, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a very American thinker, represents the prose of life. In the years covered in this collection Americans were preoccupied even more than usual with how money is made — and lost. If one were to pick a Person of the Era, politically speaking, he would be the unelected head of the Federal Reserve Board, an institution the arcane workings of which few Americans understand. Think about that. These pretty much happy years have been presided over by a man, Alan Greenspan, who, even when he is mildly happy — which is about as happy as central bankers ever are — has a demeanor about as cheerful as Woodrow Wilson's must have been when he learned of the sinking of the Lusitania.

So the prose of life has been much with us. "Poets," noted a pretty good one, G. K. Chesterton, "have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." He was, of course, being droll. That silence of the poets is not mysterious. Cheese does not summon poetic thoughts. Still, money and other prosaic things are the normal preoccupations of journalists, as Chesterton, a very good one, knew. And even when, as in the 1920s and again seven decades later, politics is especially prosaic, that does not preclude a vigorous enjoyment of civic life.

In his book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, Michael Schudson of the University of California, San Diego, notes that in 1922 the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. In 1924 the nation's two defining original documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which had been kept in a State Department vault, were put on display in the Library of Congress. In 1935 the Supreme Court, which held its first Washington meetings in the basement of the Capitol and since 1860 had met in the old Senate chamber, at last got its own home, the temple-like building across the street from the Capitol. President Franklin Roosevelt laid the foundation stone of the Jefferson Memorial in 1939.

Schudson believes that these attractions of patriotic pilgrimages are less monuments than shrines. They serve America's civil religion. As is the quintessentially American extravaganza that the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, with the blessing of President Calvin Coolidge, began carving on Mount Rushmore in 1927, at about the time Henry Ford built Greenfield Village and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., launched the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. Notice the melding, beginning in the 1920s, of two complimentary streams of American reverence — for political heroes, and for the quotidian of small-town life.

In the years leading up to 9/11/01, politics — presidential sex, presidential DNA on a little blue dress, presidential impeachment, a presidential election with dueling supreme courts (those of the United States and Florida) — became, to say no more, peculiar. When Joseph Lieberman became the first Jew nominated to run on a national ticket, he exclaimed, "Only in America!" Oh? This was 132 years after Britain's Conservative Party, not then a deep lagoon of advanced thinking, produced a Jewish prime minister and 44 years after Catholic Dublin elected a Jewish mayor.

Until 9/11/01 it seemed that the only presidential election in the years covered by this collection would be long remembered not for what it started but for the way it ended — with an electoral train wreck. As the 1932 election approached, President Herbert Hoover, who was about to be swept from office by a tidal wave of discontent, received a telegram from an angry voter: "Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous." Boring unanimity was not America's problem in November 2000. Ten months later Americans were fused into incandescent unity by the heat of burning jet fuel.

Of course, the fact that a presidential election evenly divided the nation did not mean that the nation was bitterly divided. Fifty years ago, scorching arguments boiled around names such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, Joseph McCarthy, and Douglas MacArthur. Thirty-five years ago, American politics was roiled by disputes about whether African-Americans should have the right to enter restaurants and voting booths. Thirty years ago domestic tranquillity was a casualty as the nation fought a ground war of attrition on the mainland of Asia with a conscript army, for ill-defined purposes. In 1981 a president who considered the Soviet Union "the focus of evil in the modern world" replaced a president whose secretary of state (Cyrus Vance) thought that Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev "have similar dreams and aspirations about the most fundamental issues."

Those were years of serious political differences. But at the dawn of the first decade of the twenty-first century the great political question seemed to be, When will there again be a great political question? Then terrorism gave us a surfeit of enormously consequential questions, ranging from where and how to wage war to how much liberty must be curtailed in the interest of security. It was exhilarating. And it reminded Americans, who were an avid audience for Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, and who made Tom Brokaw's celebration of The Greatest Generation a best-seller, why people can be nostalgic for war.

In January 1946 Charles de Gaulle, fresh from his heroic role as France's liberator and disdaining the banal normality of peacetime administration, abruptly resigned as president of France's provisional government. Having fought for la grandeur de la France, he told a colleague, with characteristic hauteur, that he did not deign to "worry about the macaroni ration." Well. A recently published list of prudential maxims (e.g., "Never give your wife an anniversary present that needs to be plugged in"; "Never order barbecue in a place where all the chairs match"; "Never buy a Rolex from someone out of breath") should have included this one: Never wish for an era of scintillating politics.

This isn't — yet — one. But that's nothing new: William Henry Harrison's 1840 presidential campaign caught the public's attention by distributing pocket handkerchiefs printed with a picture of his purported birthplace, a log cabin. Actually, he was born on Virginia's splendid Berkeley Plantation. So when Americans lament the high nonsense quotient in contemporary campaigns, they should remember the words of Dwight Eisenhower: "Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."

Yet different, too. Peacetime politics has become less central to the nation's life than at any time since, yes, those 1920s. But Chris DeMuth, head of the American Enterprise Institute, Washington's most intellectually high-powered think tank, believes that the marginalization of politics can be said to have begun eighteen decades ago.

In 1820 John Dalton, a British chemist and physicist, published a paper, "Memoir on Oil, and the Gases Obtained from it by Heat," which presaged the basic science that would result in the modern oil and petrochemical industries. During a lecture in April 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted, a Danish physicist, noticed that a magnetic needle aligns itself perpendicularly with a wire carrying an electric current. Within a week of learning of this evidence of a relationship between electricity and magnetism, André-Marie Ampère, a French physicist, prepared the first of his papers on the theory of electromagnetism, from which came (via Michael Faraday) machines that generated electrical energy from physical motion, and motion from electrical energy.

"The events of 1820," says DeMuth, "mark the beginning of the modern age — the age when science and industry have displaced politics as the driving force of social and economic development." In America today, and even in many European nations, where giving politics precedence over economics is considered the cardinal virtue, politics is an increasingly secondary phenomenon. This is so because political argument is primarily confined to the question of what portion of the wealth created by industrial applications of science should be distributed through government, and to whom.

The authors of 9/11/01 are having none of that. They would radically revise, and enlarge the stakes of, political argument. They would enlarge politics by melding it with religion as a regulator of all of life. What they are up against, recoiling from, is exemplified by two of the most consequential facts of our era, calculated by Dale W. Jorgenson of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government: the first logic chip, created in 1971, had 2,300 transistors, whereas the Pentium 4, released late in 2000, had 42 million. And between 1974 and 1996 the prices of memory chips decreased by a factor of 27,270. Terrorism is a futile damper of this inferno of social change.

It is a remarkably prosperous inferno. In an age when two of every three poor American families have microwave ovens and three out of four have VCRs attached to their color televisions, the pervasiveness of affluence is changing the political categories by which we classify citizens. James Twitchell of the University of Florida, author of Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, says, "One of the reasons terms like Yuppie, Baby Boomer, and Gen-X have elbowed aside such older designations as 'upper middle class' is that we no longer understand social class as well as we do lifestyle, or what marketing firms call 'consumption communities.'"

And class matters less and less. In 1875 the British elite lived on average seventeen years longer than the population as a whole. Today that difference is one year.

On a number of other domestic matters the news has been good. And certain explanations of the good news have become apparent to everyone except those who report the news. (An actual New York Times headline: "Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling." But?) Journalists deal in news and believe that the phrase "bad news" is redundant and "good news" oxymoronic. They go through life looking upon the world much as Job did after he lost his camels and acquired boils. Americans have never been like that, and were never less so than in the years immediately prior to 9/11/01. In those years per capita beef consumption hit a per capita high, the number of weight-loss centers declined sharply, and the magazine Eating Well ceased publication. Americans were not tempted by asceticism. They were looking at this world less with a happy eye than with a glazed look of surfeit.

Americans are legatees of the Enlightenment faith in mankind's ability to bend the recalcitrant world to reason. Their experience doing just that has confirmed their native optimism. Before breaking fascism and then communism, they put a bridle and snaffle on nature itself. Did they have a problem getting across, and getting the most out of, the Great American Desert (as maps used to identify the expanse west of Missouri)? They did, so they built railroads across it and irrigated it. Did they have a problem controlling floods and producing power? They did, so they did things such as build the Hoover Dam, which required first moving the Colorado River. San Francisco's Golden Gate? Piece of cake. Americans threw a bridge across it.

For Americans, the word "problem" in politics, as in mathematics, implies a solution waiting to be found. In this, Americans are looking on the world with too happy an eye. Society, and hence politics, is not as tidy as mathematics. Lots of problems do not have solutions, at least not neat and complete and permanent ones. And some solutions create their own problems, world without end, amen.

So what next? Remember the rule: There are knowns, unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Collections such as this necessarily have a retrospective cast. Granted, the recent past is inevitably pregnant with the future, even an unimagined future, as was 9/10/01. This much-chastened columnist knows he does not know what the future will look like. One Catholic priest, asked how one might come to understand the Church's teaching on Heaven and Hell, answered succinctly, "Die." If you want to know what comes next, live.

Live with due sobriety. But live while looking around with a happy eye. Americans did so after 4/15/61 (the firing on Fort Sumter). Eighty years later they did so after 12/7/41. And they have resumed doing so sixty years later, soon after 9/11/01.

February 25, 2002

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