One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation

One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation

by George Will


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One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation by George Will

In his provocative and compelling new book, America’s most widely read and most influential commentator casts his gimlet eye on our singular nation. Moving far beyond the strict confines of politics, George F. Will offers a fascinating look at the people, stories, and events–often unheralded–that make the American drama so endlessly entertaining and instructive.

With Will’s signature erudition and wry wit always on display, One Man’s America chronicles a spectacular, eclectic procession of figures who have shaped our cultural landscape–from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner to National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., from Victorian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from cotton picker— turned—country singer Buck Owens to actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan.

Will crisscrosses the country to illuminate what it is that makes America distinctive. He visits the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor and ponders its enduring links to the present. He travels to Milwaukee to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of an iconic brand, Harley-Davidson. In Los Angeles he finds the inspiring future of education, while in New York he confronts the dispiriting didacticism of the avant-garde. He ventures to the Civil War battlefields of Virginia to explore what we risk when we efface our own history. And on the outskirts of Chicago he investigates one of the darkest chapters in American history, only to discover a shining example of resilience and grace–the best the country has to offer.

Will’s wide lens takes in much more as well–everything from the “most emblematic novel of the 1930s” (and no, it is not about the Joads) to the cult of ESPN to Brooks Brothers and Ben & Jerry’s. And of course, One Man’s America would not be complete without the author’s insights on the national pastime, baseball–the icons and the cheats, the hapless and the greats.

Finally, in a personal and reflective turn, Will writes movingly of his thirty-five-year-old son Jon, born with Down syndrome, and pays loving and poignant tribute to his mother, who died at the age of ninety-eight after a long struggle with dementia.

The essays in One Man’s America, even when critiquing American culture, reflect Will’s deep affection and regard for our nation. After all, he notes, when America falls short, it does so only as compared to “the uniquely high standards it has set for itself.” In the end, this brilliantly informative and entertaining book reminds us of the enduring value of “the simple virtues and decencies that can make communities flourish and that have made America great and exemplary.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307454362
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/17/2009
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 819,127
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

GEORGE F. WILL writes a twice-weekly column that is syndicated in more than 450 newspapers, as well as a back-page column in Newsweek that runs biweekly. He also appears each Sunday on the ABC News program This Week. The author of twelve other books, Will is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and the Bradley Prize for Outstanding Intellectual Achievement. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt


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.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 People

The Fun of William F. Buckley 9

Buckley: A Life Athwart History 11

Proud Anachronism David Brinkley 13

"Cheerful Malcontent" Barry Goldwater 15

Thoughts on Death John F. Kennedy's 23

The Tamarack Tree of American Politics Eugene McCarthy 25

What George McGovern Made 28

The Senate's Sisyphus Daniel Patrick Moynihan 30

Galbraith's Liberalism as Condescension John Kenneth 32

Ebullient Master of the Dismal Science Milton Friedman 35

High-Achieving Minimalist Alan Greenspan 37

The Not-at-All Dull George Washington 40

George Washington's Long Journey Home 42

The Most Important American Never to Have Been President John Marshall 44

Well, Yes, of Course James Madison 46

Longfellow: A Forgotten Founder 49

The Steel Behind the Smile Ronald Reagan 52

Reagan and the Vicissitudes of Historical Judgments 54

"A Flame Rescued from Dry Wood" John Paul II 57

An Enlightenment Fundamentalist Ayaan Hirsi Ali 59

Tuning Fork of American Fantasies Hugh Hefner 61

The Emeritus Beat as Tourist Attraction Lawrence Ferlinghetti 63

Buck Owens's Bakersfield Sound 65

Seventy-nine-Pound Master of Tourette Syndrome Andrew Nesbitt 68

Simeon Wright's Grace 70

Chapter 2 Paths To The Present

The Most Important American War You Know Next-to-Nothing About 75

The Amazing Banality of Flight 77

The Price of Misreading the Prairie Sky 79

"A Range of Mountains on the Move" 81

The Emblematic Novel of the 1930s (No, It Is Not About the Joads) 84

All Quiet at the Overpass 86

FDR's Transformation of Liberalism 88

Retailers Give Thanks for Thanksgiving (and FDR) 91

FDR's Christmas Guest from Hell 93

"My Place Is with MyShipmates" 95

An Anthem of American Optimism-in 1943 97

When War Was the Answer 100

Catching Up to Captain Philip 102

The Most Fateful Heart Attack in American History 104

How Ike's Highways Helped Heal Civil War Wounds 107

The Short, Unhappy Life of the Edsel 109

The Fifties in Our Rearview Mirror 111

2002: Superstitions Are Bad Luck 114

2003: Lingerie and Duct Tape 116

2004: The Passion of the Christ and The Passions of the Faculty Clubs 118

2005: "In Lieu of Flowers, Please Send Acerbic Letters to Republicans" 121

2006: "Go Ahead, We Will Get into One of the Other Boats" 123

2007: Ready, Fire, Aim 126

Chapter 3 Governing

The Two Americas: Hard and Soft 131

Angela Jobe's Resilience 133

Conservatism's Infrastructure 135

Against "National Greatness Conservatism" 138

Summa Contra Reagan Nostalgia 140

The Left's Plea for Materialistic Politics 142

Constitutional Monomania 145

Judicial Activism, Wise and Not 147

The Hard Truth About "Soft Rights" 149

Oologah's-and America's-Slide 151

A Fraudulent "Fairness" 154

Policing Speech in Oakland 156

Liberalism's Itch in Minneapolis 159

Chicago: From the White City to the Green City 161

Our Moralizing Tax Code 164

"Electronic Morphine" on the Ohio River 166

Prohibition II: Interestingly Selective 168

Being Green at Ben &c Jerry's 171

The Tyranny of the Small Picture 174

Draining the Reservoir of Reverence 176

United 93: "We've Got to Do It Ourselves" 178

Nothing Changes Everything 181

Chapter 4 Sensibilities And Sensitivities

Narcissism as News 187

The Speciesism of Featherless Bipeds 189

What We Owe to What We Eat 191

The Holocaust: Handcrafted 194

The "Daring" of the Avant-Garde Yet Again 196

Anti-Semitism Across the Political Spectrum 199

When Harry Remet Hanne 201

Cars as Mobile Sculpture 203

Hog Heaven: Happy One Hundredth, Harley 206

Restoration at 346 Madison 208

Starbucks, Nail Salons, and the Aesthetic Imperative 210

Manners vs. Social Autism 213

A Punctuation Vigilante 215

America's Literature of Regret 217

Chief Illiniwek and the Indignation Industry 220

Christmas at Our Throats 222

Chapter 5 Learning

National Amnesia and Planting Cut Flowers 227

A Sensory Blitzkrieg of Surfaces 229

"Philosophy Teaching by Examples" 231

Fascinating Contingencies 233

Ed Schools vs. Education 235

This Just In from the Professors: Conservatism Is a Mental Illness 238

The Law of Group Polarization in Academia 240

Antioch College's Epitaph 243

A Scholar's Malfeasance Gunned Down 245

Juggling Scarves in the Therapeutic Nation 247

Nature, Nurture, and Larry Summers's Sin 250

AP Harry Applies to College 252

Teaching Minnows the Pleasure of Precision 255

Chapter 6 Games

Raising Michael Oher 261

The Man from Moro Bottom 266

"Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer!" 268

Randy Shannon's Realism 270

The NFL: An Intensification of Reality 272

Speaking Sports Centerese 275

The Movie, and the Truth, About Texas Western 277

Chapter 7 The Game

"Remember 1908!" 283

The Possible and the Inevitable Jackie Robinson 286

"I Can't Stand It, I'm So Good" Ted Williams 288

"We Think He Can Hit" Roberto Clemente 291

"Watch This-the First-Base Coach May Be Going to the Hospital" Greg Maddux 294

Take Me Out to the Metric 296

Elias Knows Everything 299

The Game's Gifted Eccentrics 301

Don't Beat a Dead Horse in the Mouth 305

The Golden Age 307

Always Hustling Pete Rose 310

The Precious, Precarious Equipoise 312

Enhanced and Devalued Barry Bonds 314

The Methodical Mr. Aaron 319

Realism Among the RiverDogs 321

Striving for Motel Years 323

Seeking Anonymous Perfection 326

"Where Baseball?" 328

Chapter 8 Wondering

Incest at "a Genetically Discreet Remove" 333

An Intellectual Hijacking 335

From Dayton, Tennessee, to Rhode Island's Committee on Fish and Game 339

Earth: Not Altogether Intelligently Designed 341

Intelligent Design and Unintelligent Movies 344

The Pope, the Neurosurgeon, and the Ghost in the Machine 346

How Biology Buttresses Moratality, Which Conforms to...Biology 348

The Space Program's Search for...Us 351

Nuclear Waste: That's Us 353

The Loudest Sound in Human Experience 355

L = BB + pw + BC/BF 358

Wonder What We Are For? Wondering 360

Chapter 9 Matters Of Life And Death

Golly, What Did Jon Do? 365

The Long Dying of Louise Will 367

Acknowledgments 370

Permissions 371

Index 373

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One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read this. Learn stuff. Do it now.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My son (38) saw the George Will on a talk show, liked the conversation and was interested in the author's book. I purchased it for him and he has told me that it is very interesting and has recommended that I read it also. That he is reading it (he has a very busy professional life) is a high rating in itself and to recommend it to me is another high rating.