WASHINGTON George F. Will, the conservative columnist and pundit, seems too young and young-looking to be anyone's "elder statesman." He is 67, his hair still boyishly parted, his face hardly lined, his wire-rimmed persona that of a graduate student whose idea of a vice is skipping class to catch a ball game at Wrigley Field.
But Will has been a presence in print, and on the air, for more than 30 years. He has written thousands of columns and reviews and spent thousands on hours on television, mostly as a panelist on ABC's "This Week." He has also published more than a dozen books, his latest, "One Man's America," the first to come out in a world not shared by his friend and hero, William F. Buckley Jr.
"I went to see Bill late last year, up at Stamford (Conn.), just to say 'Hi.' It was very clear then that he was very unhealthy and very unhappy," Will says of Buckley, who died in February at age 82, less than a year after his longtime wife, Pat, had passed away.
"Bill was a founder of the conservative movement and his task, beginning with 'God and Man at Yale' and the National Review (in 1955), was to make it acceptable. That's long been achieved, vastly simplifying the work of people like me."
With the death of Buckley, no conservative thinker has been as active for so long. Neo-conservative founders Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol are in their 80s and semiretired. Other leading voices, from David Brooks to Andrew Sullivan to Charles Krauthammer, are years younger.
Will describes Buckley as the "point of a spear," his once singular power dispersed among many, a sign, Will says, of health for the right. He doesn't pretend to Buckley's haughty charisma or to the lockstep following of a Rush Limbaugh, but peers say he has inherited Buckley's place as a thinker and as a conscience, his commitment so long and deep that he can, respectfully, disagree.
"George Will is one of the most important conservative voices out there a real believer in limited government, in freedom, in prudence as an indispensable political virtue, and yet open to the appeal of a liberal like (Barack) Obama," Sullivan says. "After Buckley, he's the best there is. He's a calm, clear, always individual voice."
"He's the gold standard among conservative columnists," says Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, the conservative magazine Buckley headed for decades. "The amount he produces and the incessantly high quality of it is simply astonishing."
Interviewed recently on a sunny afternoon, Will works out of a brick Georgetown town house that could easily be converted to a flea market for baseball, with its bats and posters and pictures, and its CD of songs about the Chicago Cubs. But this is Washington, and his office is set for serious business, from its fireplace and executive-sized desk, to its armchairs and power photos, including a signed picture of Will and President Ronald Reagan in the White House.
Seated in an armchair by his fireplace, Will is much the concise, fluent man that millions have watched for decades on Sunday morning. He is a throwback to the precable age, a talker, not a ranter, as he assesses the system of beliefs he says thanks in part to Buckley no longer need be called a "movement."
"It's sort of hard to get conservatives out of a mentality they seem to relish, of being a church militant in an unconverted world," he says. "No one talks about the 'liberal movement.' Liberalism has been part of American life and a governing philosophy. ... They (conservatives) have certainly won a place of parity ... with liberalism, and they ought to lighten up."
Age has relaxed Will and the subtitle of his new book, "The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation," reflects a man who has seen enough history not to be shocked by current events. The writings collected include little about the Iraq war but a great deal about baseball, old friends such as Buckley and Reagan, and a surprisingly affectionate portrait of Beat poet-publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
"You get older and you see a lot of error and folly. If you keep your mind open, you think about things differently and see things differently," says Will, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. "I don't get quite as excited about things. Washington's a town where everything that dominates every eight-hour news cycle seems so important."
Will was born in Champaign, Ill., in 1941, his parents so liberal that they voted for socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas in the 1930s. Will supported John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election, but time spent in England helped turn him off the welfare state. In 1964, he was back in the United States and at the founding of the modern right, the disastrous presidential campaign of Sen. Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson but anticipated the successes of the next four decades.
"You can't imagine what fun it was to be for Goldwater," Will says, "because it was kind of naughty."
After receiving a Ph.D. in political science, from Princeton University, in 1967, Will taught briefly at the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto, then joined the staff of Sen. Gordon Allott, R-Colo. By the mid-1970s, Allott had been voted out of office and Will had become a syndicated columnist and TV presence.
He met Reagan in the late '70s and his affection for Reagan brought him the rewards and follies of power; Will was a visitor at the Oval Office and Reagan dined at the writer's home. But in fall 1980, speaking on ABC's "Nightline," Will praised candidate Reagan's performance in a debate against President Jimmy Carter without fully revealing that he had assisted Reagan during preparation.
"I got into magnificent trouble for that," Will says. "I wouldn't do it again, if only because you wind up 20 years later, still talking about it."
Will has also acknowledged reviewing possible questions with President Bush before the then-Texas governor and presidential candidate appeared on "This Week" in 2000. A Will column recently included allegations, repeated by Vice President Dick Cheney, that China was drilling for oil off the coast of Florida. Cheney and Will have since acknowledged the information was wrong.
"You do have to have some standards for your pundits," says Peter Hart, an analyst for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, a media watchdog organization that has often criticized Will. "Our beefs with him over the years haven't been about his ideology, but about accuracy."
But Hart credits Will for being an independent, even eloquent advocate for the right. Eric Alterman, a liberal author and columnist who years ago dismissed Will as shallow and pretentious, now says he has changed his mind, calling Will a good writer and "authentic conservative." Alterman thinks Will's influence could increase should Republicans lose badly in 2008.
"There's no room for someone like Will right now in the Republican Party," Alterman says. "Will has been a more cautious figure than a lot of the neo-conservatives and if the elections are a disaster, he could become a much more revered figure among Republicans and conservatives."
Like Buckley, Will is more loyal to the ideals than to the leaders of the Republican Party. He famously referred to the first President George H.W. Bush as a "lap dog" and scorns the current Bush administration's foreign policy, commenting that a government that can't run Amtrak is equally unfit to run Iraq. He has often criticized Sen. John McCain and said he will "hold his nose" and vote for him in the fall.
"Journalists love him and I don't," he says of the Republicans' presumptive nominee. "But I think he finds me interesting. I admire him. He's a brave man. He's got strong views, strong if incoherent."
Will has been wrong, and knows it. He once swore the Berlin Wall would not come down, but it did and he now says he was unduly pessimistic. Asked to cite an issue on which conservatives erred, he quickly answers "civil rights."
"They were absolutely right," he says of civil rights supporters. "They said, 'Sorry, you've got no choice. You have to go swimming, you have to go to school and have lunch together. It will change people's consciousness.' And it did. The transformation in this country that we've had in the past 50 years it takes your breath away."
Will has praised Sen. Barack Obama in ways Will has been described by his own admirers. He has written that the presumptive Democratic nominee is "refreshingly cerebral" and "an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic 'fights' against fictitious villains."
"I'm not advocating this, but there is something to be said for a market cleaning mechanism," Will says when asked how he would feel if the Democrats triumphed in 2008. "The political market does enforce cycles, up and down, and it wouldn't be an unmitigated disaster for that to happen this year."