The Atlantic

George Will Changes His Mind—But Stays True to His Convictions

The columnist’s latest book is marked by a new emphasis on the machinery of government—and by one purposeful omission.
Source: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

When I arrived in Washington, D.C., as an intern in the 1980s, there were two columnists I read with intentionality, with the goal of becoming a better and more thoughtful writer. One was Charles Krauthammer; the other was George Will.

Will—who began his twice-weekly column for The Washington Post in 1974 and won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977—has just published The Conservative Sensibility, a thoughtful, elegant reflection on American conservatism and the Founders’ political thought. By “sensibility,” Will has in mind less than an agenda but more than an attitude. A sensibility is, he argues, a way of seeing. His aim is less to tell people what to think rather than how to think through complex social problems.

Will’s 1983 book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, had a significant intellectual impact on me. He questioned the Founders’ faith that moral balance and national cohesiveness will be supplied by the government’s doing little more than encouraging the free operation of “opposite and rival interests.” America was “ill-founded,” he wrote, because there was not enough attention to what he termed “the sociology of virtue.” Government needed to take a greater role in shaping the moral character of its citizens.

suggests something else: that we should be attending more to the machinery of government and that government should be far less concerned about inculcating virtue in the citizenry. George Will circa 2019 seems a good deal less enamored with soulcraft as a goal of statecraft. I’ve

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