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Has America hit rock bottom? A conversation with Washington Post columnist George Will (+Podcast)

We hope you enjoy listening to this episode of Therefore, What? — a podcast from Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson — and hope you will consider subscribing. You can find and subscribe to this and other podcasts from the Deseret News at You can also find us on iTunes, on the Apple Podcast App or on Google Play. And remember to rate this episode and write us a review. The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: Has America hit rock bottom? Is there any path to true leadership, integrity, civility and good governance? Legendary journalist George Will shares his unique perspective on the American experiment and the future of the nation on this week's edition of Therefore, What?

On this edition of Therefore, What?, we're very pleased to be joined by George Will, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, syndicated columnist with The Washington Post and one of the most insightful and challenging writers and commentators of our time. Mr. Will, thank you so much for joining us today.

George Will: Glad to be with you.

BM: Well, there's obviously a few things going on in our nation's capital. You have a never-ending source of things to write about. But I wanted to talk about a couple of things you've opined on recently, starting with this idea of persuasion versus power. It seems that we're in an age where bullying and bombast seem to be driving the day, as opposed to persuasion. Give us your perspective on that.

GW: Well we are, after all, language-using creatures, said Aristotle. And as human beings, we use language to persuade. And that's the essence of democracy. We lose that, however, when we decide that a majority is a substitute for persuasion, that if you've got a majority, you don't need to reason with the minority. And I'm afraid we're at that point now where we don't persuade one another, we bludgeon one another with often very narrow, but very truculent majorities.

BM: Yeah, absolutely. And we saw that, obviously, in the Kavanaugh hearings, we've seen that on a host of things, both from the left and the right. I think we can be equal opportunity offenders there. How are you seeing that in our nation's capital? And is there a path forward? What do you think happens next?

GW: Well, the path forward has to be paved, I'm afraid, by the leaders of our parties. Presidents are always important. I think one of the things we've learned, maybe I'm a slow learner and it took this to do it, we've learned from the Trump presidency is how powerful a president is as a tone-setter in the country. In his case, in my judgment, not for the good of the country, but very powerful. And people like Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer have to get involved here. I mean, I'm an admirer and I would say a friend of Mitch McConnell's but he no more gets done with the Kavanaugh episode than he says, well, by the way, if there's a Supreme Court vacancy in a presidential election year, we will go ahead and confirm this someone to that vacant chair on the Supreme Court, notwithstanding the fact that we did not confirm Merrick Garland, who sat there for I guess, 10 months, because it was a presidential election year. And then Mitch comes out with some really quite Jesuitical distinction that well, it's different if both the legislative branch and the executive branch are controlled by the same party, all of which is, as I said, Jesuitical in the worst sense. So again, it's the sense that if you've got the power, wield it. And if can force people, don't argue with them, don't discuss.

BM: Yeah. And do you think, too, that all of the politicization of the Supreme Court in particular does kind of go back to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer and the House? Congress really not doing their job and abdicating more and more of their power and authority over to the executive branch?

GS: Well, there's no question that the stakes of Supreme Court nominations are unhealthily high and they are unhealthily high because, as you say, the Article 3 courts are refereeing the behavior of the Article 2 branch — the president — because Article 1, the Congress, has just surrendered, not under duress but out of slots or political risk averse behavior, have surrendered to the president so much discretion. You see this daily in the president imposing taxes on his own. A tariff is a tax collected at the border and paid by American consumers. And the President is increasing our taxes with these tariffs of his, wielding power, essentially the power to tax, that has been given to him by Congress.

BM: That's absolutely right. You've also talked a lot recently about — go ahead.

GW: You know, Utah's Senator (Mike) Lee has in his office a very instructive display. It is — on one there's a small pile of about 400 pages. And that is the pages of all the laws passed by Congress, about 400 pages, in a particular session. Next to it is a stack of papers about eight feet tall. And those are the regulations issued by executive agencies of the administrative state, virtually uncontrolled by congressional oversight, let alone congressional strict guidance, and it shows you, those two starkly contrasting piles of paper, where the real power has migrated in our government.

BM: I was there when we constructed that display and one of the interesting things we used to do when I was Chief of Staff for Senator Lee was we would occasionally have the interns go and just randomly pull some of those regulations out of that big stack of thousands and thousands of pages to find some obscure regulation. We found one one time that it is illegal to either buy or sell a turtle whose shell is less than two inches and the penalty and the way to resolve that was an $1,800 fine, up to a year in prison and you had to kill the turtle.

GW: Well you know, no one knows, no one can tell you how many criminal offenses have been created administratively. We have obviously way over-criminalized life. There's a wonderful book out by a man named Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer in Boston. The title of his book is "Three Felonies a Day." His point is that the normal American probably commits three felonies a day, because you can't go through life without violating some completely obscure, often administrative, ruling that can get you sent to jail, but does not give you due notice, which the rule of law presupposes, due notice of what is and is not permitted and forbidden.

BM: The administrative state is alive and well. And as you said before, a lot of that is because Congress is either slothful or avoiding things that they'll have to respond to a constituent. You know, they'll pass the sweeping 'we shall have clean air' bill and then, you know, abdicate all the power to the EPA. So when a constituent comes and complains about it, they can say, hey, I just voted for clean air. You got a problem? Go talk to EPA, who aren't elected and can't be fired?

GW: Well, again, and here's something you may have been involved in with Senator Lee. Senator Lee in one of his books cites the example that everyone dutifully raised their hands in a pious vote for clean air. Some administrative agency then said, oh, by the way, that means we have to raise the tolls on the bridges in New York to discourage automobile traffic that might make the air less clean. And some of these same congressmen and senators then went out and protested with the people who are out campaigning against the higher tolls on New York's bridges. I mean, it's hard not to laugh, but it's also hard not to weep for what's happened to representative government.

BM: Yeah, that's exactly right. You've talked also recently about this idea of this flooding of the zone of, you know, rather than really winning debates and winning hearts and minds, again, kind of this bullying tactic or flooding the zone with so much content that the truth often gets lost in the middle. I have a quote in my office from a great book, 1902, William George Jordan," The Power of Truth." It says the politician who is vacillating, temporizing, shifting, constantly trimming his sails to catch every puff of wind of popularity, is a trickster who succeeds only until he's found out. A lie may live for a time, truth for all time. A lie never lives by its own vitality, merely continues to exist because it simulates truth. When it's unmasked, it dies. Is that what we're seeing?

GW: Yes, adding to that the axiom that a lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still lacing up its shoes. You know, I grew up in Central Illinois at a time when the first Mayor Daley in Chicago, the '50s and '60s, was running a city that had so many scandals no one could focus on any of them. It was a kind of immunity through profusion that if you have a different scandal every four or five days, you're immune, because no one can concentrate on one long enough to get to the bottom of it. And we see this with some of the extravagant rhetoric. The president, just the other day, out campaigning, said Dianne Feinstein has written a bill called the open borders bill, and all 49 Democratic senators have signed on to it. Well, none of that was true. But you know, by the time you begin to track down the facts about that, there are about 14 other things to track down.

BM: So that leads me to my next question, which is, I think George Patton was noted for saying it's not how high you soar, it's how high you bounce after you hit bottom that matters. Have we found the bottom and, if we haven't, when do we hit it? And then how do we bounce up from there?

GW: Well first of all, Will's law is there's no such thing as rock bottom. As I think we're proving daily. I do however, think that the native good sense and decency of the normal American — a normal American is not obsessed by politics, is not hanging on every shouted word from a certain kind of talk radio or from cable TV. I think people are recoiling against what they're saying in Washington. I don't just mean the awful spectacle of the recent confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. But the fact of mobs chasing Republican and conservative senators out of restaurants in Washington, this sort of thing. We are evidently seeing, in various polls, particularly for Senate candidates around the country, what's being called a Kavanaugh bounce or a Kavanaugh surge. It may not be quite rational, but people in the country are connecting the chaos in Washington and looking for a way to protest it, and this may be how they do it.

BM: I've been saying and the polling I've been looking at lately shows that I think one of the the untapped or the people who will really decide this election or not the — normally we say, well, it's the independents that are going to make the difference. It seems to me that we have this growing group of the center-left and center-right, that are disengaged. So even the national polling, I think a lot of those folks in the middle have stopped taking polls. So we do see great polarization between the far left and the far right, and it's that group in the middle who have become so disgusted they're saying, I'm just going to move on with my life, raise my kids, go to work, do my job. And I'm not worried about Washington, cuz I got a good neighborhood right here at home.

GW: Exactly. Exactly. You know, there are 327 million people in this country. At any given moment, about 322 million of them are not watching cable TV, not listening to Rush or other people like that. They're cleaning the gutters, washing the car and getting the children off to school.

BM: Yeah, that's right. So I want to go back a little bit. One of the things that I have always looked for in terms of real leadership is that willingness to, you know, to stand up, to speak out and even to stand alone when necessary, especially when it comes to truth. You've done that on a few occasions in your lifetime. But I wanted to talk specifically about Watergate, an era obviously that was deeply troubling, not unlike what we see today. And you were one of those voices on the Republican side who was really calling for truth. Explain and share a little bit of your perspective on what that was like and what you think that means in terms of what we're facing today?

GW: Well, let me tell you a story. I came to Washington in January 1972 to work on the staff of a United States, Senator Gordon Allott of Colorado. I became a columnist three years later, in January 1973. And The Washington Post was going to market my column as a response to criticism from Spiro Agnew and others who said there are just too few conservative voices who will defend the Nixon administration, particularly, but conservative voices and sympathetic to the next administration in America's newspapers. So I started out and about January, February and March, the Watergate cover-up began to unravel as Judge (John) Sirica began to impose draconian sentences on people like James McCord and other people. And the conspirators began to talk and the whole thing fell apart. And so just as The Washington Post is saying, we've got this young columnist and — what was I, 33 years old, 32, something like that. And they said, well, we're going to market him as someone supporting Nixon. And I said, Well, you know, actually, where there's this much smoke, there's not only a lot of smoke, but there's a fire in here somewhere. And I thought Nixon was probably guilty. And once the tapes were revealed I thought that the earliest tape we saw would reveal his guilt. And so the whole plan for marketing the Will column fell apart. I have a feeling today I'm right back where I started. But it was not a close call. You know, people sometimes say, oh how brave, it doesn't take bravery, we've got a First Amendment, we have the rule of law in this country. No one can do anything to me. Might cost me a few newspapers, might cost me some money. But that's not a particular problem. Over time, if you don't go where your convictions carry you, you can't do this job, because you're always looking over your shoulder. You become a kind of congressman who feels he has a constituency that he has to placate, and I have a constituency of one. Me. I like to read what I write.

BM: And that's a good way to tell if you're writing something good is if you agree with yourself. That's always a good start. Right? Well, let's shift to what's coming up in the midterms here. Obviously, a midterm election is always an interesting play, always challenging for those in power. What do you think's at stake? How do you see it playing out?

GW: Well, there's the House and the Senate are very different. The Democrats are ahead in the generic poll, that is that asks the question do you want a Republican congress or a Democratic congress? They're ahead by about six or seven points. The problem for the Democrats is their congressional vote is inefficiently distributed. So they have to be ahead by about seven or eight points in order to break even. By inefficiently distributed I mean it's concentrated in cities and close in suburbs and in University towns. Palo Alto, (California), Ann Arbor, (Michigan), Madison, (Wisconsin), places like this. This is why if you look at Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania normally — not last time — but normally is a blue state, but it's mostly red. It's mostly Republican, except for a big blue dot down in the southwest. That's Pittsburgh. And in the southeast, big red dot. That's Philadelphia. In 2012, just to give you one example, Barack Obama carried 27 congressional districts with more than 80 percent of the vote. Those were sort of wasted votes. Mitt Romney carried only one north of Dallas. So the Democrats, as I say, because their vote is so concentrated and inefficiently distributed, they have to be pretty far ahead in the generic poll to be doing well. They're probably far enough ahead to take the House this time. The Senate is another matter and it might be, regarding the Senate, that the Kavanaugh bounce becomes decisive.

BM: OK. All right. And as we look to kind of the what's next? So let's say the Democrats do take the house, do you think that is going to lead us towards two years of impeachment proceedings around the president? And even around Judge Kavanaugh, for that matter. Does that lead us into that kind of chaos or how do you see that playing?

GW: Well the democrats need and, I think so far have, some adult supervision here. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer and others know that it is disaster for the Democrats if they come to town, having captured the House, and immediately start shouting impeachment of Kavanaugh, Trump and all the rest. The American people are full to the bursting point with the shouting and the dystopian behavior in Washington. So I don't think the Democrats will do that. They will use the gavel. They will hold on to the chairmanship of House committees to investigate the executive branch. But that's good. I think America is better governed when it's not monochrome, when it's not controlled entirely by one party, because when it is you just don't get oversight. And the administrative state is so sprawling and so opaque that unless you have a determined Congress, there is no oversight. Legislatively, I don't think it matters because the Senate now is, has been for years, no matter who controls it, is where the House bills go to die. So I don't think much is going to get legislated in the next two years, no matter who controls the House.

BM: All right. So of course, we have to get to at least one baseball question with you today. So I've been developing for years a wall of fame, have lots of great autographs from the Willie Mays and the Mickey Mantles of the world. But I have a more important collection I started years ago, collecting autographs on baseballs of people who have made a difference in my life. Coaches, bosses, mentors, people of influence, and it's become a great tradition in our house. My kids are looking around seeing who's impacting their life and then asking that person to sign a baseball, which often is as empowering to the person signing as it is to us putting it on the wall. And so I wanted to ask you, George, with your immense baseball experience, who's the one baseball player that matters most in your world? But then I also want to ask if you were getting a signature on a baseball from an influencer, living or dead, who would that be?

GW: Well I'll answer the baseball question first. The baseball player I've enjoyed most watching in my long career of watching baseball was Ricky Henderson of the A's. Baseball, it's hard for one player to take over a game unless it's a Sandy Koufax or a pitcher like that. He could take over a game, he could get, you know, tie game, bottom of the ninth, he comes to the plate with his strike zone the size of a postage stamp, tiptoes to first base, steals second, goes to third on an infield out, scores on a sac fly, game's over. Terrific guy. Today my favorite ball player is Mike Trout, not only because he is a transcendent talent but I like his demeanor. Head down, no showing off, just doing your job and doing it better than anyone else. I think if I were to have a ball signed by someone whose friendship and example meant so much to me, it would be the man who was one of my very best friends. Senator Pat Moynihan, the New York Democrat. Good New Deal liberal, but the best mind in the Senate in my lifetime. I once said, rather naughtily, but accurately, that while he was a senator he wrote more books than many of his colleagues read.

BM: I am sure that is a true statement. Well, very good. Well, the very last thing we do on this show is we get to the Therefore, What? What is the takeaway, and sometimes I do that Therefore, What? and sometimes I ask our guests to do Therefore, What?, so I'm going to acquiesce to you today. What is the Therefore, What? What should people come away from listening to this podcast thinking? What should they be doing as a result, and what will be the best action in terms of moving the country forward?

GW: Be cheerful. We have far too much teeth-gritted politics and fist-clenched politics. Step back and understand something, that this is a country people are fighting to get in. This is a country with big problems. But that's because it's a big, successful country. And a lot of our problems are the problems of success, how to distribute wealth because we create wealth wonderfully, how to allocate health care because we have wonderful, marvelous capacities of modern medicine. So stand back and understand that there's not only a moral obligation to be intelligent. There's a moral obligation to be cheerful while you're being intelligent. That's what I'd say is my takeaway.

BM: Wonderful, thank you so much. George Will joining us today on Therefore, What? Thanks for being with us.

GW: Glad to be with you. Thanks.