Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

Was George Will influenced by his wife’s work for the GOP?

The Post’s prickly, Pulitzer Prize-winning, conservative columnist George F. Will is one-half of a Washington political power couple. His wife, Mari Maseng Will, is a longtime Republican operative who was President Reagan’s final communications director and performed the same role for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.

The couple, over the years, has been splashed by the sometimes stinging but purifying hot waters of transparency and disclosure, especially as those waters flow by their two careers and their closeness to senior Republicans.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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Hence, Will, a longtime friend of Nancy Reagan, got flak in 1980 for not disclosing until later that he helped Ronald Reagan with debate preparation. And although a consistent free-trader, Will was zinged in 1995 for his defense of free trade in automobiles without disclosing at the time that Maseng Will’s company was lobbying for Japanese car manufacturers.

So it was not surprising that Politico revealed in three stories Nov. 11 that Maseng Will worked for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) early this year, flirted with Mitt Romney’s campaign in June and was hired full time by Texas Gov. Rick Perryearly this month.

Should Will have disclosed it, and did he give favorable treatment to these GOP candidates?

First, let’s look at Maseng Will’s time with Bachmann, which ran from February through much of May. The congresswoman formally declared for the presidency on June 27. Will told me Thursday, “Bachmann asked my wife late last winter to set up a speech-writing operation in Bachmann’s shop. When it became clear that Bachmann was going to announce for the presidency, Mari gave them two weeks’ notice. She has since had no connection with Bachmann’s presidential campaign.”

According to my check of Post and Nexis archives, Will didn’t mention Bachmann once in his column during that time. He did mention Bachmann, however, on March 11 in his regular Sunday appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” saying, “Now, full disclosure, my wife, Mari, occasionally advises Michele Bachmann.”

Now to Romney. Maseng Will went to the candidate’s Boston headquarters on June 28. According to Will, it was to help the Romney team strategize on its approach to the Tea Party movement, and it was at the invitation of Romney aides. “Mari did not ask them for a job,” Will said, and no job was offered.

Did Will go easy on Romney, before, during, or after that time?

All of Will’s columns in the past year and all the “This Week” transcripts reveal that Will has been complimentary about almost all of the GOP candidates in the race, and about those who were considering entering, including Bachmann and Perry. In his TV comments, he criticized only three: He savaged Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin repeatedly and with glee, and he delivered glancing blows to Romney all year.

Will’s substantive critique of Romney was consistent, too: He said on television that the former Massachusetts governor lacks a core ideological compass, and because of that, GOP voters have no passion for him. That’s why, Will said on “This Week,” Romney has never been able to get above 25 percent in any poll.

Will got more caustic in a widely cited October column when he took Romney to task for being all over the map on ethanol subsidies. “Who expects difficult reforms from Romney, whose twists on ethanol make a policy pretzel?” Will wrote. “A straddle is not a political philosophy; it is what you do when you do not have one.”

But was Will suddenly nastier to Romney because his wife went to work for Rick Perry? The timeline doesn’t match. The pretzel column ran online on Oct. 28 and in print on Oct. 30. Furthermore, Will generally writes his columns days in advance. According to Will and Alan Shearer, editorial director of The Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will’s columns, the first contact Maseng Will had with the Perry camp was Nov. 3, and she was hired Nov. 7.

Will told Shearer and Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor, the next morning, Nov. 8, and he disclosed his wife’s employment at his next “This Week” appearance, on Nov. 13. Will will also disclose the fact of his wife’s employment in his columns, Hiatt said, just as he did in 1996 when he wrote about Dole.

I think disclosure is always the better part of valor. It should be prompt and complete, especially for someone so in the public eye as Will. Readers need to be able to judge for themselves if any conflict of interest could bias a journalist, even an opinion columnist.

Will should have mentioned his wife’s work with Bachmann a bit earlier than he did, even if he wasn’t writing about her, and when Maseng Will was hired by Perry, it would have been very easy to put out a statement to that effect almost immediately. But I don’t see that he changed his tune, in his columns or TV commentary, because of his wife’s work.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

 
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