THE NEW SEASON A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election By George F. Will Simon and Schuster. 223 pp. $17.95
IN THESE four essays, George F. Will, political commentator and Chicago Cub loyalist, provides an elegant intellectual context for the forthcoming presidential campaign. His approach to politics is much the same as to baseball: "Politics is not everything, but it is something. It is something good, and agreeable, and fun, and serious."
In this civilized spirit, Will deprecates excessive passion and takes the long view. Quoting Earl Weaver, the former manager of the Baltimore Orioles who said: "This ain't a football game. We do this every day." Will adds: "Baseball's best teams lose about sixty-five times a season. It is not game you can play with your teeth clenched."
I am not sure I agree. As a Boston Red Sox man, a condition only a shade less masochistic than being a Cub fan, I found my teeth clenched frequently during the 1986 World Series. Many Democrats, whose party has lost four of the last five presidential elections, may also find it more difficult to stay as loose and amiable as Will, whose benevolence toward Ronald Reagan and the Grand Old Party is well-known. This book is dedicated to former U.S. senator Gordon Allott of Colorado, for whom Will once toiled as a young legislative assistant. Allott was first elected to the Senate by means of a nasty bit of red-baiting in 1954, a year when Richard Nixon was working his anti-communist hustle in the mountain states. Allott, a basically decent if uninspired conservative, was always slightly embarrassed by the dingy circumstances surrounding his first election. Suitably enough, he disappeared from the Senate in 1972, partly because Nixon in that year of the China visit and the Moscow summit (and Watergate) was so grand that he did not deign to campaign for anyone, not even himself.
There is no gross partisanship in Will's comments, and there is much good sense and even wisdom. Will is a conservative in the school of Edmund Burke. He recognizes that government is necessary, respects tradition and has a skeptical if not pessimistic view of what human beings can accomplish to change the human condition. He rightly chastises Reagan for frequently citing Thomas Paine's most un-conservative thought that we can make the world anew. In short, Will is not a libertarian or a radical right-winger who believes that a revival of the gold standard or one more giant tax cut will usher in utopia.
He is generous in his assessment of Reagan, as most Americans would be, but he also notes the laziness and the intellectual incoherence. He rates Reagan as one of the 10 or so "most effective Presidents."
It is difficult to say what "effective" really means. Will is right that Reagan "promised to slow inflation, slow the growth of the domestic side of government, and substantially increase defense spending. He has done all three."
But did Reagan slow inflation or did it decline because of the worldwide fall in oil and commodity prices? In pushing up defense spending while also cutting taxes, Reagan doubled the national debt and brought about the economic crisis that is now emerging. If "effective" means getting knotty problems solved, there are colorless and often unpopular presidents -- James K. Polk, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Jimmy Carter -- who actually get a lot done. Then there are presidents like Reagan who capture the pubic mood of the time, and most of whose triumphs are psychological and atmospheric rather than substantive. It is fitting that Reagan has chosen Theodore Roosevelt's biographer to write his own story. T.R. was another president who made the country feel good about itself by his gift of rhetoric and flair for the dramatic.
On foreign affairs Will is a hard-liner. He deplores Reagan's drift in his second administration toward what he regards as the illusion of arms control. "Historians may conclude that it was during this administration that the United States conclusively lost the Cold War," he writes.
Will must speak for a lot of Republicans. Four of the six GOP candidates to succeed Reagan are opposed to the pending arms treaty. Senator Robert Dole (R-Kan.) has hedged his position, and only Vice President George Bush has shown enthusiasm for the venture. But then we know what Will thinks of Bush; his column last year dencouncing the vice president was one of the ad hominem attacks of the decade.
THAT vitriolic assessment does not reappear in these pages. Will barely mentions the candidates in either party: his preoccupation is with ideas not personalities. If frequency of quotation is any measure, his favorite statesman is Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). Like baseball, Moynihan's stylish approach to issues is something most intellectuals, right or left, enjoy.
Will wants the Republicans to keep to the true Cold War faith and to tell middle-class Americans that big government with its needed services is here to stay. "They have no intention of dismantling it, so they had better pipe down and pay up." he writes.
Will admonishes Democrats to be realistic about the true nature of Cuba's Fidel Castro, Nicaragua's Ortega brothers and other Marxist-Leninists in Latin America. "The Democratic party, by its recent record in foreign policy, has acquired a burden of proof. It must prove that it has reacquired the realism of the Truman-Acheson era in which the Democratic party saved the West."
He also wants Democrats to set straight the blacks, their most loyal constituency, about the moral dangers and self-defeating character of affirmative action programs. This seems slightly less likely to occur than a call for a tax increase by whoever is the GOP nominee in 1988.
Will's concern is not with offering either party a prescription for victory but rather to give the voters and the politicians a description of reality as he sees it. It is political commentary of a high order.
William V. Shannon is a contributing columnist to The Boston Globe.