The New York Daily News is dropping his column. Ronald Reagan is calling to commiserate. And journalists all over Washington are raising their eyebrows at the actions of George F. Will, one of their best-known colleagues, because he helped rehearse then-candidate Ronald Reagan for the debate with Jimmy Carter, then went on television to praise his man's performance.
Like the debate over the purloined Carter briefing book, the argument concerns events 30 months old, known at the time and reported since. But as the story of the briefing book and the arguments around it escalated, it generated an unexpected spinoff: arguments over the propriety of columnist Will's participation in Reagan's rehearsal for the debate.
In the process, some of this town's leading journalists, who professionally sit in judgment on the ethics and actions of politicians, have been put in the uncomfortable position of judging one of their own.
In October 1980, Ronald Reagan's aides and allies--like then-Rep. David A. Stockman--were preparing dress rehearsals of the upcoming Cleveland debate with Carter. They invited several journalists to play the roles of mock interrogators. Will agreed. At least one other conservative columnist, William Safire of The New York Times, declined.
The night of the debate, Will appeared as a conservative commentator on ABC-TV news, describing Reagan's performance as that of a "thoroughbred." Neither Will nor the network made a direct reference to his role in rehearsing the event.
Now Will, whose bow tie and professorial mien have become standard fare on television and whose starchy, clipped observations have become a staple in the country's ideological larder, is on the receiving end of the questions. Yesterday, the Daily News--one of 400 newspapers that carry Will's column (syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group)--announced in an editorial it would drop the column because his actions constituted "a violation of journalistic ethics."
Veteran Washington reporters and columnists--curmudgeonly conservative James A. Kilpatrick, relentlessly liberal Carl Rowan, along with bureau chiefs Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times and Bill Kovach of The New York Times, Paul Duke of WETA-TV and political editor John Mashek of U.S. News and World Report--all say Will crossed over the invisible but indispensable boundary between observing an event and participating in it.
Reagan apparently doesn't think so. After Saturday night's airing of "Agronsky & Co.," the round-table discussion program, in which Will was grilled by three fellow participants, the phone rang in the 42-year-old Will's Chevy Chase home.
Here is Will's recollection of the conversation, as told yesterday to the viewers of ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley:"
Reagan: George, there are two very peculiar ideas going around. One is your nutty idea that we are, as a nation, undertaxed. The second is that I need people like you to tell me how to go out in public and debate the basic issues of our day.
Will: Well, I take your point. And I want you to know that I'm not saying that I'm necessary to you.
That is the core of Will's defense: his role in the campaign was negligible--they didn't need him--and the whole debate is, as he said in a telephone interview last night, "overwrought."
"If anyone was writing or commenting in public and involved in a systematic, ongoing, day-to-day way with a political campaign, that would be clearly across the line," he said. "There's the old analogy: whether Strasbourg's in France. Paris clearly is. Is Strasbourg?"
So this case is Strasbourg, not Paris?
He added he would not play the dual role again, largely because his role at ABC has changed--then he was an outsider occasionally invited to air his conservative views, now he is a regular panelist interviewing guests on the Brinkley show. Also, Will said, there is what he calls "the Caesar's wife question: There are certain facts about the sociology of Washington that are hard for people who don't live here to understand. We meet one another in a variety of contexts."
This particular combination of contexts makes most of Will's colleagues queasy. Roone Arledge, ABC news president--who said he asked Brinkley to raise the issue yesterday--said he is not entirely at ease with the situation.
"At the time, George did not have the role with us he has now . . .," he said yesterday. "We had no control over whether or what he did. The ethics involved were his own and were not subject to our policy toward our own staff people . . .
"Yes, I would still have had him on ABC's 'Nightline' program the night of the debate . But we would have asked him to disclose more about what he did and what his role was. Second, I would have been interested from a reportorial standpoint how they prepared, did questions they expect come out.
"I draw a very clear distinction: if it were ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson and Jimmy Carter, it would clearly be against the policy we have. Working reporters, editors, producers, can't be involved in politics in any way except to go vote . . . On the other hand, a columnist and commentator is in the business of giving opinions . . . There is a gray area there . . . With George's relationship with us now, we would not allow him to do that."
Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of The Washington Post, said yesterday that Will's long opinion piece appearing in yesterday's editions was an admission of error by Will. "To me, the piece said he shouldn't have done it, that it was a mistake," Greenfield said. "I agree he shouldn't have done it. But we have no intention of dropping the column. We think it's a good column."
Hugh Sidey, former Washington bureau chief and current columnist for Time magazine, defended Will during the Agronsky program. "He is tested by millions of readers and by hundreds of editors every week. You can either accept him or reject. He's a philosopher. He's a scholar. He's not a reporter on the beat. He sells his biases, his prejudices . . . He can do what he wants as far as helping formulate the theology of the Republicans."
But Sidey was in a distinct minority. A sampling of comments from Will's critics interviewed yesterday:
Mashek: "I believe in this case Will did cross the line . . . He's a commentator. He participated in the mock debate, then went on television and talked about his guy creaming the other guy. That disturbs me."
Kovach: "It seems to me you have to separate your personal from your professional life . . . in such a way you don't become a participant in the events that you observe or comment on. As a column writer . . . there should be a different standard from that applied to a reporter , but not sufficient that he shouldn't have disclosed his involvement."
Duke: "There's nothing wrong in being friends with a political figure . We're only human . . . The problem is when to cross the line from being friends to being an unofficial adviser . . . That raises questions about the integrity of any newsman who does this . . . What he did is not cricket. Suppose a lot of reporters in Washington did that. It would raise questions about anything written in Washington. People couldn't believe anything."
To which Will responded: "I think Washington journalists can survive this. Everyone doesn't do it, and everyone isn't going to do it."