Edifying loyalty was displayed by Ronald Reagan when he phoned George Will, his friend, favored columnist and former debating coach. Reagan sought to console Will for the criticism--ranging from scathing attacks to modest eyebrow-raising--he has been taking for helping the president prepare for an October 1980 debate and then, with a quick hat change, appearing on television after the event to praise his man as "a thoroughbred."
As Reagan and Will stick together through thick and thick, loyalty of another kind is the issue: loyalty to journalistic standards. Instead of keeping an arm's length from the Reagan campaign--in the name of professional detachment--Will linked to it arm in arm. Readers assumed he was an observer, not a participant.
In a column last Sunday explaining the upbeat side of this arrangement, Will justified his contributions at the coaching session as an occasion for career enhancement: "It was a valuable chance to see certain gears and pulleys of the political backstage. I recommend the experience to some persons who today seem to have strange assumptions about how politicians at the highest levels of our life go about their craft."
One wonders how this recommendation would go over with some journalists at the highest levels of their craft--say, I.F. Stone or Mike Royko.
Stone's long and exemplary career, as well as the rustless steel of his integrity, resulted from avoiding insider journalism ever available backstage and working hard to cleave through the abundant guff and fakery offered frontstage. To Stone, examining the public statements of presidents, and not their private whisperings over lunch to a pet columnist, was the best and only way of serving the reader. It can't be done both ways. Hobnobbery journalism serves the elected public figure, not the readers and not the columnists who practice it, regardless of how it satisfies the latter's cravings to suck at the roots of power.
Royko, as admirably independent as Stone, didn't need to look at the backstage "gears and pulley" of the Mayor Daley machine to conclude that Chicago politics were gutter-level. It's Royko to whom we owe a debt for saying as long ago as last July that a cockeyed pattern of chumminess marked the Reagan-Will relationship. At that time, Will had shifted roles from coaching to speechwriting. He wrote a speech that Reagan eventually used, in parts, before Parliament in London.
When called to account--and not called as widely or as loudly as now--Will had only a few rebels like Royko to deal with. Accordingly, he was high-handed and combative: ". . . It's a sign of the times that I can't do the president a favor like this without people blubbering about it. I have yet had anyone intelligently explain the ethics part of this. By asking me about ethics, you are moralizing. Who are you to moralize? Whoever said that journalism is value neutral? I have a right to do what I want."
From this assertion of journalistic self-righteousness, the bluntness of a year ago has been replaced by a tone of disingenuousness. The coach-speechwriter-friend now says he would decline an invitation to participate in coaching Reagan. "Some of the questions now being raised seem to me to have merit," Will wrote last Sunday. Second, "it makes so many people anxious." In other words, the blubbering moralizers can't control their anxieties. Thus Will, harassed by the unsophisticated ruck, will yield to its deficiencies and say no should his leader summon again.
Nowhere in Will's account of his adventures in near-the-throne journalism is there an expression of apology. Squirms but no regrets. He borrows the tone that Reagan first tried when seeking to explain away the stolen briefing book: much ado about nothing, and it's a laugher. Minus, for once, quotes from Disraeli, Chesterton and Yogi Berra, Will says in mock horror of his recent lunches with two Democratic candidates: "I wonder if something I said constituted 'advice' or 'coaching.' " The joke falls flat.
The further fall is Will's drop in credibility. The reader's trust has been eroded. Supporting a politician in a column is different from helping him privately as an adviser. Viewpoints aren't the issue. Clarity of vision is. To ignore that--"I have a right to do what I want"--is to disdain the right of the readers to be leveled with. It betrays the fund of believability that countless newspaper people, most of them far less known or paid than the fortunate Will, have built up over the decades. It isn't a fund to be trifled with.
Will came to his syndicated column in 1974 unrooted in either reportorial or editorial writing experience. He apparently didn't know one of the basics: "When a commentator has a direct personal interest in an issue, it behooves him to say so." The quote is from an April 1982 column by Will on an issue other than presidential palhood. It's what he should have announced to readers in 1980 when friend Reagan came calling.