If you sat all the political reporters in Washington down in one room and told them that only those who had never given advice to a politician should stand up, hardly a soul would dare rise.
Scratch a scribe in this town and you find a campaign manager. The candidate has no more seductive, nay irresistible, gambit in wooing the press than asking, "What do you think I should do?"
One of the fascinating sidelights in the paper storm currently raging in this city is the story of George Will, the erudite, elegant, self-assured conservative columnist who is much given to quoting British prime ministers of another century. His role in the making of a president has been the subject of a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, many columns and editorials, and the two widely watched television panel shows on which he regularly appears.
Just as the controversy over who gave which Carter debate papers to what Reagan operative has revealed a more gripping glimpse of the savage personal and ideological differences that are are shredding President Reagan's top command, Will's role as both a debate coach and a debate commentator has opened up the larger subject of the cosiness between the men who run this country and the press that is supposed to be covering them.
Will has, in a sense, become the first--so far, only--casualty of the curious case of the filched documents.
Given his vast success in a field he entered only nine years ago--he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist appearing in 400 papers, a Newsweek commentator and virtually the voice of Washington on television, Will suffered little more than a flesh wound. As a result of the fuss, his column has been dropped by the New York Daily News.
Editor Jim Wieghart, who was the News' Washington bureau chief for many years, decided to discontinue Will for "a violation of journalistic ethics."
To Wieghart, Will went "out of bounds" when he "misrepresented" his role at the Wexford garage-turned studio, where Reagan underwent four days of grueling debate rehearsal. Will was there as a participant, not an observer.
"I felt queasy about it because George is a friend and I like the column," Wieghart said, "but I fired a guy--or forced him to resign--for misrepresenting a situation in Belfast, and I think Will should have told us what he was doing there."
Will wrote a long defense of his action that appeared in The Washington Post.
His basic point is that as a columnist, valued for his views more than his information, he has a license not granted reporters to consort with the mighty on an intimate basis. He points out that he made no secret of his admiration for Reagan.
Reagan, it can be added, has been equally open in his partiality. He has been a dinner guest at Will's victorian mansion in Chevy Chase. He has appointed the congenial columnist to the board of visitors to the Naval Academy and Will's wife, Madeleine, to a high post in the Education Department.
It happens that in a Newsweek column of Jan. 19, 1981, Will preemptively answered the charges that are now swirling around his head. In regard to the fact that Reagan had come to a small dinner, Will described this as a circumstance that was "large enough to fill to overflowing the minds of some people."
"Journalism (like public service, with its 'conflict of interest' phonetics) is now infested with persons who are 'little moral thermometers' dashing about taking other persons' temperatures, spreading as confused moralists will, a silly scrupulosity and other confusions."
Will cites others of his calling who have been unofficial counselors, and even ghostwriters, to presidents.
What he did was to work out in the gym with the challenger and then, without mentioning the fact to readers or viewers, review the fight on television. He impersonated a reporter.
In his account, Will makes his presence seem casual and spontaneous. He just tagged along with his old friend David A. Stockman, who played President Carter. He remembers asking only one question, one that was so "recondite" the president couldn't answer it.
After the debate, Will appeared on ABC television and gave Reagan a rave:
"When he is under pressure, he is a thoroughbred."
When the briefing-book storm began, Will tried to make light of it. He volunteered that he had seen what Stockman later called "the filched documents" on Stockman's kitchen table and found them "excruciatingly boring." He provided his friend in the White House with the analogy to the Pentagon Papers and the line that a man with 40 years in politics behind him hardly needs coaching in what to say.
He is less bored now. He has forborne to say of his help to a candidate that "everybody does it" because he feels he is not bound by the same rules. But he had learned that being what Henry Adams called "a stablemate to statesmen" carries a price these days.