A skeleton is rattling in George Will's closet. But it's difficult
to hear above the steady applause from his elite boosters inside the media
Widely viewed as one of the nation's most influential journalists,
Will churns out syndicated columns that appear in hundreds of daily papers.
He also writes for Newsweek. And he's a regular on ABC's "This Week." He is
definitely outspoken -- but don't expect him to speak out about the fact
that Juanita Yvette Lozano now faces up to 15 years in prison.
"A woman who worked for a media company that produced ads for
President George W. Bush's campaign was indicted for secretly mailing a
videotape of Bush practicing for a debate to Vice President Al Gore's
campaign," an Associated Press story explained the other day. Accompanying
the 60-minute video were about 120 pages of the Bush team's confidential
material for debate preparation.
Ordinarily, such a transgression might cause Will to express his
law-and-order zeal in no uncertain terms. But it's understandable that he
isn't eager to weigh in when the subject is theft of debate prep documents.
The circumstances of the incident last fall were far less egregious than
what happened -- with Will's active participation -- in 1980.
Six months ago, when Gore campaign adviser Tom Downey received a
package containing the Bush campaign material prior to the first debate, he
immediately turned it over to the FBI. In sharp contrast, 20 years earlier,
top operatives in Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign pored through Jimmy
Carter's lengthy briefing book swiped from the White House. Back then,
behind the scenes, Will was part of the effort to make the most of the
illegally obtained papers.
Will looked at the Carter briefing materials and then helped coach
Reagan for a crucial debate with Carter. Promptly after the debate, Will
went on "Nightline" to praise Reagan for a "thoroughbred performance."
Viewers had no way to know of Will's involvement in prepping Reagan for the
For years, Will was able to cover up the deception. But in
mid-1983, the "Debategate" story finally broke, and he took some flak.
At first, Newsweek merely mentioned in passing that Will had been
shown the stolen briefing book "and thought nothing of it." A week later,
devoting several sentences to the intrigue of its star columnist, the
magazine reported that he "saw the Carter materials" and later helped to
prepare Reagan "for his confrontation with Carter. Then, in his role as
television commentator, Will gave Reagan a favorable review for his
performance -- without explaining that he had personally taken part in the
During the summer of 1983, various media pillars rumbled with
disapproval. As Newsweek observed, "some of Will's fellow journalists have
heatedly criticized his partisan role. Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief
for the Los Angeles Times, called it 'outrageous.'"
The New Republic declared Will to be "the one person who has been
most embarrassed by Debategate" and faulted him for two aspects of his
behavior: "Appearing on ABC's 'Nightline' the night of the debate, Mr. Will
was one of the commentators who awarded the 'victory' to Mr. Reagan; he
posed as a referee without ever making it clear that he had been one of the
seconds." In addition, the columnist "knew about the purloined briefing
books" but kept the knowledge to himself. "Mr. Will said nothing about this
on 'Nightline'; nor did he write about it."
Perhaps a bit taken aback by the uproar, Will devoted a Washington
Post column to his own defense. In essence, Time magazine noted, "Will said
he was glad he had done what he had done, but would not do it again."
The controversy blew over. And in retrospect, Will's prominence in
Debategate probably helped rather than hurt his career. The incident
certified that he was a power player at the highest reaches of presidential
Nearly three years after his stealth role in the Carter-Reagan
debates came to light, a front-page Los Angeles Times profile called Will
"the pre-eminent American political commentator." When the story briefly
touched on Debategate and quoted Will, the tone was far from apologetic: "I
simply reject the idea that I misled anyone. It wasn't a state secret who I
But George Will knew that those Carter briefing papers were
stolen. He made use of them. And he kept mum for as long as he could.
On the day after Lozano's indictment, I requested a statement from
Will about the criminal charges against her -- or about his own role in the
Carter briefing-book caper. At the end of the day, the office of his
syndicate, the Washington Post Writers Group, informed me of Will's
response: No comment.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media."