Ever since Barack Obama's inauguration, progressives have been able to point to one segment of the traditional media that consistently bears witness to the depth of change implied by the Democratic landslide: the chastened demeanor of George Will on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Particularly obvious whenever Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is on hand to call Will on his donnish prevarications, the change has nonetheless been unmistakable over time and provided the show's real "Sunday Funnies" for lots of us, as this clip from Stephen Colbert last month makes clear:
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Of course, chipping away at Will's certitude is intrinsically funny because of his magisterial, always unsmiling manner--it's like teasing a pinched and grumpy-looking hedgehog with a sharp stick.
Twice on the most recent This Week, Will set himself up as the straight man for Krugman. First, during the discussion of "Climategate," the manufactured scandal over hacked emails from British climatologists that purportedly "prove" that global warming isn't real. The ever-intellectual Will--along with less bookish illuminati like Rush Limbaugh and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK)--has been one of the leading global-warming deniers. But Krugman easily slapped down Will's conspiracy theory-like distortions, and George had to just sit there like a conservative Kon-Tiki and take it.
Then, a bit later in the show, after Will poohed-poohed cap-and-trade proposals, Krugman lowered the boom on one of Will's signature contradictions. "I'm surprised, George," he said, "that you lack faith in the power of the marketplace."
Notice how after Krugman snags Will on the free-market, Will immediately and absurdly tries to change the subject, insisting that those atmospheric bean-counters in the global-warming camp are really in it for the Benjamins. To which Krugman answers, his eyes practically rolling: "There is tremendously more money in being a skeptic than there is in being a supporter. It's so much easier, come on--you got the energy industry's behind it."
Actually, Will has been teeing up talking points and Krugman has been knocking them down for a while now. Shortly after the 2008 election, there was, for instance, this classic moment, when Krugman schooled Will on FDR and the Depression:
Four or five years ago, Will would have dominated that discussion and talked over his opponent; now he's being called on it and simply deciding not to argue with the unconverted. He's still fulminating in the Washington Post, where his just-say-no-to-climate-change columns have gone unchallenged. But he's become more careful on the air, backing off, dodging, and, occasionally, apparently listening. What's different now is that it's difficult for Will--or for that matter, Cokie Roberts or any other "centrist" on the show--to sniff at a Nobel laureate wielding facts.
But what's also different is that, on some topics, Will is no longer a frozen ideologue. He has been undergoing a kind of global warming of his own. Over the last year or so, he's lobbed critiques that were anti-Bush, anti-Palin, and, in the face of neocon wrath, bravely anti-war, agreeing with The Nation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel on Afghanistan, for example.
I think Will never liked the high-school-jock atmosphere of the Bush/Cheney White House--the towel-snapping sneers at book-larnin', and the populist, megachurch, know-nothingness of its policies. There wasn't much room there for a Whiggish parson of political prissiness. Oh, he doesn't care for the new, niggling emphasis on reality, either, but he's trying to adapt to a political world dominated by cable and comedy shows that hammer constantly at the bankruptcy of conservative economic verities.
On November 1, as This Week played the clip of Colbert riffing on Will's bow-ties and all that they imply, Will had to sit there and take it again. Even as he watched himself, Will didn't crack a smile--and Stephanopoulos said it was the first time he'd ever seen George Will blush.