Something To Live For
5/4/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--When Harry Wright, star of the Cincinnati Red Stockings
and then the Boston Red Stockings, pioneers of professional baseball, died
in 1895, a floral arrangement at his funeral spelled out ``Safe at Home.''
That delightful story would be more so, but for Wright's age. He was 60.
Looking on the bright side, as conservatives are, for sound
philosophic reasons, disinclined to do, I take comfort, of sorts, from the
fact that by turning 60 I am freed from the fear of dying young. Unless 60
no longer counts as old. If so, that is, like blessings generally, a mixed
one, because it extends one's eligibility for premature death. Life is like
that, always supplying thorns with the roses.
Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, final survivor of the Founders' circle, died
in Washington in 1854 in her 97th year. She had lived the entire life of
the Republic. So had the slave interviewed in Virginia during the 1862
Peninsula Campaign, who recalled hearing cannonading at the Battle of
Yorktown 81 years earlier. Someone who today is 60 has lived 26.6 percent
of the nation's life. Being born May 4, 1941, I arrived in a year that
ended badly, but I arrived 11 days before the beginning of Joe DiMaggio's
56-game hitting streak. Life supplies roses amid the thorns.
Perhaps it is just the result of immersion in journalism, which is the
opposite of literature, which is writing that deserves to be read twice.
Perhaps it is a consequence of living in an obsessively political city,
where last week's world-shaking events are forgotten, and epochal figures
are forever rising without a trace. For whatever reason, being 60 in
Washington sometimes feels like having had one year's experience 60 times.
However, age can confer a certain calm about the passing circus, a
preference for understatement, and for people with low emotional
metabolisms. When a maid serving Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of
Wellington) drowned herself because of her unrequited love for a gardener,
Wellesley expressed the hope that the remainder of the maids ``will put up
with the misfortunes of this world, & not destroy themselves.'' That's the
So is this. Mussolini, trying to impress a visitor, pointed to a
buzzer on his desk and boasted, ``All I have to do is press it and my army,
navy and air force go on instant alert.'' The visitor, Anthony Eden,
supposedly murmured, ``Awfully inconvenient if you just want a sandwich.''
Three determinative events in this 60-year-old's life were clustered
in a few years about a third of the way here, between 1960 and 1964.
Although the son of a professor of philosophy, until the summer before my
junior year in college most of my reading was of the backs of baseball
bubble gum cards. Then I read Albert Camus' novel ``The Stranger.'' Since
then, I have agreed with Logan Pearsall Smith: ``People say that life is
the thing, but I prefer reading.''
Camus was catalytic because, back then, any undergraduate worth his
weight in espresso and Gauloises cigarettes thought French intellectuals
had hung the moon. The creed du jour was existentialism, the belief that
life is absurd, so philosophy should be, too. A practicing existentialist
marinated himself in foreign movies--make that (BEG ITAL)films
--ostensibly because they had the finest flavors of anomie, alienation and
despair, but actually to savor, again and again, the sight of Jean Seberg
in bed in ``Breathless.''
In 1962 I saw the Berlin Wall, sufficient instruction in the stakes of
politics. In 1964, having cast my first presidential vote, for Barry
Goldwater, I heard election-night commentators happily declare the future
irrelevance of conservatism, and I and many kindred spirits said, we'll
just see about that. On May 31, 1967, this letter came to me at Princeton's
``Dear Mr. Will: Just a line of thanks for your letter of May 18.
Please note that I very much appreciate your good offer of help. My goal,
however, is to solve the problems of California, and at the moment, this
looks like a lifetime job. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan, Governor.''
What turns out to be a lifetime job--(BEG ITAL)very steady
work--is conservatism's task of keeping government where it belongs, which
is on a short constitutional leash, and politics in its place, which is at
the margins of life. It has taken me 60 years to identify the three keys to
a happy life--a flourishing family, hearty friends and a strong bullpen.
Actually, in my case, there is a fourth: the hope for Cubs baseball in late
October. I shall be 67 on the centennial of the Cubs' last World Series
victory. Something to live for.