It had all the makings of Bedgate. Last June George F. Will, Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist and President Reagan’s sometime dinner host and debate coach, startlingly announced that he was “sleeping with a government official.” The details, however, proved less than scandalous. The official in question was none other than his wife, Madeleine, 38, the newly appointed Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitation.
Her appointment certifies a long-known fact: The Wills are one of Washington’s power couples. At 42, he is a boyish-looking author, essayist, pundit (one column runs twice weekly in 400 newspapers and another biweekly in Newsweek), unregenerate Chicago Cub fan and resident egghead on such TV shows as the syndicated Agronsky & Co. (where he tangles with other journalists) and ABC’s This Week With David Brinkley. His preppy-style clothes seem hijacked from a Brooks Brothers’ mannequin—with a bow tie and clipped quips as his trademarks.
In her $67,200-a-year job, meanwhile, Madeleine oversees 470 employees and a $2.2 billion budget, with the primary goal of helping the handicapped enter the workplace. While some D.C. cynics snicker that it didn’t hurt Madeleine’s job chances that her husband occasionally chums with Ronald Reagan, her credentials as a champion of the retarded are persuasive—she has worked as a volunteer in the field for a decade. They are also rooted in personal sorrow: The couple’s oldest child (of three), Jonathan, now 11, was born with Down’s syndrome.
Moreover, her husband sniffs at those who rate him as Reagan’s bosom buddy. “It’s a myth, quite silly,” says George. “I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, personally close to Reagan.” Madeleine’s skills, he’s sure, will silence the scoffers anyway. “She believes in the system and knows how to make it work,” he says. “The irony is it might have been easier for her if she hadn’t been married to me, and better for me if she hadn’t been offered the job. But I know a lot of people in high positions in public life, and none of them are any smarter or any better than Madeleine.” Will her social service programs suffer the sting of his conservative ideology? “God, I’m all for them,” he says.
“George is a good person to talk a problem through with,” says Madeleine of her analytical spouse. “He can isolate for you all the extraneous points.” Still, at least one point Will found extraneous landed him in hot water. George was roundly booed by many journalists when it was revealed recently that he had coached Reagan prior to the 1980 debate with then President Carter, read stolen Carter campaign material and failed to disclose either fact when he later praised Reagan’s debate performance. Some newspapers, including the New York Daily News, canceled his column, claiming he had violated journalistic ethics. George was unmoved. “It was a passing summer storm,” he says.
Madeleine’s trials have been more private, and they began with Jonathan’s birth. “It was a bolt from the blue,” she recalls. “We were utterly devastated and terrified.” The Wills never considered institutionalizing him, however. “It’s quite wrong to suggest that if a child is retarded the parents’ obligation to love it is contingent,” George says firmly. “We never thought of not bringing Jonny home.”
Initially frustrated because there was little help or guidance available, Madeleine began volunteering at local and state groups advocating rights for the mentally retarded. “She got very tough,” George recalls. Nonetheless, the couple is far from hardened to the stigma attached to Jonny. “There’s so much mythology about mentally retarded people that normal people want to avoid them,” Madeleine says. “They stare at retarded kids. I sometimes ask people, ‘When was the last time you had a conversation with a mentally retarded person? How can you know what they’re like?’ ” Today their son is a happy, friendly little boy who cavorts with younger brother Geoffrey, 9, and sister Victoria, almost 3, attends ball games with his family or adult friends and is in a special fifth-grade class at a public school near their Chevy Chase, Md. home.
By 1979 Madeleine had become chief lobbyist for the Maryland Association for Retarded Citizens. “She has the human feelings—she cares about people in a very personal way,” says George. “She has been in institutions I’m sure I’m not tough enough to go to.” As a lobbyist, she helped push through a landmark state bill expanding opportunities for retarded adults. Now, in her new job, she must defend the Administration’s programs, a task she concedes will take some “mending of fences” with the chronically underfunded “disabled community.”
For all of their clout, the Wills are a surprisingly unpretentious pair. Until recently, both worked out of their white, rambling, three-story Victorian home, although she concedes that 24-hour togetherness “isn’t for everyone.” These days he’s in his study by 8, she’s in her Washington office by 8:30, and they rely on a housekeeper to tend to the household nitty-gritty. “George is not someone who shovels snow or does housework,” Madeleine reports. “When he goes to the grocery store you have to send him with a list, or else he comes back with four cans of smoked oysters and no milk.”
Still, he has his good points. “He’s a wonderful, nurturing father,” she says, and his being home eases the guilt feelings she has as a working mother. Despite tight schedules they manage regular outings to Baltimore Oriole games, frequent barbecues with neighbors and a week’s hiking in Aspen every summer. Rare nights out are spent with such chums as Sen. Pat Moynihan and his wife, Elizabeth. Any fighting, says George, is about “not fighting. Madeleine thinks fighting’s healthy—a catharsis. She’s Mediterranean and not responsible for her behavior. I’m a northern European—repressed.” Observes Madeleine: “When he’s irritated, his lower lip disappears and I want him to explain what he’s upset about. Three weeks later he’ll make some disjointed remark that takes me awhile to figure out—and then I’ll know, ‘Oh, that’s what it was all about.’ ”
They met when she was 16 and working in her parents’ (Alcide and Blanche Marion) West Hartford, Conn. cafeteria near Trinity College, where George was on scholarship. “She seemed to have unusual self-possession,” says George. They began dating a few months later. Madeleine attended Hartford College for Women before graduating from Smith in 1967 with a major in history. Despite her husband’s highbrow image, it is she who holds the Phi Beta Kappa key in the family and who, says he, “has a much better academic record than I ever had.”
He was no slouch, though, growing up as a “faculty brat” in Champaign, III. His father, Frederick, was a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois and his mother, Louise, a high school teacher. As a B student (“I went to a small university-run high school composed of anemic, nearsighted faculty children like me”), George’s one clear passion was baseball. “My Little League was the Mittendorf Funeral Home Panthers,” he laughs. “Our color was black.” At college his leanings were liberal. He quit a fraternity that refused to admit blacks and co-chaired Students for John Kennedy.
After graduating in 1962 with a degree in religion, he headed for Oxford where he “turned into a conservative. It seemed to me that the British government was irrationally intrusive,” he explains. A visit to the Berlin Wall was also a very “conservatizing experience.” He came home in 1964, picked up a Ph.D. in political science at Princeton in 1967 and that year married Madeleine. They honeymooned driving his ’49 Ford from West Hartford to his teaching job at Michigan State in East Lansing. A year later they moved on to the University of Toronto.
Their apparent destiny of becoming a faculty couple was diverted when George was recruited in 1970 by then Sen. Gordon Allott, a Colorado Republican. Suddenly the Wills found themselves untenured in Washington, where he did speeches and research for Allott and she worked as an editor at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. His affection for writing rekindled, he began submitting columns to the Washington Post Op-Ed page and William F. Buckley’s National Review, where he became Washington editor. By 1976, his column flourishing, he went solo.
Although he delights in his “bow-tied-Tory-with-a-stained-glass-mind” image and is pleased that his brand of conservatism is popular, Will frets when people perceive him as “pompous or elitist.” (His somewhat stiff, glib TV style and Buckleyesque fervor for $25 words doesn’t help.) “The fact that ‘elite’ or ‘elitist’ have become epithets is a pretty sad commentary,” he says. But he harbors no illusions about the importance of his opinion. “The columns people remember are invariably not about political issues,” he says. People “like to see other people humanized, especially if they’re celebrities or political types. They want to know what they eat for breakfast and whether they take out the garbage.” (George eats Cheerios and milk and does, indeed, take out the trash. “Who will if I don’t?” he asks.)
Despite their sudden joint celebrity, they are determined not to skimp on family time. “There’s no question that Washington’s dirty little secret is the cost of parents’ ambitions to their children,” says George. Adds Madeleine: “We’ve watched people come into this town and six months later their whole world is falling apart. Those are sobering experiences.” But their marriage appears to be rock-solid. “We’re not living through each other,” he says, “which makes it a freer, stronger, more adult relationship.”
What remains to be seen is whether either—or both—will end up in elected office. George has been approached to run for the Senate (“I looked at it, but with young children decided now was not the time”). Madeleine also likes politics, but “in light of the price one has to pay to achieve public office, I’m not sure I would ever do it.” Still, where there are two Wills, there must be a way, and if the Republicans stay in power after next year’s elections, George thinks his “intelligent, young, skilled, Republican” wife will be “on a few lists.” Is he ready to face being Mr. Madeleine Will? “Then I would be like Denis Thatcher,” he says of the husband of Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “Which”—he adds with a straight face—”I would be quite content to be.”