The historian Garry Wills has written better than anybody else about modern Americaby Sam Tanenhaus / March 11, 2013 / Leave a comment
Wills is an outsider: a practising Catholic, a proud midwesterner, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends on both the left and right © Gasper Tringale
Sooner or later, anyone who writes about America must reckon with Garry Wills. Not that it’s easy to do. The books are demanding enough—not the prose, which is graceful and elegant—but the arguments, which are unfailingly original, often provocative, occasionally subversive and, now and again, utterly perverse, yet stamped every time with the finality of the last word.
In his 50 or so books, a handful of them masterpieces, Wills has ranged further than any other American writer of his time, covering much of the western tradition, ancient and contemporary, sacred and profane. His subjects include Jesus, Paul and Augustine, American presidents old and new (Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Reagan, the second Bush), Shakespeare and Verdi, the outrages of American militarism, the glories and delinquencies of his beloved-despised Catholicism and—why not?—John Wayne (Wills is a devotee of John Ford’s Westerns.) For diversion, Wills extrudes densely learned articles in the New York Review of Books, the august journal that since the 1970s has been the main stage of his brutal dismantlings of inferior—that is to say, other—minds. To be reviewed by Wills, I can attest, is to feel like a vagrant caught urinating in the master’s hedges: after the initial panic, one experiences a strange, penitential relief. God, or at least one of His retainers, really is watching.
On a dour Sunday morning in December, I visited Wills, who is nearing 79 but looks 20 years younger, at his large three-storey house in Evanston, a prosperous suburb to the north of Chicago. For 30-odd years Wills has been affiliated with Northwestern, the excellent liberal arts university a few blocks from his home. Remarkably, given his proximity to the University of Chicago, that citadel of serious thought has never tried to recruit him for its faculty, despite his Pulitzer Prize, his membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his National Humanities Medal (awarded by Bill Clinton the same week Wills urged him, in Time magazine, to resign over the Monica Lewinsky dalliance).
The snub pays silent tribute to Wills’s singularity. The University of Chicago favours upholders of tradition like Saul Bellow or the culture critic Allan Bloom. Wills might seem to fit. He has a PhD in classics from Yale. His Latin is still good, and he reads French and Italian. But he puts all this to heretical purposes. He is America’s best living explainer, exposing the nation’s most cherished myths, which he approaches in the manner of a holy blasphemer. He has become an invaluable guide to the modern United States, connecting the present, in all its strangeness, to the nation’s imprisoning history, the patterns of behaviour unchanged since the earliest days of the republic: the convergence of individualistic licence and submission to authority, of “free-market” avarice cloaked in the language of spiritual quest. More incisively than any other thinker he bracingly answers the questions that most puzzle outsiders: why is religion such an enduring force in American politics? Why is there such popular mistrust of government? Why can’t Americans give up their love affair with guns? And he has done all this as an outsider himself—a practising Catholic, a proud Midwesterner who avoids the literary scene, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends, and presidents, on both the right and left.
It was Wills who saw, long before it became accepted dogma, that Richard Nixon, the bête noire of American liberals, was himself the “last liberal,” ferociously clinging to the national myth of “the self-made man.” It was Wills who cleared away the nostalgic mist surrounding John F Kennedy and exposed him as the originator of the modern “insurgency presidency,” addicted to reckless “covert actions” that paralleled his illicit bedroom adventures. “For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why Wills hates Kennedy,” a political scientist and adviser to Kennedy once told me. “Then I got it. Wills is the good Catholic, and Kennedy was the bad Catholic.”
A good Catholic who nonetheless has declared war not only on church elders but on the Vatican itself. When the sex abuse scandals erupted a decade ago, and others writhed in torments of apology or denial, Wills coolly explained that what seemed like desecrations of the faith were in reality outgrowths of its most hallowed rituals. “The very places where the molestation occurs are redolent of religion—the sacristy, the confessional, the rectory… The victim is disarmed by sophistication and the predator has a special arsenal of stun devices. He uses religion to sanction what he is up to, even calling sex part of his priestly ministry.”
To a non-Catholic like me, Wills was performing a heroic civic deed, prizing open the dank closet of alien experience. He had come not to condemn but to explain. But many believers were outraged, not least because Wills is “perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years,” as the National Catholic Reporter has put it. In his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Wills is at it again, cataloguing church hypocrisies, false teachings, the litany of bloody crimes. “The great scandal of Christians is the way they have persecuted fellow Christians,” he writes, “driving out heretics, shunning them, burning their books, burning them.”
Wills himself came very close to entering the priesthood—indeed, he had to be released by Rome from his vows when he decided to be a writer instead. He attends Mass on Sunday and still says the rosary every day. These early and continued devotions, more than anything else, set him apart from almost every other major American intellectual—“somewhat outside the national mainstream, ready to look inside without going there,” as he has written. For Wills, to think hard is a vocational exercise, and it has given him the confidence to ignore the provincial Manhattan “scene,” with its publishing events and circuit of media parties that reinforce a brutal pecking-order.
It has also given him something even more valuable: rare access to everyday experience, real and felt, in what remains the most religiously devout of all the advanced western democracies. Unlike other presidential historians, Wills immerses himself in the interior religious worlds of his subjects—the sacred texts, the Sunday-school dogma. He knows how close all this lies to the pulsing life of the nation. He knows too that the farm and the village square, nostalgically mourned today—vanishing features of our giant landscape—incubated American democracy, with its evangelised politics, its tightly sealed repressions and sudden violent outbursts, its nightstand with a handgun tucked in a drawer alongside the family Bible. Not all great American writers have understood this. Henry James didn’t. Neither did Edith Wharton. But the outsider “primitive” Walt Whitman did. So did Mark Twain, reared on the banks of the Mississippi. And HL Mencken, the sage of Baltimore who seldom left that sleepy overgrown town. And of course the college dropout William Faulkner, with his arsonist Snopeses and swampland aristocrats.
Each of these native geniuses was essentially self-taught but was also steeped in regional lore, custom, and habit. Each knew the American dream has been handed down in its original pastoral rhythms. Wills is the great living heir of this America of the mind, a man of the middle west—born in Atlanta, raised in Michigan and Wisconsin on either side of Lake Michigan, the fresh-water immensity, shaped like a giant finger, that starts just south of Chicago and extends all the way up, almost 500km, to Canada, its shoreline touching four Midwestern states.
It is this background, as much as his mastery of religious history, that enabled Wills to see in his book Under God—published in 1990, 10 years before the advent of George W Bush’s “faith-based” politics and the mad “Bible Belt” campaigns to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools—that every American generation struggles anew to absorb the facts of secular reason and to swallow the bitter truth that all nations, even republics founded (or, as Wills puts it, “invented”) on abstract principles, come with expiration dates and no claim of “American exceptionalism” can hold the dogs at bay.
Wills—with his boxy spectacles, his Midwestern locutions (“not a one”)—declines to be the great man of letters in the kingly manner of, say, Edmund Wilson, Robert Penn Warren or even the Harvard-tooled heart-lander John Updike. It’s not a question of modesty. Wills is supremely self-assured. He has written two memoirs, the second of them a catalogue of his encounters with presidents, activists, mentors, professional American football players, the opera singer Beverly Sills, each evoked with uninflected precision. In conversation too Wills inclines toward the taxonomic, for instance when he recalls the “Integralist Catholic Church-State Caesaro-Papists” who formed a small renegade faction at National Review, the conservative journal-cum-hothouse where he got his start as a 23-year-old prodigy in the 1950s.
All these years later, Wills’s indifference to his cultural standing seems the hard-headed calculation of a combatant wary of the perils of growing soft. Argument is his nutriment and has been since his teens, when he was an accomplished schoolboy debater at the Jesuit high school he attended in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. For Wills to argue is not to quarrel, accuse, or even opine. It is to state a hypothesis and then work through it with Euclidian rigour and arcane examples. “People tell me I should read Hilary Mantel’s novels,” he says, “but I’m not interested in the writer’s imagination of history. I want to see the evidence!”
He himself drains vats of it. “I require many hours for reading,” he says, and when he can’t grab a book—in the car, for instance—he listens to the audiotapes he keeps in ready supply. It all goes into closely reasoned assertions, one after another, marching across the page in the stern ranks of Jesuitical logic.
Wills has lately been blogging for the New York Review—sending forth not “posts” but miniature essays, tiny epics on the American mind (“The south,” he wrote in January, “escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking.”) His gleeful post-election swatting of Mitt Romney (“Things he was once proud of—healthcare guarantees, opposition to noxious emissions, support of gay rights and women’s rights, he had the shamelessness to treat as matters of shame all through his years-long crawl to the Republican nomination”) brought a rush of web traffic, yet another brave new world for a scholar-journalist-provocateur who until recently drafted his manuscripts in longhand and declined to purchase a computer until his students forced him to. “They were angry that they couldn’t email me,” he says.
It’s no longer a problem. Fed up with academic politics—squabbling over hires, trudging through unpublished dissertations—Wills voluntarily gave up tenure, although he still teaches, and supports himself by combining books with related lectureships. He lives in a large yellow house, near the Great Lake, with his wife, Natalie, whom he met in 1957, when she was a flight attendant, and then married in 1959. “[She is] the only person with whom I have ever had sex,” he has written, one of the more curious boasts in recent literary annals.
* * *
When I visited Wills, it was a relief to see how robust he still looks, despite a health scare last summer, so serious that obituarists at the New York Times, where I work, were poised to “update”—they had to mention all those new books!—while bulletins came in from Wills’s daughter Lydia, a literary agent in Manhattan, and Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review. When Wills recovered, I sent him a note. He ignored it, characteristically, and now brushes the episode aside. “I had a gall bladder operation and got an infection in the hospital, so I spent about three weeks in the hospital.” He is now fully recovered, though he has other ailments. “I’ve got a bad back. I’ve got a little gout—everything you’ve got when you’re old. But I’m mobile and I work all day, one way or another.”
The house, purchased after the Wills’s three children were grown, is arranged for maximum comfort. The living room, which looks toward the lake, is gracious and spare, with a grand piano Wills tinkers at. These comforts provide cover for trouble-making: “Be regular and orderly in your life,” Flaubert counselled long ago, “that you may be violent and original in your work.” For Wills ordinariness comes easily. He confesses to being “a conventional person,” “square,” “middle class,” “so unnoticeable that I have trouble getting waited on in stores.” Raised by not especially educated people—his father was an appliance salesman and college boxing coach—Wills belongs, for all his bold intellectual exploits, to the obedient, respectful “silent generation” that came of age after the second world war. His boyhood was spent in classrooms and churches—and sneaking in reading on the bleachers at American football and basketball games. He himself resembles a youth sports coach, burly and bland-featured, and he dresses like one too: pullover, plaid shirt, soft-soled shoes. He speaks in the ageless tones and, much of the time, the diction of a regular Midwestern guy.
All this too is camouflage. Wills came into his selfhood by tangling with tough-minded elders—his father, who forced him to watch boxing matches (Wills has called for the sport to be banned), the “fathers” who drilled him in the church teachings he now demolishes, the department chairman at Johns Hopkins who long ago warned Wills he would not get tenure, ostensibly because he was doing too much outside writing, but actually, Wills believes, because of his association in those days with National Review, the conservative journal, and his friendship with its editor William F Buckley.
That was in the early 1960s, before Wills was radicalised—jailed for protesting the Vietnam war (he was an ally of the Berrigan brothers, radical priests hunted by the FBI after they napalmed draft files) and keeping company with civil rights activists. In thrall to Martin Luther King, Jr, Wills flew to Memphis the morning after King’s assassination in 1968 and was one of the very few whites, all journalists, present at the funeral. The mourners were black. “All were, absolutely all,” he says, still shocked. One wall of his study has a framed photo of King in his coffin signed by the Life magazine photographer Art Shay.
The other adornment—also honouring a national martyr—is an “absolute facsimile” of the Gettysburg Address, a gift from the Library of Congress in recognition of Wills’s book Lincoln at Gettysburg, about the 272 words that “remade America,” summoning it forward out of slavery toward “a new birth of freedom.” One of Wills’s signature achievements, it combines literary and historical detective work, and moves from a learned discussion of classical rhetoric to a brooding meditation on Lincoln’s mind and character, his profound yearnings and hard calculations, his romantic-melancholia, his obsession with death. “Slavery is not mentioned, any more than Gettysburg is,” Wills writes of the great speech. “The discussion is driven back and back, beyond the historical particulars, to great ideals that are made to grapple naked in an airy battle of the mind. Lincoln derives a new, a transcendental, significance from this bloody episode.” And yet, “by turning all the blood and waste into a hygienic testing of an abstract proposition [ie, all men are created equal] he may have ennobled war, the last thing he wanted to do in other contexts.”
Wills is a pacifist and this formed the basis of his tense exchange with President Barack Obama that led to much gossip afterward. This was in June 2009. Obama, newly in office and acutely aware of his place in history, wanted to hear what experts had to say. Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Team of Rivals Obama drew on when he assembled his cabinet (the book also inspired Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) arranged for eight historians to join Obama and a few staffers for dinner in the White House. The guest list included, among others, Robert Caro (the legendary biographer of President Lyndon Johnson), Robert Dallek (biographies of Kennedy and Johnson), and inevitably, Garry Wills. “It’s a strange thing,” one of the group told me afterwards. “You imagine you have a lot to tell the president. But as soon as you’re with him, all you can think to do is tell him how great he is.”
* * *
Not Wills. When Obama professed surprise at all the hostility he was getting from supporters on the left, Wills recalled, “I said you’re going to get more if you keep doing signing statements”—that is, issuing policy orders directly from the White House circumventing Congress or adding his own interpretation to approved legislation. Wills, an authority on the constitution, is one of many who think these orders violate it. Obama once did too, in his Senate days when George W Bush used the statements to slip items past Congress, just as Obama has been doing. Now Obama finds himself falling into the trap of the imperial “insurgent” presidency—and not simply on matters of domestic policy. Three months before the dinner Obama had announced he would send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and there were strong hints of further escalation to come. At dinner’s end, Wills recalls that Obama “went around [the room] and said, ‘Before you leave if you have one more thing you’d like to tell me…’ That’s when I said if you get back into Afghanistan you’ll never get out. You can’t put that country together.”
The lessons of Vietnam could not be avoided. That war had destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, whose vision of a “Great Society” Obama hoped to build on. Wills was not alone in making this point. But he was the most emphatic, though it was to no avail. At the end of the year Obama announced another 30,000 troops would be sent in—a “surge” like the one George Bush had ordered in Iraq. In the spring of 2010 the total number of “boots on the ground” reached 100,000. “Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early,” Wills blogged in July 2010, almost exactly a year after the White House dinner. “It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan. He took on what he made America’s longest war and what may turn out to be its most disastrous one.”
“Everyone else at that dinner was invited back,” Wills told me. “I was not. Most of [the others], by the way, were very sycophantic.” He says this evenly, though with a touch of wounded pride. But in the end, Wills was vindicated. Obama has been quietly whittling down the US “presence” in Afghanistan and early this year announced 34,000 troops will come home by January 2014.
In any case, snubbing Wills was a mistake. When Obama summoned the historians a year later, worried now about the Tea Party, Wills could have told him more than all the others combined. His book A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, published during the Clinton years, is even more timely today, as the Republican party lapses into retrograde obstruction. The bigger irony is that Wills has written admiringly on Obama and has compared him more than once to Lincoln. But Wills is no longer infatuated. Asked recently what book Obama should read, he replied, “Garry Trudeau’s Signature Wound, to see what damage Obama has done to thousands of our young people with his stupid wars.” Wills might have chosen Thucydides or Machiavelli or Tolstoy. Instead he chose a collection by the left-wing Doonesbury cartoonist who remains a hero of American youth culture.
That same culture informs Wills’s greatest work, Nixon Agonistes, still the one indispensable primer on modern American politics après le déluge of the clamorous 1960s, part Mencken, part Aristotle, part Moby Dick. It is an eyewitness account of the 1968 presidential election, the most tumultuous in modern times—two assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr, Robert F Kennedy); riots in the cities (Chicago and Miami) where the parties held their nominating conventions.
Others wrote about it, but it was Wills alone who foretold that the next phase of American politics would be shaped not by campus protest and black revolt, but by the threatened and angry middle class—Republican delegates, the Sun Belt physicians and small-town bank presidents, “gladsacks, as it were,” who crowd Miami Beach’s resort hotels, their main topic of conversation the exorbitant prices, even as they are unsubtly bullied by the hotel management. “No one is presumed to know the rules of tipping: a note in each room gives the ‘suggested gratuity’ for maid service.” Later, Wills finds a taxi and crosses the bridge in Miami proper, where a riot has broken out between blacks and the police, with looters running wild. “There were no signs of fires, no report of guns, so the driver dipped down onto city streets, and we followed the path of wreckage in toward the centre of things—a weight machine thrown through a store window, the cash register wrestled to the floor, the window of a wig shop broken and stripped, ladies’ heads bowled here and there in bald disgrace.”
Published in 1970, when he was 36, Nixon Agonistes is above all the record of Wills’s transit from right to left; from bright young conservative to man of the left. (It also earned him a place on one of Nixon’s “enemies lists,” because, among other offences, of its unflatteringly detailed portraiture.) A few years later, when Watergate destroyed Nixon’s presidency, Wills’s book was read as a kind of prophetic decryption. It remains the most encompassing of all electoral campaign writing, a journey into the tangle of American excess and equally into the deep tangle of modern liberalism. Wills’s prose seethes with taxonomical fervour as he pins each specimen to the wall: “Henry Kissinger, who looks like a serious Harpo Marx, haunted the outskirts of power in Kennedy’s day, but was too dour and Germanic for Camelot. In Nixon’s sombre capital he has the reputation of a wit—elfin, sly, a bit of a ‘swinger.’” There is also the raunchy Alabama populist George Wallace: “He has the dingy attractive air of a B-movie idol, the kind who plays a handsome garage attendant.”
Amid the character sketches are summary cadences that might have come from writing on the Peloponnesian war. Thus Wills on the anxieties of the early cold war: “The bomb and its control, peace terms and new alliances, divided-occupation duties, the UN, ominous little bristlings against Russia at the Paris peace talks… Truman had seized the railroads and threatened to draft the workers… The war had ended without ending—and who was to blame? No one, of course. History. The gods.”
This wasn’t political journalism. It was tragic drama. We’re still living with the consequences. Obama is too. Yet Wills seems curiously free of the history he has told better than anyone else.
At the end of my visit—after the crabcakes Wills had promised, and the delicious soup, and the wine I spilled in a torrent on the dining room table—Wills offered to take me to a hotel in Evanston where I might get a taxi to O’Hare Airport. On the short drive I told him I am one of the many who discovered politics in the pages of Nixon Agonistes. I recited the terse sequence quoted just above, about blame, history, and gods. Did he remember writing that? He shook his head. “No. But I remember the Thomas Nast cartoon.” Every schoolchild is taught (or used to be) about Nast, whose muckraking caricatures of Gilded Age satraps helped expose the corruption of urban “machine“ politicians. Did Wills mean to say Nixon’s villainy is comic? Grinning, Wills, without quite taking his hands off the wheel, crossed his arms over his stomach and pointed a finger in either direction.
Back in New York I looked up the cartoon, a classic from 1871, “Who Stole the People’s Money?” (above). Unsavoury waist-coated thugs, pockets bulging, form a great circle. Each points to the man beside him. The caption reads “’Twas Him.”
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