Garry Wills, Outside Looking In:
Adventures of an Observer
Garry Wills has always been a fascinating yet little known figure for me. His writing is breathtakingly wide-ranging, from themes on antiquity and the Bible to modern American politics and presidents. I have enjoyed some but not all of his writing — much is quite abstract and way over my head. I knew that Wills was a strong Catholic whose Catholicism has influenced his world view and his writings. I also knew that he had an early stint at William F. Buckley’s National Review, America’s foremost conservative publication, yet today is closely associated with the liberal and progressive point of view. These factors make Wills a figure I was eager to learn more about.
“Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer” fulfills that learning function only partially, leaving much of the Garry Wills story tantalizingly untold. Wills describes himself as both “incurably Catholic” (p.6) and also highly conventional, “incurably . . . square — middle class, never bohemian or avant-garde” (p.6). As someone “so colorless,” Wills indicates, “I am not interesting in myself, but I have been able to meet many interesting people and observe fascinating events, partly by being unobtrusive” (p.7). Wills’ book, a series of short vignettes about his experiences and the people he has met, seeks to share what he has been able to observe, looking in from the outside.
Wills’ introduction, entitled “A Bookworm’s Confession,” is about as close as he comes to autobiography. Here, Wills describes his early upbringing, which centered, to his father’s chagrin, around books and his affinity for reading. When he was in grade school, his father promised him money if he could go a week without reading. Wills accepted his father’s offer, then “used the money to buy a new book” (p.3). As a teenager, Wills was sneaking away to read books in the way many of his age were sneaking away to smoke cigarettes. In boarding school, he read in the john at night, the “only place where lights were kept on” (p.3). While working in a clothing store, he read Shakespeare in the warehouse during his breaks.
Wills’ first and second substantive chapters are about the Civil Rights campaigns in the early 1960s and the death of Martin Luther King. There is a chapter on Studs Turkel, one of Wills’ favorites; another on Wills’ mercurial father, Jack. Wills also enjoys films and there is a chapter entitled simply “Movies.” Wills’ story about how he met his wife Natalie is practically the stuff of a detective novel. Wills explains with much gusto how he tracked down an erudite flight attendant he had met by chance on a plane trip. He is still married to this woman some 50 years later and, as he tells it, she is not only his spouse but also his intellectual alter ego.
Wills traveled with Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, and came close enough to see Nixon’s “omnidirectional mistrust” which would later “blossom into the break-ins and spying that brought Nixon down” (p.106). Wills also traveled with the Carter campaign in 1976. He was impressed with the way the deeply religious candidate kept his religion out of his campaign. “So far from injecting religion into politics, Carter had the historical Baptist belief in a separation of church and state” (p.111-12). He further considers Carter to have had the “most successful ex-presidency of all time” (p.113-114), becoming a “voice of conscience in all nations, not just in ours” (p.114).
When Wills interviewed President George H.W. Bush, the subject naturally turned to books. Bush indicated that he had been particularly impressed with Catcher in the Rye while a student at Phillips Exeter Academy. Wills notes in his book – but presumably not to the President – that Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951, whereas Bush had graduated from Exeter in 1942. “He was so devoid of personal reading memories,” Wills writes, that he “must have remembered his sons’ talk of the novel when they were in prep school” (p.142).
Wills met Bill Clinton when the man from Hope was first running for president and Wills was working on an analysis of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Wills interviewed Clinton and asked the candidate what book had made the greatest impression on him. Aware of Wills’ Saint Augustine project, Clinton predictably came up with a title designed to curry Wills’ favor, Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations. After his election, a cheap paperback of the Mediations came out with a banner indicating it was the newly elected President’s favorite book. Wills saw immediately the irony in Clinton’s choice of an ascetical treatise that severely “condemns any yielding to sexual indulgence” (p.120).
William Buckley is the subject of Wills’ penultimate chapter. But, in a broader sense, Buckley is a dominating presence throughout this book. Wills was on a flight to attend a Buckley party when he met his wife, for example. Buckley was a formative mentor for Wills, a warm but mischievous fellow, capable of much kindness. Wills speculates that Buckley was drawn to him because of his Catholicism – Buckley too was “incurably Catholic” (p.153). Early in his National Review stint, Wills became Buckley’s informal advisor on Catholic matters.
In 1957, Buckley published a much-maligned editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he defended segregation because whites were the “advanced race” and the “claims of civilization superseded those of universal suffrage” (p.157). Wills argued vehemently with Buckley on these positions and Buckley’s biographer credits Wills with convincing Buckley to moderate his views and distance himself and the National Review from Southern segregationists. But, Wills argues, Buckley also put distance between his brand of conservatism and the “anti-Semitism of the Liberty Lobby, the fanaticism of the John Birch Society, the glorification of selfishness by Ayn Rand [and] . . . the paranoia and conspiratorialism of the neocons” (p.158-59). In each of these cases, “some right-wingers tried to cut off donations to The National Review, but Bill stood his ground” (p.159). In Wills’ view, one of Buckley’s most significant contributions to American conservatism was to elevate the discourse in American politics, “making civil debate possible between responsible liberals and conservatives” (p.159).
Wills and Buckley were estranged for more than 30 years, driven apart by the “convulsions of the sixties and their aftermath” (p.164). Wills became a vehement critic of the Vietnam War, whereas Buckley maintained his hard-line support for the American war effort. The final break between the two men came when Buckley refused to publish an essay in the National Review in which Wills argued that there was “no conservative rationale for our ruinous engagement in Vietnam.” As a consequence, over the next 30 years, “communication between us was at first minimal, and then non-existent “ (p.164). For a while, the Review ran a “Wills Watch” documenting Wills’ liberal heresies. There was some reconnection and reconciliation between the two men in the years immediately preceding Buckley’s death in 2008, although Wills does not recount any meeting.
While the episodes in this book provide some insight into one of America’s most versatile and formidable contemporary thinkers, readers like me who want to see up close the inner Wills will find the book only partially satisfying. We remain thoroughly unconvinced by his self-description as “uninteresting” and can only hope that at some subsequent time he will open a little wider the window into his prodigious mind.
Thomas H. Peebles
December 16, 2012