Garry Wills believes that his bookishness made him a lifelong outsider. From his earliest days, he has read books every chance he got, in the john at his Jesuit prep school (the only place lights were on at night) and at a three-day school vigil for a touring Our Lady of Fatima statue, where he polished off War and Peace. In grade school, his father offered him five dollars if he could go a week without reading. He did so, and used the money to buy a book. “Reading has made me not so much a participant in life around me as an observer,” he writes in this memoir. “I have stood to the side of events....” Wills acknowledges that growing up Catholic in the 1940s set one outside what we once routinely referred to as the “secular culture.” And he thinks that his dual job as journalist and professor played a part too. But it may be the other way round—journalism and academe traditionally attract people who are already outsiders.
If Wills is an outsider, he is an extraordinarily well-connected one, with friends and friendly acquaintances galore. He lunches with Beverly Sills, discuses Greek grammar with I. F. Stone and Karl Hess, checks in with Anthony Hopkins on how he will portray Richard Nixon on screen, hangs out with Studs Terkel, and chats easily with one of the most famous passer-receiver combinations in football history, Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry.
At a 1972 antiwar demonstration in Washington, Wills decides to make a rare lurch from outsiderdom to activism, undergoing arrest (while carrying reading material—the Greek New Testament). Names of the well-known and the famous drift by: Joseph Papp, Benjamin Spock, Francine du Plessix Gray, Judy Collins, and Gloria Steinem.
Wills writes warmly about Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter (“Carter’s has been the most successful ex-presidency of all time”). And possibly alone among those who came early to the conclusion that Alger Hiss was a traitor, he was friendly with the hopelessly Stalinist playwright Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes) and wrote the introduction for her book, Scoundrel Time.
Wills suggests here that doors opened for him because he is unobtrusive, but surely his stunning early journalism paved the way. Nixon Agonistes combined a brilliant analysis of Richard Nixon as the last liberal with set pieces that few authors would have thought to include, such as his unforgettable interview with basketball star Wilt Chamberlain.
He offers a sharp portrait of William F. Buckley Jr. (generous, exciting, but no intellectual and “not a reflective thinker”). However, he offers no details on the Buckley-Wills thirty-year estrangement, resolved only two years or so before Buckley’s death in 2008. At the height of the antipathy, Buckley’s National Review had a disgraceful regular feature attacking Wills. Nor is there any account here of how and why Wills made his way across the political spectrum from far right to fairly far left.
Wills keeps asking politicians, “What book had the greatest impact on you?” Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer give predictable conservative answers (Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, Buckley’s God and Man at Yale); Michael Dukakis cites Henry Steele Commager’s The American Mind. (Wills is disappointed—the book, he says, reads religion out of American history.) Bill Clinton ducks the question, then reappears brightly to name Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which brings a snort of disbelief from Clinton staffer Dee Dee Myers. The first president Bush says reading The Catcher in the Rye in prep school was his formative experience, which can’t be true—the book was published years after Bush emerged from prep school. Wills is most impressed by Nixon’s choice: Claude Bowers’s biography of Albert Beveridge, a progressive Republican ally of Teddy Roosevelt. Wills writes: “Nixon, in other words, was not giving a party-line symbolic answer, but speaking from his own deep reading.”
Wills is typically generous in writing about Nixon and other politicians he doesn’t much admire, though why this book reprints his long and excruciating analysis of Nixon’s unfortunate nose is a mystery. That generosity seems to have lost some steam recently with his assertion that opposition to Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi is rooted in sexism, and that the Tea Party movement is inherently racist.
The emotional writing in the book is all in the final chapter on his marriage. Fresh out of the seminary, Wills was reading Henri Bergson on an Eastern Airlines flight circling over LaGuardia when a stewardess came by and told him he was too young to read Bergson. That was Natalie, of course, now his wife of more than fifty years. It was the most important moment of Wills’s life. “I can scare myself silly by considering the close calls in my life.... What if I had not caught that particular Eastern flight back? What if she had not been assigned to the plane that day?” How many husbands write that way about their wives?