Friday, April 5, 2013

Garry Wills

Sam Tanenhaus has an article in Prospect on Garry Wills, whom he says "has written better than anybody else about modern America."

An author, historian, anti-clerical Catholic, Wills has written significant analysis of America and American culture, the most famous work on the Gettysburg Address and its pivotal place in Lincoln's--and America's--history. He is tough, opinionated and argumentative, a proud mid-westerner, a sports fan, and the husband of a stewardess. But, as Tanenhaus says, "For Wills to argue is not to quarrel, accuse, or even opine. It is to state a hypothesis and then work through it with Euclidean rigor and arcane examples."
"It was Wills who saw, long before it became accepted dogma, that Richard Nixon, the bĂȘte 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." Wills told Clinton to resign the presidency over Lewinsky the same week Clinton awarded him the National Humanities Medal.

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 Wills 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.” Wills argued that Afghanistan was a mistake and would harm him.

The following year the group was invited back--except for Wills. The lesson seems to be that, for politicians, admiration is more important than good advice.

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