Outside Looking In
Adventures of an Observer
(Viking)Garry Wills claims that he can be an observer because he looks so boring and nondescript, finds himself often ignored by clerks in convenience stores. He has also been married to the same woman for over fifty years, does little or nothing flamboyant to call attention to himself.
Except that he interviews people like Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton, Bush the Elder, then writes infuriating articles about them and anyone else he manages to corner.
When he interviews someone famous, he always asks Clinton, Carter, et al to name their favorite book. Most had but a potted answer. The only one that sounded real to him came from Dick Nixon, who said it was Claude Gernade Bowers's Beveridge and the Progressive Era, a 1932 history of the senator from Indiana. Wills says, "Nixon, in other words, was not giving a party-line symbolic answer, but speaking from his own deep reading."
Nixon has been telling me that he thought a Wilsonian American replacement of the British Empire's worldwide influence was the new mission of America.
Wills' appreciation of Nixon is paradoxical, and is offset by one of his earlier portraits of him, penned in 1967, a caricature, really:
The mouth works down solely, like Charlie McCarthy's --- a rapid but restricted motion, not disturbing the heavy luggage of jowl on either side. When he smiles, the space under his nose rolls up (not in) like the old sunshades hung on front porches. The parts all seem to be worked by wires.
§ § §
Outside Looking In sat there in my in-box --- that alarmingly crowded table just behind where I work the computer --- for quite some time. Although the book is respectably thin (195 pages including index and a typeface that I can actually read), I stayed away because I knew I would be sucked in by Wills' captivating style. And when I finally gave in, I was.
He doesn't waste his words. Although he's a nut about ancient Greek texts, his English is straightforward and pithy. He can charm, even when he is setting us up, trying to get us to rethink our view of some people that we would not normally care for too much: Barry Goldwater, Jesse Jackson, Bill or Hilary Clinton, Nixon, Thomas D'Alesandro III (ex-mayor of Baltimore) ... and William Buckley.
This last that may make us somewhat suspicious of Wills and his motives, if not his sanity, for he spent considerable time, too much, I think, with Buckley --- including long salubrious trips on Buckley's fancy-dan yacht, lollygagging through the waters of the Carribean, just far enough offshore from, say, Port-au-Prince to be out of the range of poverty: the pigs and goats and cows and the stink of unwashed humanity.
Wills, for all his protestations of open-mindedness (including participating in sit-ins at the Capitol to protest the first Iraqi War), hung out with, was an intime with the old monied rich, not to say of one of the more pernicious of the Cold War Warriors. As Wills proves, Buckley was a hell of a charming person, but below all that charisma, there was something rather unpleasant. We are talking about the time when Wills first befriended Buckley, days when Russian-American sword-rattling was at its loudest, and most nightmarish.
Most of us alive in America at the time were convinced --- we didn't think, we were convinced --- that at any time now, over any flimsy excuse whatsoever, the atomic missiles would be set off (America had dozens pointed at the heart of every major Russian city; Russia --- equally --- had missiles pointed at every American city of any consequence). Almost weekly alarums and blood-lust threats from Washington and Moscow were a part of our lives.
We were young, healthy, alive, full of hope for the future. And there on the East Coast dwelled these antediluvian kill bomb maim destroy incendiary types, infesting the halls of power in Washington; all of them apparently committed to setting off the missiles at the drop of a hat ... missiles that would wipe out the world as we knew it. Our families, our children, our loved ones, our lovely world gone in a rush of radioactive smoke. (The Troglodytes would be protected, however. While the rest of us were being consumed, Nagasaki-style, they would be lounging about in underground chambers set in the hills of West Virginia, a place where senators and representatives and "key members of the executive branch" --- including, it was said, a few select members of the Fourth Estate --- would be whisked off at the last moment to desport themselves underground while the rest of us --- women and children included --- would be getting fried.)
Buckley was very much a part of the ruling elite; would, presumably, be there safe in the bunkers of West Virginia. He also never denied that he was committed to the thesis of better dead than red.
§ § §
Wills is a great writer. I couldn't stop working my way through Outside Looking In, cursing him for being so charming, funny, and self-effacing. He is willing to talk with crazies who call him out of the blue, he knew Beverly Sills, he's bats about opera, he's a master at creating word pictures.
He interviews the guy who created Mace. When the Pentagon showed itself interested in becoming the internal policemen in the United States to put down those civic disturbances ... 1968 - 1969 ... Wills wangled an interview with the Pentagon's "provost marshal general, Carl Turner," who had commanded the military's response (with unnecessary churlishness) to the "March on the Pentagon."
One of Turner's ideas for handling snipers who he was convinced would be deployed by the protesters was to "drive an armored car up to the building and debouching teams" to shoot them all. Wills concluded "that General Turner was a ninny."
Still, despite his neo-libertarian credits, we are left with the idea that Wills may pretend to be one of us, but too many of the people he admired --- especially those awful people at the National Review --- were (and sometimes still are) genuine stinkers. Maybe we should assign it all to his perfervid Catholicism. He's so all-forgiving that we wonder if, sometime in the dark future, there will be tales of comfortable schmoozes with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Pat McCarran, or Robert McNamara.
If so, and since Wills confesses to be a fan of Latin and Greek, we will conclude by reminding him of a pertinent quote from an anonymous poet from ancient Rome: Qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent."
Or, even better, in what he tells us is his favorite language:
Ei sýn kysín katakeísei, sýn psýllais anastései.*
--- Thomas W. Moore