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The Boston Phoenix The Outrider

The prolific Garry Wills on Camille Paglia, the death of JFK Jr., Clinton's infidelities, and more

By Seth Gitell

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  When Garry Wills began his writing career at the National Review in 1957, he was a Jesuit-trained Catholic cold warrior who shared a common ideology with the Review's founder and then-editor, William F. Buckley Jr. Since that time, the prolific Wills, who once wanted to be a priest, has emerged as a left-leaning but independent thinker respected by people of all political stripes. He is equally at home on the erudite pages of the New York Review of Books and the pointed op-ed page of the New York Post, where his syndicated column, "Outrider," provides a counterpoint to that page's conservative bent.

Now Wills, who received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg, has published a new book, A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (Simon and Schuster). His mission this time? To refute conservatives' contentions that the founding fathers -- perhaps with the exception of Thomas Jefferson -- feared an activist government.

Wills is a classicist by training; he earned a PhD in the subject at Yale. He has applied this knowledge by looking at classical themes in the lives of today's great political and cultural figures. The results include Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man; The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power; Jack Ruby; and John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity. Wills took time out to talk to the Phoenix about his new book and his fight with a certain presidential candidate.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why now?

A: I began it in 1994, when the idea of running against government authority was in vogue. I got more and more interested in this as a phenomenon, something that still goes on now in all kinds of ways. You know, even the opposition to the nuclear-test treaty is a kind of opposition to authority that shows up in the Senate's refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the land-mine treaty, World Court arrangements. Money for the UN. It's pure authority. [People think that] if we give any authority, it will all be taken away. The UN will take us over. The world government will take us over. It shows up in our killing of every kind of health proposal that comes up that's government supported, even though every industrialized country in the world has [national] health plans. The idea of anything having to do with socialized medicine kills it. It shows up in the campaign-finance business. [People say that] if the government can tell us whom we can give money to, the government will take away our freedom.


Q: But didn't George Washington warn America about taking part in foreign entanglements?

A: His attitude there was not anti-governmental; it was that, as a new nation in a time of world war -- France and England were waging the Napoleonic Wars, and we'd better stay neutral. And that was just an argument entirely based on the situation at the time. It was backing a neutrality policy.


Q: So that's not parallel to what the Republicans were saying about the Test Ban Treaty?

A: No, not at all. And certainly not what Pat Buchanan is saying. He's the one who's constantly invoking [that speech of Washington's].


Q: Let's talk about Buchanan. In Nixon Agonistes, you write about him as a young speechwriter. What was your impression of him then? Would you have predicted that he would turn out the way he is now?

A: I think his attitudes haven't changed all that much. I never thought he would be a candidate in his own right. I thought he would always be a kind of hit man for other people. But he's always wanted to have an ascendant political career. He was very upset that Nixon didn't make him ambassador; he thought he would. I always knew he had a lot of aggression and drive, but I thought it was not too usable except in service of other people.


Q: For the Nixon book, did you actually go out with the campaign and report it?

A: Oh, sure. In fact, that's where I met Buchanan. He tried to cut me off from the sources.


Q: Tell me about that.

A: I wrote the first piece about Nixon for Esquire. I went to [the editor] and said, "I can do this book if I can cover Nixon for the rest of the campaign and write articles for you," so he said okay. I wrote an article on Spiro Agnew, followed him around. I wrote an article on the Checkers speech. And that was how that book grew. It was entirely by covering the campaign. And after the first piece came out, when we were flying back from California, Nixon's brother came up to me and said, "Why didn't you tell me I wasn't supposed to talk to you?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Pat Buchanan told me I'm not even supposed to be talking to you." So I was kind of jumping around as fast I could to see various people before he [Buchanan] got to them.


Q: How did you go from that to the John Wayne book?

A: Well, when you do several books on presidents, you get kind of typecast. Everyone was saying, well, write a book about George Bush or Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford or whatever. And none of those presidents had the same kind of symbolic crackle that a Reagan does, or a Nixon, or a Kennedy. And so I looked around to find another figure who did have that polarizing, lightning-rod role in society. The only one I could find was John Wayne. So I did him, and it involved going back over stuff in California -- you know, the Actors' Guild and that kind of stuff -- that I'd already done for Reagan. And, of course, they are similar in some ways.


Q: How are they linked?

A: Reagan and Wayne are both icons of American patriotism and values and all that. Reagan actually wanted to be Wayne. He gave up his studio contract to become an independent producer in order to make Westerns, because he thought that was what he was really called for, called to. And he wasn't, of course. He was much better at light comedy than at being a cowboy. But they both have that same ability to project American innocence, and yet [also] belligerence. You know, it's not a mean belligerence, but it's a kind of affronted sense of virtue.


Q: That iconic American patriotism you've written about isn't in the new book. For instance, some parts of A Necessary Evil read like a direct attack on the National Rifle Association. Am I right to get that sense?

A: Yeah, certainly guns are very important to the whole anti-governmental attitude. [People think that] we don't need the government -- we settled the West without the government. All we needed was our guns. Our guns protect our freedom. The whole frontier myth [has made] guns, at least since the Civil War, one of the principal rallying symbols for anti-governmentalists. So, sure, I spent a lot of time on guns.


Q: What do you make of Littleton? How does that event fit into your take on the Second Amendment?

A: Well, [consider] the fact that we put up with that, that we watch children being killed. You know, kids are being killed day by day, all year round, in homes and schools around this country, rather than us giving up our guns. [That] shows that this attempt to make the gun a surrogate, a substitute, for government is something that we will put up with despite tremendous cost. No other country in the world can believe our guns. The availability, the way we let them float around. They're easier to get than alcohol for kids. There are more outlets for them than for alcohol. It's an astonishing national anomaly that has to be addressed. And so I tried to put it in the context of this long tradition of anti-governmentalism and all the other values that are invoked in its favor. Otherwise I don't think we'd put up with it for a minute.


Q: You do a lot of teaching now. What's your impression of the young, the students of today?

A: I find them very curious and challenging. I may be prejudiced because I teach a seminar of 20 people, and they're in an honors course, so maybe I only see the very good ones. But the ones I see are very good.


Q: And they seem knowledgeable? The complaint is that people don't know history, they don't know politics.

A: No, I don't find that, certainly [not] in my students. I find that they're bad at writing in general. It's a complaint of the TV age. They're very verbal and glib in class. They have a hard time writing. But I'm amazed at what they know. For instance, I was teaching a course on Martin Scorsese. I teach in the American-culture program. And there's a kind of takeoff on the Odyssey in his After Hours. And I asked the 20, 22 people, "How many have read the Odyssey?" And about 12 had. And I thought that, you know, people say, "Where's the canon? Where are the classics?" Well, these students were not in a literary program. They were in American studies; they weren't in Greek studies. And more than half of them had read the Odyssey.


Q: Can you debunk the myth that the public's obsession with celebrity is somehow new? Especially given your training as a classicist -- in the days of old, we worshiped kings.

A: It's hero worship, and hero worship is always around and should be. It's a kind of generous impulse to find admirable people. Now some of the celebrities are not admirable in any conventional sense. But even that is a reflection of our values. I've written about this somewhat, the [obsession with] celebrity as modern hero worship. In some ways it's less noble than in the past, and in some ways it's more. For instance, heroes in the past tended to be of a single mode: they were either male religious leaders or male political leaders or male war leaders. There were very few cultural celebrities, and certainly not people who were minorities or who were women. The kind of hero worship that Dr. King got would not have been conceivable in the 19th century in America. There was no black person who could be given that status. So when a Michael Jordan is a hero just because of basketball, he would also have been denied that status not that long ago.


Q: Because of the race issue.

A: Yeah. It would have been impossible. A good example of that is Joe Louis. He was a hero to blacks; he wasn't to whites. Today, the Joe Louis figure, you know, the Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan, is a hero to blacks and whites. It [modern hero worship] admires a broader range of talent because it doesn't immediately sift out people because of gender or race or religion or sexual orientation or whatever.


Q: In the new book, you mention Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton's extramarital activity is amusing in how it relates to what we've learned about Clinton over the past couple of years in terms of --

A: Of his adulterous affair?


Q: Exactly.

A: Yeah, well, Hamilton handled that pretty honorably, after all. He let people know about it and let them test him on it.


Q: You don't view it as a parallel to Clinton's situation?

A: I think Clinton's much worse. Clinton's taking advantage of a younger person. He's much more promiscuous and lied about it and used people to lie about it. Hamilton didn't do any of those things.


Q: I've mentioned you to people who are usually involved in cultural battles and noticed that your name doesn't engender a great deal of anger from the right or the left. Why do you think that is?

A: Some on the right are angry at me.


Q: Who are your foes on the right?

A: Well, some of the people at National Review always resented the fact that I left there, and so I was treated as a renegade. But I suppose the mark of anger might just be that I'm not consistently on one or the other side. I'm really conservative in a lot of ways. I'm a Catholic. I'm a classicist and a believer in tradition. And so some people on the right shouldn't be all that upset. On the other hand, I'm a liberal in most American terms, as far as government, social tolerance, that kind of thing. So there's a kind of mixture there that might not be a clear target [for one side or the other].


Q: Camille Paglia describes herself most often as a classicist. Do you find a lot of common ground with her?

A: Oh, Camille Paglia? No, I don't find much common ground there. We've had our exchanges. She's a very strange, aggressive, angry person. The thing I criticized her on was her big attack on the classical scholars who are using the insights of modern homosexual studies to understand the classics better. It seems kind of obvious. She wrote a huge attack on them. I criticized that, and she got very angry. My daughter's a literary agent who knows [Camille], and [Camille] called her up and bawled her out for what I [did]. So, no, I don't find myself in too much agreement with her.


Q: What were your impressions of the death of the young Kennedy this summer?

A: Well, that's very sad. He's a person you like, not puffed-up or pretentious.


Q: Where'd you meet him?

A: I met him after the White House Correspondents' Dinner. We talked for a while. I had dealt with him [before] because I wrote for George and he wrote me about that, but I had never met him until then. I was astonished that he could come out of that pressured background and keep a little bit of sanity. I don't think he would have gone into politics. I think one of the things that kept him [from doing so] was that he didn't have that fire in his belly.


Q: If you had to boil down the main point of your book, what would it be?

A: Well, I suppose the main thing would be that the whole idea that the Constitution [intended the government] to be divided and self-checking is simply wrong. That's the one argument that almost everybody returns to in the book, whether it's about guns or. . . . They all think that they can fall back on that as a sound constitutional argument, and it ain't.


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