Garry Wills' Adventures As An 'Outsider Looking In'

Garry Wills i i

hide captionJournalist and historian Garry Wills is a professor emeritus at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He says he's currently reading John Spike's Young Michelangelo and Garry Trudeau's 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Garry Wills

Journalist and historian Garry Wills is a professor emeritus at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He says he's currently reading John Spike's Young Michelangelo and Garry Trudeau's 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

"Most of the good things that have happened in my life happened because of books," says Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist and historian Garry Wills — and that includes meeting his wife. They met on a plane — he was a passenger, she was a flight attendant. She took one look at his book and told him that he was too young to be reading French philosopher Henri Bergson.

"I was a bookworm from the very beginning and to this day," Wills tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "There's practically no minute of the day that I don't have a book in hand."

Wills has written many books of his own — about Richard Nixon, Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Christianity and more. His latest work is a memoir called Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer.

During Wills' long career — he's written for National Review, Esquire and the New York Review of Books — he's interviewed presidential candidates, presidents and been inside the White House. But he maintains that he's never really been on the "inside."

"I was always inside as an observer, never as a participant," Wills explains. "I was never a member of a staff of a magazine, or newspaper, or a political campaign ... which I think helped me observe a little more dispassionately than I would have otherwise."

Wills writes fondly in his memoir about people across the political spectrum — from conservative writer William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review, to radio interviewer Studs Terkel, a self described leftie.

"It was so easy to like them both," Wills says with a laugh. "And it was impossible to dislike Studs. People tried hard, but if they got within his orbit, they failed." As for Buckley, Wills says, "He was quick — he was as fast as could be at picking things up."

'Outside Looking In'
Outside Looking In
By Garry Wills
Hardcover, 208 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

The Signature Books Question

In 1968, Wills interviewed Richard Nixon during his presidential campaign, and Wills asked Nixon a question that has since then become a staple, but at the time was unexpected: He asked Nixon what book had influenced him.

"His answer was long and thoughtful," Wills recalls. Nixon listed several books, but settled on Claude Bowers' biography of Sen. Albert Beveridge. Beveridge was a Republican — but also an admirer of statesman John Marshall and the Federalists. It wasn't an answer designed to win votes, Wills says. "It was an unexpected answer, and a very wise answer. ... He really was an intellectually curious person."

(Wills also wrote that Nixon found it advantageous to play down his intellect. "That's a regular game now," says Wills. "But [Nixon] was early at it.")

Wills went on to ask many presidential hopefuls about the most influential books they'd read. When he asked then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, Bush candidly replied that he didn't have much time to read. Hillary Clinton didn't think twice before giving her answer — Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. "I read it in high school," she explained, "and it opened up a whole range of spirituality I'd never even conceived of."

'A Recognition Of Limits'

One chapter in Wills' memoir is devoted to his father, Jack, whom he describes as a dynamic but difficult man. "There is no such word as 'cannot' in the Wills' dictionary" his father used to say.

"What was in some ways charming and often exasperating about my father is that he really believes that there are no limits," Wills says. "You can do anything, and that he could get away with anything — and often he did. But it's a ruinous course of life."

Wills disagrees with his father when it comes to his philosophy about the word "cannot":

"One of the reasons I am a conservative is that I do not believe that 'cannot' should be removed from the dictionary," Wills writes. "A recognition of limits is important to human life, and especially to human politics."

Excerpt: 'Outside Looking In'

'Outside Looking In'
Outside Looking In
By Garry Wills
Hardcover, 208 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $25.95

My mother put up with my father's affairs for years, even offering to raise one of the children born to a mistress. But one night as I was reading, I heard her weeping as she took a phone call from a young woman's mother, who said that he had begun an affair with her daughter, who worked as a waitress in the hunting lodge where Jack was staying with his father. That was the end, she thought. And though Jack pleaded with her not to divorce him, even getting her priest to say Catholics cannot divorce, no matter how a husband may stray, she threw him out of the house. My younger sister did not realize what was happening, and resented my mother for turning him away. My mother, with saintly forbearance, did not tell her the real reason — and when, years later, my sister found out the truth, she was so angry at Jack that I had a hard time persuading her to come to his funeral.

Jack went with the young waitress to California, where she became a television model — they were married n the TV wedding show where she worked. In 1951, when I graduated from high school, a friend and I qualified for the national finals of an oratory contest in Los Angeles. We drove out there in the car my friend had been given as a graduation present, and we stayed with my father, his wife, and his young daughter. When my friend went back east, my father asked me to stay and work for his new business, selling ranges and refrigerators. He showed me around Los Angeles, and tried to dissuade me from going back to the Midwest, where I was scheduled to enter a Jesuit seminary.

Jack owned a vacant lot next to his appliance store. It was too overgrown and briary to be mowed, so he decided to burn the brush away — always a dangerous thing in California. On the other side of the lot was a fancy restaurant, where patrons could catch fish in a stocked pond for their meal. The fire began to race toward the restaurant, and Jack gave me an ineffectual hose to head it off while he went to call the fire department. Luckily, the fire engines arrived just in time. Another close call for Jack.

One day, I had to deliver a refrigerator across town while he was staying for an appointment with buyers in the store. He did not yet have a delivery truck, so he hitched a trailer behind his car and sent me off to deliver the appliance. I was seventeen and had not had my driver's license for long. Jack, in his teacher mode, gave me a quick lesson on how to back up a trailer (turn one way to go the other way). How, I asked, was I to unload the refrigerator? He said, "Find someone standing by and offer him five dollars to help you." "Cannot" was a word absent from Jack's dictionary. Years later, when he had remarried my mother, he bought a lot next to their house on Lake Lansing and turned it into a remunerative garbage dump (to the disgust of lake property owners). He had an old used earthmover to bulldoze the garbage with, and he gave me a quick lesson on how to drive it. It brought back memories of my first navigation of the Los Angeles streets with his trailer.

Jack was an ingenious inventor of business schemes. Unfortunately, he was easily bored with them after they began to make money. Also, he was a heavy gambler. On the night before he went into the army, he got into a high-stakes poker game at the Elks Club, and I, as an eight-year-old, watched him lose all his ready cash. My mother had to rent out our best house and move into a rental one that we had lived in when Jack first reached Michigan. That first house was large, but he met its monthly payments by renting its upstairs floors to students from nearby Ablion College. The student boarders adopted me as a kind of mascot (I was four at the time). They rode me around on their bikes, taught me to tie my shoelaces, and made me think the life of a student the most wonderful thing imaginable.

Jack was coaching the college boxers and judging Golden Gloves matches (where he took me to ringside seats). Jack, like the rest of my family, southern on both sides, was a racist. He always bet against Joe Louis, and when I got a little older I made money from those bets. He claimed that the white men who went against Louis lost only because they tried to hit him in the head — blacks have iron heads — instead of hacking him down with midsection blows.

Jack was fearless — but that was because he felt he could never die. He was superstitious about hospitals. He did not want to admit to human limits. To his credit, he went to the hospital and gave my mother a blood transfusion when she bled badly after delivering me — she was a teenage and I had weighed almost twelve pounds. But, he could not bring himself to visit my mother after she went into a coma in her final bout with cancer. Not because he did not love her — he just could not face the thought of losing her. My sister and I had to make the decision to remove her life support after the doctor said she could not revive.

Jack had an infectious sense of fun, and an extraordinary resilience after business setbacks. He always invented some way out of his troubles. At his funeral, the man who'd said he had to pay or kill him came up to me as the military salute was being fired, over the hill, dim in the wind, a faint pop-pop-pop. "Leave it to Jack," the man said, "to get the popcorn concession at his own funeral."

One of the reasons I am a conservative is that I do not believe that "cannot" should be removed from the dictionary. A recognition of limits is important to human life, and especially to human politics. On the other hand, a defiance of human limits is an exhilarating prospect, and it explains why Jack fascinated people. There is, I suppose, a little bit of Jack in me — very little — that I would not remove, even if I could.

Excerpted from Outside Looking In by Garry Wills. Copyright 2010 by Garry Wills. Excerpted by permission of Viking Adult, a division of Penguin Group.

Books Featured In This Story

Outside Looking In
Outside Looking In

Adventures of an Observer

by Garry Wills

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