The beating death of Tyre Nichols has renewed calls for reforming the police. But can anything really change?
Garry Wills, journalist, classicist and historian, says he’s always been an outsider looking in, but his perch has been remarkable. In a new collection of essays he describes some of the more unlikely places he’s been and the insights he’s gleaned about many of the major figures on our modern era: Richard Nixon, Beverly Sills, Dr Spock, Hillary Clinton, Bill Buckley, and John Waters to name a few. He’s covered anti-war protests, presidential campaigns, and investigated the life and death of the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald. Garry Wills joins us in the studio to talk about life as he’s seen it and the benefits of being an observer.
- Garry Wills Professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University and author of numerous books, including the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Lincoln at Gettysburg," "Saint Augustine" and "Why I Am a Catholic."
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us this hour. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane Rehm. Presidents, civil rights activists, opera singers, con men, movie directors, political operatives -- Garry Wills has seen them all or at least many of them. In the new collection of essays, he describes his life as an investigative journalist, academic historian and what he's learned as a front row observer of some of our country's most transformative events. The book is called, "Outside Looking In." Garry Wills joins me in the studio. What a pleasure to have you, Garry. Thanks for joining us.
MR. GARRY WILLSOh, it's great to be here.
ROBERTSAnd you can join our conversation with Garry Wills. Many of you have read his works over many years. So give us a call at 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, you subtitle the book, Garry, "Adventures of an Observer." But you also often use the word outsider in your introduction to talk about yourself. Why do you describe yourself that way?
WILLSWell, I was always a bookworm and that, of course, puts you at one removed from activity. And when I worked for Harold Hays at Esquire, a number of the editors at Esquire said, you've got to move to New York, you've got to move Washington if you want to really be close to the action. And Harold said, no, I don't want you here. I want you out there in the Midwest...
WILLS...because I don't want a New Yorker know-it-all.
ROBERTSI got plenty of those already.
WILLSRight. I like the fact that you come in with a certain fresh eye or naïve attitude sometimes, and over and over I found that that was a useful thing. Jim Fallows, when he was writing speeches for Jimmy Carter, said, why don't you join the campaign? You'll see it from the inside. And I said, I'm an entomologist -- that doesn't mean I want to be a bug.
ROBERTSBut also one of the things that interested me so much because I teach at a university. But I have spent most of my career as a journalist, and you, too, have combined these two worlds. You have graduate degrees that I don't have, but you have taught at Hopkins. You have taught at Northwestern for years, and yet a big part of what your work is in the popular world. And it's almost as if you have one foot in each world. But is that difficult not being fully in one or the other?
WILLSWell, some people criticize it. Some academic admissions criticize the journalism and vice versa. I've taught for 43 years, sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time. Most of the journalism took place when I was teaching part-time, but I did find it very useful. I'm in the -- I was in the history department for 25 years at Northwestern, but I taught in the American Studies program. So a lot of the things that I was teaching had to do with the American culture, the American political scene, so there was a cross fertilization there.
ROBERTSBut my experience in the world of academics is that a lot of academics look down on mere journalism as a trafficking an anecdote as opposed to data. You know, your intellectual output is probably weightier than two-thirds of the Northwestern faculty put together, but I'm sure many of them look down on what you did.
WILLSSure, some did, but I had a lot of support. And, fortunately, it was the people who hired me and kept me that gave me the support. Well, in a way I can see that attitude because when people come, especially from politics, but also from journalism to some extent, they are anecdote centered and not theoretically centered. And a good example of that is the fact that McGovern, when he lost his bid for the presidency, my dean at Northwestern said, how -- if we invite him to teach a course in American History, do you think that would work? Because he knew I knew McGovern. And I said, I think so, because McGovern had a doctorate from Northwestern in History.
WILLSPeople tend to forget that, and he began as a teacher. He taught at a Midwestern college for a couple of years before he went into politics. So I thought it was a good guess. You know, he had been to graduate school. He had a doctorate. He had taught. But he came, and so there was a great enthusiasm for his coming. Hundreds of students signed up. Lots of TAs were assigned him to grade papers and lead discussions. And he came, and he told stories about his campaigns and about...
ROBERTSAnd that was the first week?
WILLSAnd then when he ran out of material, he didn't know where to go. And people just started streaming out the doors, and I find that's often the case with politicians. They get to the point where they can no longer sit alone with a book anymore. They have to have that constant intercourse with people, constant give and take. And even some people who are not politicians -- Bill Buckley was like that. He could not sit alone with a book.
WILLSOne of the reasons he wanted me around him was that he was attacked by Catholics for being so irreverent toward the Pope, et cetera. And he didn't know much about Catholicism. He had never been to a Catholic school, except one year in prep school in England, and he'd never really read the Encyclicals. And so he wanted me to read them and tell him what was in them. And that's very typical of -- even the people who are considered intellectuals. Jerry Brown, for instance, can't read, you know. It's a trait of the politician, I think. When I first...
ROBERTSWell, solitary contemplation, as you say, is not a trait that shows up in a lot of politicians because they derive their energy, their very being from an interaction and adoration. People would say at least the energy if not the adoration.
ROBERTSAnd you don't get that sitting with a book.
WILLSRight. And one of the reasons I'm an outsider is I'm the exact opposite. I'm never happier than sitting alone with a book. And, in fact, my father and my mother thought there was something wrong with me as a kid because I was always reading. And my father, it just infuriated him that I would be caddying for him and put a book in the golf bag. And whenever we were held up, I would pull it out and read it. He didn't want me doing that. He wanted to teach to play golf, which I hated. So at one point he said, I'll pay you $5 if you go a whole week without reading a single word, and so I did. And I took the $5 and bought a book. My mother thought that I was...
ROBERTSWhat was the book you bought?
WILLSI can't remember now. That's too long ago. That was in 1940s. My mother thought I was reading so much I was hurting my eyes and went to the eye doctor and said that, and he said, that's like saying walking a lot hurts your legs.
ROBERTSWell, you know, we were talking about how you're so suspended between two worlds, the worlds of very esteemed journalism at Esquire and New York review of books, but at equally prestigious institutions like academic institutions, like Hopkins and Northwestern. But one tribe that you do fit into comfortably and always have is the Catholic tribe.
ROBERTSAnd that's an important part of who you are, and you spent your life in these two institutions, journalism and universities, which are generally pretty secular in their culture and their value system. Talk about being a believing Catholic, someone who says the Rosary everyday, regular Mass-goer in the secular world.
WILLSWell, it's true that the academy is very secular although, by the way, that's become less and less true as they realize how important...
WILLS...religion is in our culture. So, for instance, I could never -- my great hero is St. Augustine, and I've done a lot of work translating him and written about him. But I could never teach him at either school because I was in the history department or the classics department or the humanities department where religion was not a course to be given. Now, you can say religion in American culture -- you can teach that -- but, of course, Augustine plays no role in that. So -- but I must say that being religious myself I could appreciate the religiosity of Jimmy Carter in ways that, I think, the American journalists really fell down on in not understanding.
WILLSYou know, they just figured anybody who is a born-again Christian is a fanatic and just left it at that often. And, of course, he was not a fanatic. He was very well read in Niebuhr and other theologians. And he is a Baptist, and the Baptists have a proud tradition of separation of church and state. And he was the only president who didn't have prayer services in the White House. He never had Billy Graham come to see him. And I was with him on his first presidential campaign.
WILLSAnd somebody asked him in the aisle of the plane, why do always bring up religion? And he said, I made a resolution at the beginning of this campaign I would never bring up religion. You guys keep bringing it up, and I have to answer you. And then you say I'm the one who's forcing religion on you. So it helped to have a sense of what religion can mean to people.
ROBERTSAnd also, as you point out, that often the -- whether it's in the academy, in the journalistic world -- so many people approach things from a secular perspective that they don't understand the power of religion in politics. I remember once reading in The Washington Post a story, front page, which had this sentence in the beginning which is, Members of the religious right are undereducated and easily led.
ROBERTSNow, what was striking about that sentence was, not only that it was written, but no editor stopped it because everybody in that whole chain of editorial process shared the prejudice and the ignorance about the members of that religious group.
WILLSWell, I wrote a book about religion and politics, and there was a conference called at the ethics center here in Washington over the book. And most of the journalists who attended that admitted that they didn't know much about religion. In fact, David Broder said, when Romney was running for president, he said, I have a rolodex full of places where I want to go for law or economics or demography or -- he said, I didn't have anything about Mormons.
WILLSAnd so I was timid to ask any question because I would appear dumb or prejudiced or whatever, so I just let it slide. I never brought up Mormonism during that whole campaign.
ROBERTSGarry Wills, his new book is "Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer." We've got some lines open call us, 1-800-433-8850, email@example.com is our email address. Garry Wills and I will be right back. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour, Garry Wills, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, journalist, theologian, even in some sense. And give us a call, 1-800-433-8850, firstname.lastname@example.org, our e-mail address. And, Garry, we were talking about the role of religion and politics, a subject that you've written about many times. And, particularly as a Catholic, do you find that a lot of people misunderstand Catholicism almost from an anti-intellectual point of view? They don't see how you could be a believing -- a person of faith and a true intellectual, which is defined by questioning and doubt and skepticism, right?
WILLSOh, sure, I run across that all the time, and many of my friends do. The attitude is that you give up your reason, and you just blindly follow the Pope or the doctrine, all of those things. And none of that is true. I wrote a whole book about that, that the papacy is a recent institution and a shallow one and one that has been criticized from within the church for many centuries. There was no Pope for the first three or four centuries. Peter was no Pope. He was not even a Bishop.
WILLSSome argue he's not even a priest because there were no priests in the New Testament. But the Pope -- the power of the Pope grew over the years somewhat (unintelligible) the power of the president has grown in America. And it was not until the 19th Century that he was declared infallible by a kind of maimed council, a power he has only used once in what most people consider a kind of irrelevant way. But outsiders of these think, Pope's infallible, Catholics obey, all that kind of stuff. None of that's really true.
ROBERTSAnd part of the great Catholic tradition, intellectual tradition is the Jesuit tradition, which you studied at St. Louis University, a Jesuit school (unintelligible)
ROBERTSI happen to actually have an honorary degree from St. Louis University, so I...
WILLSOh, that's great.
ROBERTSAnd people misunderstand the power and the value of Catholic education in shaping someone like you. It's a very important part of who you are.
WILLSThat's right. I was taught by Dominican nuns also in grade school, and they were terrific teachers. And then I went to prep school with Jesuits. And the old system -- it's broken down now -- but in the old system, it took 13 years to become a Jesuit Priest. But halfway into that program, three years were taken off for the seminarian scholastics -- they were then called -- to teach in high schools. So when I was in high school, we had these 20-some young men halfway through their studies, very enthusiastic, still growing, anxious to teach, and we had all kinds of extra courses.
WILLSIf you wanted music appreciation, if you wanted drama appreciation, all these extracurricular programs that you could sign up for, and these -- they were all very happy to be teaching them, and that's why I went in the seminary. I admired these guys so much. I thought, I want to be like these guys. And then I find out it's not all...
ROBERTSHow long did you spend in the seminary?
WILLSFive years. And then the celibacy caught up with me...
WILLS...and I realized this is not my life. But the program -- every interest that I have today was planted in me in those high school years: music, drama, oratory, history, languages.
ROBERTSAnd the decline of vocations, particularly of nuns, is an enormous loss to the fabric of American culture.
WILLSOh, terrific. It's understandable. At the time when I was growing up, the -- you could be a nurse. You could be a high school...
WILLS...you know, a grade school teacher.
WILLSYou could be a nurse but probably not be a doctor.
WILLSYou could be a teacher but probably not a principal. And so the range of careers that has opened up for women recently -- for instance, my wife and my daughter contrast their choices that face them when they got out of college. My wife wanted to get out of a small town in Connecticut, so even though she had gone to Sweetbriar and had a good degree, about the only thing she could do, other then teach or be a nurse, was to become an airline flight attendant -- which she did, thank God, because that's how I met her. But my daughter had -- you know...
WILLS...she considered law. She considered medicine. She's now a literary agent and a very successful one in New York. Those were choices that were not out there for my wife.
ROBERTSOr for so many of the women who became nuns and became (unintelligible)...
ROBERTS...and helped shape your life. But, you know, you say that the celibacy caught up with you. But one of the things that you do write about in this book very proudly is how old-fashioned you are. There aren't a lot of people who boast about being old-fashioned. You've been married to the same woman for 50 years. You talk about how important your faithfulness to her has been. You boast about -- or at least discuss, if not boast about -- how much of your life is rooted in very traditional values and traditional ways of doing things.
WILLSYeah, and my children think I'm really an old fogy and stodgy, but...
ROBERTSWell, all children think their fathers are old fogies. I mean, that's not (word?).
WILLSBut my tastes are very conservative...
WILLS...in art and other things. Culturally, I'm very conservative. And, of course, like people my age, I don't understand computers. I have to send out an SOS to my children every now and then to figure out how to get the computer working again. But, yeah, I'm very old-fashioned. It took me a long time even to get to computers and to cell phones. People forced them on me. And all this other stuff -- you know, Palm Pilot, Blackberries, Facebook -- I don't have any traffic with that stuff.
ROBERTSI want to ask you one other question about your own father, who you write about in this book as someone who was rather different from you in some of his...
ROBERTS...personal mores, abandoned your family, took up with a younger woman. And in some ways, are you sort of defining yourself as different from your father? Was this a model that you consciously decided not to follow and become very old-fashioned and faithful?
WILLSWell, we were on different tracks, and we both knew it. He tried to dissuade me from going into the seminary. He tried to get me to work for him, and I did for a little while. But, yeah, we were totally different. He's -- I'm rather retiring and shy, and he was very aggressive and feisty. But he was fun. He was fun to be around. That's why -- and he was very persuasive. That's why he persuaded my mother to remarry.
WILLSBut, for instance, he was very charming, and my grandmother adored him because her mother, my grandmother -- great grandmother Mian, (sp?) was a cripple. And she could never leave the second-floor flat they lived in. But when my father would visit, he would carry her downstairs and put her in the car and take her to movies and take her to the bingo game and take her to the park. And, of course, that endeared him to my grandmother.
WILLSAnd then my grandparents moved from Atlanta, where I was born, to Louisville when the great flood hit Louisville. And my father instantly -- he was up in Michigan then -- rented a boat, hitched it to the back of his car and drove down to Louisville, parked on the edge of the flood and took the boat in and got my two aunts and grandmother Mian, the cripple, and put them in the boat and took them to safety and then went back and got my grandparents and put them in the boat and took them to safety. He was always doing things like that, which, of course, made people really love him.
ROBERTSSure. Let's -- Garry Wills, let's talk to some of our listeners who are longtime fans of yours and like to chat. So let's start with Frank in Alexandria, Va. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Frank.
FRANKGood morning, Mr. Wills. I'm a big fan. I started reading you way back in, like, 1974, the first time I laid my hands on "Bare Ruined Choirs." I do have a question for you though -- two, one to comment. I want to thank you for your book on Saint Paul. I've read it a number of times, and I really think it's brilliant. And number two is, I heard you speak a number of years ago, and you mentioned that you thought the best president was George Washington.
WILLSYes, still do.
FRANKAnd I was -- yes, I do, too. I came around to that. I was wondering -- I flirted with thinking Lincoln was, but then I sort of moved your way. I was wondering what your reflections on George W. Bush might be at this time. My views of him are not particularly high for a number of reasons I won't go into. His veracity might be one of them. But I was just wondering what you might think at this time.
ROBERTSFrank, thanks for your call.
WILLSWell, he's our only president who's made torture a national policy, who lied us into a disastrous war, which we're not out of yet, and I don't know when we will ever be out of it. He gave powers to the justice department, which were entirely unconstitutional. And, you know, signing statements, signing a law into -- a bill into law and saying, I'm not going to enforce this or that part of it -- that's unconstitutional. He signed -- he did more signing statements in his term than all the preceding presidents put together. Well, that's hardly a record to be proud of.
ROBERTSBut while you are very critical of George W. Bush, you've also been talking and writing lately about your disappointments with the current president.
WILLSYeah, I am very disappointed with him for going into Afghanistan again. That was a terrible mistake, and Petraeus is going to keep us there forever. You know, now NATO is just saying we're going to be there 'til 1214. Well, you can never put that place together as a nation. It's never going to be a nation. The idea that we can make it one is ridiculous. I was one of nine historians invited to the White House by President Obama, and he said, all of you people have studied past presidents. What can you tell me that will be useful to me?
WILLSAnd one of the things that I said was, don't go into Afghanistan. It's going to be your quagmire. And he said, oh, I'm not naïve. I know the problems. I'm facing up to them and all that kind of thing, but then he went in. And I think that was a terrible mistake. I also think the kind of omni-directional placation with which he approached the job was a mistake. For instance, by expecting cooperation from the Republicans, which was never going to be forthcoming, he delayed and delayed and delayed the health bill so that during that whole vicious summer of 2009, with all these vile signs at the meetings of the Congressional people, all of that poisoned the atmosphere in a way that's not been cleared since.
WILLSAnd he came up with a bill which is so full of compromises that it's going to cost more than the preceding situation. And he should've said at the outset, we need a public auction. It's the only way to drive down prices by competition and have campaigned for that, and I think he would've succeeded. This way he let himself be a punching bag for month after month after month, and that set the tone for his whole presidency.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's talk to some more callers, Garry Wills. And let's go to Andrew in Centerville, Ohio. Andrew, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ANDREWHi, how are you doing?
ROBERTSGreat to have you with us.
ANDREWI was listening in my car here for the last about half hour, and I find it interesting that your caller is such a studied individual and so well-schooled and still finds himself to be very religious. And I think it's very refreshing that we can have a discussion about this without people calling in and getting extremely heated over the subject.
ANDREWI guess what I wanted to call and say was -- get his stance on the study that was done by the American Pew Religious Society, I think it's called, or the Forum on Religion. They surveyed about 4,000-some Americans, and they all came from the Jewish faith. I want to say they came from a few -- I think it was the Muslim faith, and they interviewed a bunch of atheists, too. And apparently out of all the questions that they asked them, the people who answered more accurately about religion were the people who didn't know anything about or studied religion. You know what I mean? And I find that to be (unintelligible)
WILLSYes, I know that study. Atheists knew more about religion than religious people. I think that that's...
ANDREWRight. And I just (unintelligible)
WILLS...typical in a way. If you -- you know, you don't taste your own saliva. And if you are a part of a religious tradition, you don't often question it very much. You just go along with it. It's what your family has done, and you're comfortable. So there's no reason to get upset about it. But I think that's unfortunate. I think, you know, the mind needs to question everything, including your own religiosity. But it's true that a lot of people don't.
ROBERTSThank you, Andrew, for your call. We appreciate it. Let's talk to Craig in Indianapolis. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show" with Garry Wills.
CRAIGHi. I just wanted to mention I have followed Mr. Wills' career and his works for quite a few years. The one book that stands out in my mind the most though is his "Confessions of a Conservative," which I read many years ago. And what really struck me in particular about that book were the essays on our system of elections, particularly the primaries, which seem almost to be designed to achieve a result where a candidate is not the clear choice of any particular majority. And I just wanted to mention that and see if he would care to comment on it in now our election season.
ROBERTSThanks for your call, Craig.
WILLSYeah, our electoral system does have many flaws. The primary, of course, is a fight to win over the core of one party or the other party, and that often drives people off the middle ground into progressively extreme positions. And then they try to regain middle ground in the general election. And to watch that dynamic occurring over and over and over is astounding, but we've never seen it to such a degree as today. When the seeking of the core -- especially the Republican core -- has driven people farther and farther and farther out so that in that core a vast number of 30 to 40 percent think Obama's not even an American, and other lesser percentages -- but terrifying in a way -- think that he's a Muslim or a Communist or a Nazi or the anti-Christ or the angel of death, you know.
WILLSThat these are said seriously by serious persons of the community, and that Republicans in Congress are asked, do you think that he's a citizen? They said, well, I have an open mind, or I would like to see his birth certificate. Questions like that, which are just tickling the fancies of the extremists, is pretty terrifying.
ROBERTSGarry Wills, historian and journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner is with me this morning. "Outside Looking In," is his new memoir, "Adventures of an Observer." Give us a call, and you get a chance to talk to Garry. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour, Garry Wills, author, journalist, historian, at least practicing theologian or amateur theologian, his book is "Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer." And, Garry, got some e-mails that have some good questions here. Jeff Bodrey from Columbia, Md. writes, "Could Mr. Wills, please, comment on how he came to write his biography of James Madison and what he thinks Madison's most important contributions were to American history?"
WILLSWell, that book is part of the presidential series that Arthur Schlesinger set up, and he asked me to write the Madison one because I had written about Jefferson, and, of course, they were close. His most important contribution, of course, is the Constitution, that he was the -- he and James Wilson were the guiding lights of the constitutional congress. And his observance of the Constitution when he was president was really admirable, you know, less than any other president. Did he suspend the Constitution in some measure or other because of war time? All the other presidents have done it -- Lincoln and FDR and, of course, the Bushes. When you're at war, you're willing to take drastic steps, and Constitution be damned. But Madison -- it was his baby, so he didn't throw -- he didn't throw it out with the bath water.
ROBERTSInteresting perspective. James Costello writes to us, Garry Wills, "Thank you so much for all your writings. I'm a devoted fan. I've always been amused and dumbfounded at politicians who promise that their faith will not influence their decisions in making policies. While I recognize the need and importance of accepting all faith or the lack thereof in our country and world, the thought of one's faith not influencing his or her policies is astounding to me." Any thoughts?
WILLSYeah, it is to me, too. For instance, the most basic thing for a Christian politician is the Christian attitude toward the poor, the dispossessed, the disadvantaged. You know, Jesus says in the Gospel, whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to me. That means that when we don't take care of the poor, we're starving Jesus. And that's a very religious motive, and I think it should be the motive of every Christian.
ROBERTSIt is interesting that, you know, the Catholic Church from a political point of view can be fairly consistent in its doctrines which others see as inconsistent, but they don't understand the theology. They don't understand if you're pro-life, you might well be against abortion, but you're also against poverty and...
ROBERTS...suffering. And so there is a consistent theological line, but you have to look at it from that point of view to understand it.
WILLSYeah, Cardinal Bernadin in my...
WILLS...diocese of Chicago called that the seamless web, that you should be concerned with life, even after life in the womb.
ROBERTSOne of your old students, Garry, from Northwestern, Jonathan from Old Saybrook, Conn., he says, "Twenty years ago I was taking Prof. Wills, of course, in religion and American culture at Northwestern. One day I heard him interviewed on NPR, and he explained the difference between the words censure, C-E-N-S-U-R-E, and censor, C-E-N-S-O-R. The next day he asked if anyone knew the difference, and my hand shot up. And I repeated his explanation verbatim from the previous day's radio interview. His face lit up. He pointed his finger at me and fairly yelled, yes. A proud academic moment for me that I've always wanted to confess to him."
WILLSWell, I don't care where he got it, just so he got it.
ROBERTSAnd he also asks, "I've always wondered if you ever considered writing about Bob Dylan."
WILLSNo. I don't know anything about Bob Dylan. Actually, I was asked to interview him one time, and I said, I've never listened to him.
ROBERTSBut you have written about some pop culture figures. You've been interested in the movies as a dimension of American culture, and your book has some essays that touch on some of your meetings with -- and another good example being Beverly Hills, (sic) the opera singer...
WILLSBeverly Sills, yeah...
ROBERTS...which (unintelligible) one of your great passions is opera.
WILLSWell, I was always interested in opera. And that's the first thing that my wife and I shared when we met each other, that we both are opera fans. But the -- my interest in movies -- well, you know, I think all Americans are interested in movies. And I was especially a big John Ford fan from very early on. My son was a moviemaker for a while, and we compared notes all the time. I got to know John Waters well in Baltimore, and we were both judges on the Baltimore Film Festival. Oliver Stone invited me to come watch the making of Richard Nixon -- of his movie "Nixon." And his publicist explained to me that when he asked Anthony Hopkins to play Nixon, Hopkins said, I'm a Welshman. I can't be part of an attack on American president.
WILLSAnd Stone said, it's not going to be an attack. It's going to be quite sympathetic to him. Read Garry Wills' "Nixon Agonistes," and so he did. And I talked about the book with him. And the picture that you get is the one that I had got when I first met him, that he was very bright, very well-read, very farseeing in lots of policy ways, but on the other hand, not really a full human being. And so the people who were closest to him -- like Rose Woods -- pitied him. They were protective of him because they knew how vulnerable he was, how fragile. So I got interested in Stone and in Paul Schrader. He was another of my heroes, and I watched him make various movies. So, yeah, that's one part of popular culture that I've always been interested in.
ROBERTSYou know, it's interesting, the man who played Nixon in "Frost/Nixon," Frank Lanjella, was from my hometown in Bayonne, N.J., so he was not a Welshman. He was a real New Jersey boy. Garry Wills, we have Gary in Denver, Co. on the line -- I'm sorry, it's Denver, N.C. -- Gary, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
GARYAnd this is the real Denver as we call it.
ROBERTSOkay. Happy to have you. Go ahead.
GARYYeah, I enjoy the spirit of debate. Many of the folks I deal with here in North Carolina, things are evil and cannot be debated because of the religion and the politics. I mean, we cannot discuss homosexuality, abortion, stem cell research because they've been told these things are evil, so there is no room for debate. And I just wanted to get Mr. Wills' comments on that, what his thoughts are and how -- is there a way to get around that because we can't even discuss many issues. It's just evil and can't be discussed as something that could be changed. I appreciate it. Thank you, sir.
ROBERTSThanks for your call. Interesting perspective.
WILLSYeah, well, there are certain minds that are just plain closed, and unfortunately they often happen to be concerned with religion. But, you know, it takes some thinking to realize abortion is not a religious issue, has nothing to do with religion. It's not in the Old Testament. It's not in the New Testament. It's not in the creeds. It's not in the 10 commandments. It's not in the early counsels of the church. And, as a matter of fact, in the middle ages, people like Thomas Aquinas thought that the fetus did not become a human being until late in the gestation period. And it's only in the 19th century that the Pope took an uncompromising stand and claimed to have authority over this issue, but Cardinal Newman said, the Pope has no authority over natural law.
WILLSAnd that's all the Pope says that abortion is concerned with. Well, how do you judge natural law? You get people of good intention and good information, neurophysicists, psychiatrists, psychologists, people who study what actually happens to the fetus at various stages, and they differ. Very learnedly and with good intention, there's not a consensus among them, and they're the only experts. The Pope is not an expert on this. There's no reason he would be. His religious guides are the gospel, and there's nothing in the gospel about abortion. So if you can step back and start reasoning that way, you have a chance. But, unfortunately, a lot of people just say, the Pope says it or religion says it, my religion says it, and therefore I can't talk.
ROBERTSWell, also what we're seeing and so often in contemporary debates as our caller said, whether the issue is same sex marriage or stem cell research, that for all of the virtues of introducing religious values into politics -- and you were saying that earlier in response to one of the callers -- the danger can be the rigidity that comes from saying, well, this is a matter of faith, and therefore it's not a matter of argument.
ROBERTSAnd that sort of misunderstands the nature of faith in some ways.
WILLSAbsolutely. They don't understand the nature of faith and that faith has to be reasoned about. There's nothing that says if you believe, you've stopped using your brain. That's an insult to God. So the duty to investigate your own responsibilities, your own duties is never taken away by saying, well, I'm a Catholic, so it's all decided, or I'm a fundamentalist, it's all decided, or I'm a Muslim or whatever. It's not. Nothing is decided for good. Cardinal Newman again said, there's nothing in religion that takes away the responsibility of conscience, and conscience is the final arbiter. He said, if I'm asked to drink a toast to the Pope, I'm glad to do that, but at first I drink to conscience.
ROBERTSGreat line. Let's talk to -- we've got a number of other callers who want to join the conversation. Chris in Syracuse, N.Y., welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Chris.
CHRISHi. Mr. Wills, you've really been an intellectual hero of mine since college. Good Jesuit school, Le Moyne, here in Syracuse. And I'm just -- and your Nixon book just -- especially its critique on the market I've felt has always been very prophetic, way ahead of its time, and I actually give it out as birthday -- as a birthday present to my brother. But what I'm wondering about, do you feel -- is there any way for the Catholic Church to kind of reach back to the '60s and regain that kind of prophetic voice that seems to be the only way for us to kind of combat this, you know, this whole modification, this kind of creating -- pushing everything to be decided by the market in our society? But, again, just thank you for being such a real intellectual influence of mine. Thank you.
WILLSWell, you know, actually the Catholic Church has been quite good on runaway capitalism in the market. It's been critical of it. It has said that we have communal responsibilities and that if free enterprise means, anything goes as long as it makes a profit, that's profoundly irreligious. And the church has always been good on that. And the church is always good with the working man in America, like, partly, of course, from the fact that the immigrants were Catholics. And they had to speak up...
ROBERTSAnd it's still true.
ROBERTSIt's still true of the immigrant Hispanics.
WILLSYeah, exactly. So even Cardinals I don't normally like are really sticking up for the Hispanics in a way that I admire, and we always have -- they always have done that. And they were hated by the know-nothing American chauvinists because of that. So a lot of the -- a lot of the prejudice against Catholics in the 19th century is still being directed at Hispanics today and, of course, at Muslims and others. It's hard to make us live up to our American creed of E Pluribus Unum.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, in this book, there are so many people that you've written about and encountered. But one of the things that you have done with so many of the people you've known is ask them their favorite book, and why do you always ask that question? And what have you learned from the answers?
WILLSWell, I started doing it in 1968 with Nixon. And now a lot of people do it, but I'd never heard of it to that point. And so I asked him just as a way of trying to find out how his mind was working, and I was amazed at how well it was working. He gave the best answer I thought of anybody that I've asked that question to, and I've asked a lot. He said, Claude Bowers' "Life of Albert Beveridge." Now, that was really out of nowhere. There are no votes to be said -- won, but it made sense. He explained it to me very carefully. Claude Bowers was a Democrat, friend of FDR, became an ambassador.
WILLSAnd he admired Beveridge, who was a Republican and wrote the biography of him for some of their shared values, because Beveridge liked the Federalists and wrote an admiring book about John Marshall, the first Chief Justice. And Nixon was telling me then that he thought America now had to play the role that the British Empire had. It had to be Wilsonian. It had to spread democracy around the world, and it also had to be a Teddy Roosevelt activist in the arena. So those were the seeds out of which came the opening to China and some of the best stuff in the Nixon presidency, so that was a very revealing thing.
ROBERTSAnd what are some of the more surprising answers you've gotten over the years as you asked that question?
WILLSWell, they're not -- well...
ROBERTSSome are boiler plate answers, you know.
ROBERTSThe Bible, you know, but...
WILLSYes. Well, no, I always rule out the Bible. But, you know, when I asked Pat Buchanan, it was Buckley's "God and Man at Yale." When I asked Bauer, it was Whittaker Chambers' "Witness." But -- and when I asked...
ROBERTSYou mean Gary Bauer?
WILLSAnd when I asked Dukakis, he said Commager's "The American Mind," but -- which is perfectly fitting 'cause it's totally secular. You read Commager, you think religion never played any role in American history. But one of the better answers was Hillary Clinton. See, with a lot of them, they stall around, they want to think of -- first of all, they can't think of a book.
WILLSOr they want to impress you by what they say, but Hillary answered right away. She said "The Brothers Karamazov." I said, why? And she said, I read it in high school, and it made me aware of a whole range of spirituality that had never occurred to me before. Her husband, on the other hand, when I said, what's the book that influenced you most? He said, well, what's the one that influenced you?
WILLSI said, no, that's not the game.
ROBERTSThat's not the game.
WILLSAnd so he stalled and stalled and stalled, and finally he said -- and then he -- I had been talking to him before then about -- I was working on St. Augustine -- on a book about St. Augustine. And he obviously was trying to answer something that would be close to that, so he said, "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius."
WILLSAnd Deedee Myers who was sitting in to record the interview just about fell off a chair.
ROBERTSI think those books you read in high school when your mind is just opening up have -- if you were to ask me that question, I would've said "Winesburg, Ohio" by Sherman Anderson...
ROBERTS...a great evocation of Midwestern life that first sensitized me to the use of language. And it's a great question to ask, and there's a lot of other answers in this book. Garry Wills' "Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer." Garry Wills, thank you so much for spending your morning here on "The Diane Rehm Show."
WILLSIt was a great pleasure.
ROBERTSAnd thank you for listening. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane.
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