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November 05, 1978 - Image 20

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The Michigan Daily, 1978-11-05
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Page 4-Sunday, November 5, 1978-The Michigan Daily
Garry Wills:

The Michigan Daily-
ournalist, scholar, historian

Sunday, Nc

'He has put some

perspective on his work'

__LIDES OF PAINTINGS and sculpture
flicker against the screen in the dark
classroom. The lecturer pauses to squint
at his notes, which are barely discernable
under the faint light of the podium. He
mumbles yet another interlocutory "uh," then
regains his place and herds his sentence to a
clumsy conclusion.
It is a splendidly academic lecture. The
speaker begins with a thesis new to his audience:
that during the early part of our history,
Americans were uncertain how to memorialize
public officials, and so they grappled with
inappropriate allusions to biblical and majestic
figures, before finding an art that was suitable to
the then-unique needs of a political democracy.
He documents his argument with examples of
early American art and contrasts it with
European art of the same period. The pace is
plodding; only at the end of the talk does he begin
to draw synthetic conclusions from the mass of
data he has presented.
During this dull lecture more than one head
Stephen Selbst, a former senior editor of
The Daily, is now a second-year law student.
Daily nhoto by Maureen O'Mallev.

has dropped off quietly to sleep, perhaps not
surprisingly in view of the material presented.
But this is not a class full of uninterested
undergraduates merely seeking to satisfy
distribution requirements with an art history
class -rumored not to be academically
challenging. Fewer than lglf the members of the
audience are students; many of the faculty
present are highly distinguished. Department
heads and mighty scholars abound, The speaker
is Garry Wills, and the occasion is the 24th annual
W. W. Cook Lecture series, one of the
University's most prestigious annual
Given that Wills is not a scintillating lecturer,
the question becomes: who is he, and why was he
invited? Any number of boring pedants could
have been counted on to drive the audience off to
numb sleep. But the Cook lectures are supposed
to be important: Cabinet members and their ilk
have been the invited guests'in years past.
Wills was invited more than one year ago to
deliver the Cook lectures. "I was given wide
latitude on the topic," he explains. "When I was
approached I said I wasn't prepared to talk
about the law, and they said (the members of the
selection committee) said I could talk about

By Stephen Selbst

anything, as long as it was related to
The topic Wills chose was "Heroism in Early
American Art and Politics." It grew out of his
most recent book, Inventing Amnerica, which is
an investigation of the Declaration of
Independence. During the course of his study on
Thomas Jefferson, Wills "was intrigued by
Washington. His contemporaries thought he and
Franklin were the luminaries of the period, and
that's different from the current view we have."
The lectures Wills delivered illustrated his
theme capably, although they were tediously
academic. Wills led his audience to the idea that
Americans began by viewing their leaders, and
primarily George Washington, as akin to royalty.
or gods, and ended up borrowing from Roman
art, and its celebration of civic ideals to find a
more , democratic tone for the art of the new

Garry Wills is a paradox, or more properly, a
collection of paradoxes. A fascinating
conversationalist, he is a dull public lecturer. He
is a dynamic journalist, but one whose classical
training means he looks more penetratingly at
current events than other reporters, who are
content to- merely tell today's story. An
academic, he teaches but one course per term,
and spends four days per week crisscrossing the
country in airplanes, a routine more often
adopted by businessmen than scholars.
"'The weekends are reserved for my wife and
family in Baltimore," he explains.
-He is a short man with a slight paunch. His
hair is shaggy, and he peers out at the world
from behind a pair of black eyeglass frames. In
his subdued pinstripe suit, he looks more the
professional journalist than the academic.
Academics .wear more casual clothing, and
pinstriped suits are a badge of authority.
He doesn't fit the stereotype of a journalist,
however. His clothing isn't chic enough to pass
him off as a glamour journalist, and it's too
elegant for the seedy, rumpled look of wire
service reporters. In either area, he would pass,
but there would be something about his
appearance that wouldn't ring exactly true. He
travels through both worlds, but is a full-time
member of neither.
demonstrated during the Cook series,
Garry Wills is a first-rate scholar,
capable of reproducing with scrupulous
accuracy the scholar's cautious
manner: nothing bold shall be said until all the
academic spadework has been done. But
scholars live sequestered in libraries, whose
thick walls insulate them from the rough
buffeting of life on the streets. Garry Wills is also
a journalist, a man whose profession exposes
him to all that is brutal, and much that is cynical.
any reporter will tell you that what is taught in
political science classes doesn't jive with what
happens at conventions.
Garry Wills was born in Atlanta, Georgia in
1934. His family moved to the small community
of Albion, Mich. when he was one year old, then
to nearby Adrian, where he went to grade
school and high school. He left the state to attend
St. Louis University for a first degree, and later
did graduate work at Xavier and Yale, in the
field of classical studies.
At the start of his lecture, Wills pays
obligatory homage to the University of which he
was a guest. Telling the audience he had grown
up in Adrian, he mentions visiting the campus for
football games while in-high school. It could have
been merely lip service, but he repeats the
message, convincingly, in an interview after his
"I used to come on Saturday pilgrimages to
see such players as Bump Elliott -and Bob
Chappius play such players as Doc Blanchard.
This place has always held a special glory for
me. I think I made it to every home game in '46
and '48, but I think '47 was the only time my
father would bring us over for every game," he
After taking his PhD: at Yale in 1961, he
became director of the Center for Hellenic
Studies there, then moved on to Johns Hopkins,
University in Baltimore, 'where he is still a
member of the faculty, teaching ahcourse each
semester in American history. All that sounds
like a conventional academic career. It only tells
the story of half of Garry Wills' professional life.
Garry Wills is also a journalist, perhaps one of
the most capable in the field today. He writes a
syndicated newspaper column; (carried locally
by The Detroit Free Press), he was formerly a'
contributing editor of Esquire magazine; he has
written two books whi : ne esenti*1' Innn

Ruby; and he has authored numerous free-lance
An established academic by the time he took
up journalism, Wills got started because, "I
always wanted to write. I wanted to do dramatic
criticism, and I never got very far with that. I did
book reviews for a group of small Catholic
newspapers, and I got a start with an assignment
Harold Hayes gave me to do a story about Jack
Ruby for Esquire in 1967."
The Ruby article eventually blossomed into a
book on Oswald's killer, but in the meantime,
Wills became a contributing editor of Esquire for
four years. "I left to do work for other
publications, because in those days there were
other publications to do work for, Life, The
Saturday Evening Post, Look, and if you were a
contributing editor, one of the conditions was
that you couldn't write for competing
Wills' writing is exceptionally strong; it's
rhythmic, vivid and bold, containing none of the
qualities displayed by Wills the academic
lecturer. But there are any number of slick
journeymen political writers operating today.
Wills distinguishes himself from them because
he retains the scholar's instinct to place the men
and events on which he reports in a wider
He is better than most at the technical part of
the reporter's job. Reporters face the difficult
task of trying to recreate an event, a place, an
image for an audience that usually has notseen
what the-reporter has seen. So the reporter looks
and looks, trying to soak it all in, particularly
looking for the details that will impart
concreteness to what is reported. But the
reporter can't describe everything. There are
space limitations, and if he waits too long to tell
his story, he'll lose his audience. So the reporter
selects his details, choosing the details that are
most illuminating' to set the location, and
occasionally using metaphor as a device.
Practiced well it is an art, and among artists of
his caliber, Wills stands as a Michelangelo, as
this excerpt from Nixon Agonistes illustrates.
Wills is describing George Wallace's entrance to.
an adoring rally in Baltimore in 1968:
'Then Wallace came, wafted out fast, all
energy and strut as if held off-the floor by will
power. The crowd is ripe. He radiates a gritty
nimbus of piety, violence, sex. Picked-on and
self-righteous, yet aggressive and darkly
venturous, he has the dingy attractive air of a B-
movie idol, the kind who plays a handsome
garage attendant. But he is getting past his
prime, pouty about the lips and eyes, on his way
to character roles, parts rejected by Edward G.
Robinson. He comes rubbing his hands on
invisible garage rag (most of the pit grease out of
his nails), smiling and-winking, Anything--can-
do-for-you-pretty-girl? His hair is still wet from
careful work with comb and water in the gas
station's cracked mirror (main panel in the men's
room triptych, rubber machine on one side,
comb-and-Kleenex dispenser on the other). He
gives little-boy salutes, snapped off at the end,
Wash-your-windshield? Keeps on the move,
back and forth, drinking the cheers, with quick
turns and darts toward camera, jocular, pointing
-out newsmen he knows, best attendant in the
station, can't do enough for you, Fill-your-tank-
ma 'am?'
tion, the paragraph is a gem. It is
typical Wills, mixing actual description
(ever the careful documentor of facts)
with images that soar on a controlled
rein, but which are not pure whimsy. They evoke'"
the scene in a way pure description cannot. He
has put some perspettive on hs work.
Nixon Agonistes is full of that kind of beautiful

{.,+:::" ., ti'Si vi:Y':ii -}:4' {:' .:}. . .*iy.} s i ..v"i {.r"v:"

excellent reportage, however, is not enough to
satisfy Wills. Using the election as a point of
departure, he took a look at what was happening
all over the country. What Wills saw, with a
prescience unmatched by fellow journalists, was
an impending lurch to the right. Long before
Time and Newsweek had "discovered" the new
conservatism, Wills had explained it all in Nixon
Agonistes. For that reason, the book is important
far beyond what, it says about the Nixon
The stylistic device Wills used in Nixon.
Agonistes is a familiar one for him. He starts
with meticulous reporting of current events, then
looks to the origins of the setting, and does a little
history. Having looked at both history and the
present, he then concludes by placing the current
event, the one he started with, in perspective
along with other historical events in the relevant
milieu. Not too many other reporters do that. Not
many can; it obviously requires more time than
reporters for a .daily newspaper, or even a
newsweekly, can devote to a single assignment..
But even if they had the time, few reporters
probably would do that kind of thorough job
anyway. Reporters can be hard-working and
diligent; it takes a lot of stamina to cover a plane
crash or a convention. But as Gay Talese
observed when he wrote The Kingdom and the
Power, the story of the New York Times, most
reporters are restless, consumed by desire to be
at the center of what they perceive to be the
excitement, and measuring their own status by

they'd be ulcerating
might be missing the
they could quiet the d
to most to investigate
careers they have ir
what happens now, an
is important.
Will writes mostly
major project is to c
year convention in N
When he gets started
arena, the academic
Academics are to be c
active reporting on tb
Wills says herwon't d
Agonistes because one
"After a while you ge
fresh," he says, but
from making keen
current political seen
jockeying for 1980.
"The popular impre
ropes is overstated," h
perspective he not
in popularity-~ during
although he admits Ca
than most.
"Just before the
president always star
some more, and the C
president, so the presid
rise. Even without Can
to rise in popularitv.

of d

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