Saturday, June 04, 2011

Smart Guys, Cheap Shots

On the subject of praising Caesar, comes now a fascinating and ultimately contemptible review of Garry Wills' autobiography, by Michael McDonald in The New Criterion.

We have not read Wills all that carefully over the years, but we have enjoyed and benefited from his books on Pius IX, leadership, Lincoln, and especially Augustine. We were introduced to Wills in college, when his critical book on the Kennedy brothers -- and their "imprisonment" -- was serialized in the Atlantic. It said things we had already begun to suspect, but which nobody in our circle ever said out loud: that maybe Jack and Bobby were less saints than rascals. In that sense, Garry Wills helped to initiate our own break from the doctrinaire liberalism of our social set.

So it comes as something of a surprise to us to learn that Wills is, and had been well before his Kennedy book, a doctrinaire liberal of the first order, a friend of all the scalawags whose very names raise the hackles of New Criterion readers: Jesse Jackson! I.F. Stone! Nancy Pelosi's brother! Why, the man even spent a night in jail in the 1960s, which practically makes him a Black Panther. (NB: Everybody spent a night in jail in the 1960s. It was like growing sideburns in the 70s, or doing leveraged buyouts in the 80s.)

Before all this, though, Wills had been part of the National Review crowd, a friend and collaborator of William F. Buckley. One gets the sense that his departure for pinker fields was a betrayal by which McDonald was and remains outraged. After a lengthy break, Buckley and Wills were able to restore their friendship; McDonald is not so forgiving.

From this animus springs the review. Much of it is a useful guide to Wills's life and work, written with an attempt at Buckleyesque drollery. The National Review used to run a feature devoted to "Wills watching," a record of the betrayer's most prodigious missteps, and McDonald claims to have continued the practice long after the original columnist was sacked for stepping out of line in his own (anti-Semitic) way. And so McDonnell's review, as much of the man as the book, is a coda to the Review's lengthy revenge.

Most of its considerable length is a sour-pussed but basically straightforward look at Wills, with a focus on his defection from the True Faith and his descent into such apostasy as protesting the Viet Nam war and publishing essays in the New York Review of Books. It's worth reading, especially if you don't already know most of the facts. And then, about four-fifths through, McDonald goes utterly off the rails:
Wills’s embrace of liberalism is further revealed in his enthusiasms; “The country is full of people who stood a little taller in their youth because of Jesse Jackson [and his chant ‘I am—somebody!’].” One doubts that Jackson has read many books, but Wills’s disdain for those who read little is nowhere evident here.
Wait, what? One doubts that Jesse Jackson has read many books? Based upon what, precisely, does one express this scurrilous doubt? One's long acquaintance? A brief interview? A guess? One has a duty to say. And then:
Wills also praises [Studs] Terkel for his ability to “size up phonies or ideologues, the greedy and selfish politicians.” Perhaps Terkel had such a talent, though he was only too happy to provide a blurb for the memoirs of the former Weatherman William “I don’t regret setting bombs” Ayers. (“As sensitive and gifted a chronicler,” Terkel piously proclaimed, “as he is a teacher.”)
Again, what? Is McDonald truly suggesting that, because Studs Terkel once blurbed a book by Bill Ayers, Garry Wills is a poor judge of character? Bad enough, but in fact we think he is hinting that Wills is, or is as good as, a Commie-loving domestic terrorist.

But Jackson, Terkel and Ayers are small potatoes. McDonald saves his real guilt-by-association slam for last. Yes, friends, it turns out that a bright and well-read liberal journalist is friendly with our bright, well-read Secretary of State:
“I came to know [Hillary Clinton] fairly well and to like her a lot," [Wills writes]. "She has a wonderful sense of humor. . . . She is a sincere practitioner of religion. And she was also humble.”
Upon which McDonald comments:
Someone good at sizing up phonies might note that Hillary could speak self-righteously of “the politics of meaning,” while also making a quick $100,000 in cattle futures. She also didn’t hesitate to back Dick Morris’s (sleazily unprincipled, if ultimately successful) triangulation strategy, with the goal of securing a second term for her husband.
Surely, there is no reason to point out that Secretary Clinton's efforts to support her husband's re-election have little bearing upon Garry Wills as writer, a thinker or even a judge of character. But by this point, the review has long since ceased to be about Wills's autobiography, or his judgment, or even about Wills at all in any meaningful way. It has become a laundry list of knee-jerk rightist tropes.

What's happening here? McDonald seems like a bright guy. In addition to his law degree and his years of conservative activism, he also holds a degree in literature, and has written fairly prolifically about it -- especially for a guy with a day job. So why does he turn a tart but thoughtful book review into a bit of mudslinging and Pavlovian rambling worthy of Fox News or Michele Bachman? We can't imagine. But we hope that he will apologize to Wills the next time they meet.

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