Against the Center
Confessions of a Conservative.
by Garry Wills.
Doubleday. 231 pp. $10.00.
Garry Wills has written so much of late and received so much approbation that he is on the way to becoming a cultural phenomenon rather than a mere author. A number of reasons help to explain his success. Wills always writes facilely and sometimes felicitously. Then, too, he is an intelligent man, or at least a clever one, capable of springing a surprise. Thus, if the world is divided between those who think Alger Hiss despicably guilty and those who are certain he is admirably innocent, Wills can be counted on to come along and explain him as simultaneously guilty and admirable.
Above all, however, Garry Wills has an almost uncanny sense of timeliness. Is Nixon changing from a problem to a President? Here comes Nixon Agonistes. Is the Catholic Church in such turmoil that one is no longer sure where it stands or where it’s going? Bare, Ruined Choirs enters the scene. Does revisionist history crave a new beginning for our country? Garry Wills sets his mind to Inventing America. Finally, does conservatism seem to show signs of reviving? Garry Wills confesses—in the Augustinian sense—to being a conservative.
In all these bursts of energy, Wills reminds one of those whom Nietzsche, in Human, All-Too Human, called fifteen minutes ahead of their time, as contrasted with those who are “really great and superior.” The former, according to Nietzsche, come into possession of public opinion shortly before it is public and like to “rush into the arms of a view that is worthy of becoming trivial.” Wills is a case in point. It is tempting to smile at the pleasure Wills, who once labeled Nixon a “true liberal,” now takes in calling himself a conservative—this apologist for Lillian Hellman. The trouble is that writers of this kind are usually sore winners, reacting to success with increased pomposity. That at any rate is what seems to be happening to Garry Wills, who in his new book sets out to trace his progress from an imperfect conservatism to a genuine one and ends by posing as a thinker for all seasons.
Wills was given his first chance to show what he could do by the National Review, and the beginning of this book, which takes us “inside” the offices of that journal, constitutes much the best part. Wills skillfully charts the tensions among the intellectuals of the Right—libertarians against authoritarians, etc.—and thereby provides a needed complement to the various memoirs that have appeared detailing such differences among intellectuals of the Left. His portrait of William F. Buckley, Jr. rings true, and his reminiscences of Frank and Elsie Meyer are genuinely moving, being genuinely informed by affection. If anything mars this account of Wills’s younger days, it is the author’s tendency to patronize his patrons. He does not hesitate to refer to Russell Kirk as a “sap” or to condescend to a man of much greater stature, Willmoore Kendall.
Wills’s talent and industriousness soon combined to prepare him for greater prominence at Esquire, for which he became a political reporter of the national scene. When he reaches what he calls his “Esquire Days,” Wills almost completely abandons the autobiographical cast of his story, evidently preferring to be judged by his thought. That is a pity, because his personal memories—especially those of his courtship and marriage—can be charming. One can scarcely say the same of the political observations of the American system that follow.
By the American political system, Wills means almost exclusively the American electoral process, which he finds “meaningless.” It inhibits change, favors mediocrity, prevents citizens from deciding issues except perhaps by retrospectively sanctioning or condemning what has been done, and is in general so fraudulent that Wills finds himself unable to blame those who condemn it in deed as well as speech.
The correct parts of this analysis are hardly new; in opting for a representative rather than a participatory democracy, the Founding Fathers recognized that the people were better at choosing men than at deciding issues. Yet this does not mean, as Wills repeatedly insinuates, that issues do not matter. He correctly states that during the 1860 campaign Lincoln refused to discuss “divisive issues,” but he neglects to mention that Lincoln’s debates with Douglas were on record. The nation knew the issues that were at stake, and this was particularly true of the South; South Carolina seceded before Lincoln took office.
The best that can be said in Wills’s defense is that he does not really mean what he says. He may depict the electoral process as a fraud, but he cheerfully contradicts himself by informing the reader that women’s suffrage enabled women to show “what they really want” and he blandly acknowledges that all politicians “must defer to voters.” Nor does he totally condemn the United States for failing to be self-governing. Indeed, he is quite reconciled to our supposed lack of democracy; to explain how things really work, he articulates what might be called a theory of countervailing elites.
Wills takes it to be self-evident “that the elite in America” (emphasis his) is the business community; yet if business were as powerful as Wills makes it out to be, Nelson Rockefeller would surely have become President. The necessary counterbalance to business, in Wills’s view, is provided in part by bureaucrats, about whom he says some things that are both amusing and true. He also defends do-gooders like Leonard Bernstein against Tom Wolfe’s charge of “radical chic.” But Wills reserves his real praise for the “good doers,” a category exemplified by, among others, Martin Luther King, whose loving disobedience of the law Wills cannot distinguish from the resentment-ridden shenanigans of the Berrigan brothers. He is also so rhapsodic in his praise of William Lloyd Garrison that he might cause a reader to forget that it was Lincoln who freed the slaves, and this self-described conservative apparently identifies all “good-doing” with the Left; at least he fails to provide a single example of any other kind.
Yet Wills’s fondness for everything and everybody on the Left does not entail a complete break with his right-wing past; his perpetual and unchanging dislike of the Center provides him with all the continuity a gifted man needs in his life. Wills seems always to have had difficulty with the conservative virtue of moderation; certainly his view of this country is immoderate, to say the least. He calls the United States a “warfare state” as a matter of course and does not hesitate to depict anti-Communism as hysterical. If he does not deny that the Soviet Union is worse than the United States, neither does he desist from comparing the plight of 20th-century Soviet dissidents with that of 19th-century American critics like Mark Twain. Communism, he asserts, may be bad, but our resolve to resist it is equally bad because firefighters become indistinguishable from the fire they fight. Wills does not explain why, on this reading, we did not emerge from World War II as Nazis.
The tendentiousness of all this is ultimately less surprising than Wills’s attempt, toward the end of the book, to lend it coherence by calling it an Augustinian way of looking at things. Wills finds in Augustine the basis for a teaching that urges a “modest politics” on men. His argument here is open to two grave objections. First, it forces him to treat as a mere inconsistency the main thrust of Augustine’s thought, especially his opposition to tolerating what is not Christian. Secondly, what Wills chooses to understand as Augustine’s “radical break” with classical thought is actually its precise opposite, namely, a holding fast to the insights of classical political philosophy, which insists that there is a realm above and beyond politics.
What Wills seems to be after in his reliance on Augustine is a justification for his own wish to look down on all political life. Yet anybody who really understands the limits of politics also understands the scope of politics. Most of the time, as when he mocks our fear of the Soviet threat, Wills is not above our national concerns but beneath them.