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Garry Wills' Adventures As An 'Outsider Looking In'

Oct 18, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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"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."

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."

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