Outside Looking In

Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer, by Garry Wills ($17.13)

Review in the New York Times.

Amazon:  This is an episodic but completely captivating collection by the prolific journalist, historian, political columnist, and practicing Catholic Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg). Now 76, he writes an intensely opinionated re-evaluation of leaders he has encountered (surprisingly favorable for some, such as Nixon, whom he called “an intellectually serious and prepared candidate”), autobiographical reminiscences, and insightful, mostly admiring essays on important people in his life, including Studs Terkel (shrewd about politicians, generous to his friends); Beverly Sills and her popular mother, known as Mama Sills; his father (fearless, resilient, fun); and his loving tribute to his wife of 50 years. As for William Buckley, Wills began writing for his conservative National Review in 1957, but his 1960s support of civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War produced a rupture. He describes how, with Buckley’s sister Priscilla as intermediary, Wills and Buckley touchingly resumed their friendship before the latter’s death in 2008. The book does not recycle old articles. although it includes outtakes, unprintable at the time, such as material about Nixon’s marital troubles, omitted from an Esquire article during the 1968 presidential campaign

For partisans of the Left and the Right, Wills, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and journalist (and currently professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University), has always been an elusive, even frustrating, figure, and this thoroughly enjoyable and informative memoir shows why. In his public career and personal relationships, he has consistently refused to be held hostage by political ideologies or even “sacred” causes. Predictably, he has often been accused of betrayal by those who assumed he was one of them. But his insistence on remaining an outsider has allowed him to maintain contacts and friendships across the ideological spectrum. Wills writes frankly and often emotionally about deeply personal issues, including his devotion to his wife, his troubled relationship with his father, and his strong Catholic faith. The most absorbing portions of this book are his descriptions and impressions of presidents and other important political figures he has dealt with over five decades. Throughout, his independent streak stays strong. He expresses admiration for Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, and Barry Goldwater; sympathy for Richard Nixon; and sincere affection for his longtime friend, Bill Buckley. –Jay Freeman

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