I haven't read nearly enough Garry Wills.
He's a rare breed, a conservative Catholic who has come slowly and thoughtfully into the light. It is his thoughtfulness that attracts me, his curiosity about how and why people and things come to be as they are, his probing search for understanding.
Wills was recommended to my history class by Professor Jerrold Rodesch. Jerry was fond of puncturing undergraduate dreams of romantic life in the Middle Ages by telling us that, were he to live as his ancestors did, he would be rooting for acorns in the Black Forest, and we probably would be too. I was fond of him for pointing out these little historical realities. So I took it for granted, when he assigned something by Wills, that it would be worth reading.
I wish I could remember what it was.
No matter. Both Wills and Rodesch had made a strong enough impression on me that, not long after graduation when I happened across , I snapped it up and read it.
I had had one little epiphany of sympathy for the man my generation called, usually with a dismissive sneer, Tricky Dick. He was on an aircraft carrier, welcoming back the astronauts on their return from the moon. Which return, I don't recall. Probably the first.
Richard Nixon's smile could be called, at best, a grimace, but that day I thought I could see through the grimace to something that approached actual delight. As I watched the live TV coverage, he looked like someone about to jump out of their skin in excitement. He was as big-eyed with wonder as a little kid.
And I thought, here is a man who is living a dream. Somewhere out of the picture, he must be pinching himself. In that instant, the rest of his life is sliding away. Right now he is President of the United States, and because of that simple fact, he gets to be here, welcoming people back from the moon. How cool is that?
Nixon Agonistes is a book that looks at this most typically American of men - I always thought he looked like a used-car salesman - and what happened to him on the way to that aircraft carrier - and what followed. It is sympathetic, in that it seeks understanding. It is probing for the same reason. It's been a long time since I read it, so right now I can't do any better than to link you to a NYT review.
In a bookstore recently, where I had not gone to buy a book, I saw , by Garry Wills . Verdi, Shakespeare, and Wills! In one slim volume. It's on my bookshelf.
I can't wait!