Garry Wills says there’s one human test we can use to decide who’s the better candidate: Trump or Clinton

Historians in the News
tags: Hillary Clinton, election 2016, Trump



Garry Wills is a Pulitzer-prize winning historian and journalist.

Donald Trump, in his second debate with Hillary Clinton, said in effect, “Make me president so I can throw our former secretary of state into prison.” Does he really think our presidents have the power to purge rivals as in a banana republic? In this weird campaign, it is hard to know what his words mean (if anything). Does anyone, for instance, take seriously his claim that Bill Ayers wrote President Obama’s book Dreams from My Father? How many believe (or care) that he saw thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheering the fall of the World Trade Center? How many really believe that he sent investigators to Hawaii who found out amazing things about Obama’s birth certificate? Or that the verifier of that birth certificate was killed to silence her? These claims are applauded as gestures without necessarily being taken “literally”—only the evil press does that.

 How does one break through this jocular incontrovertibility?

 One way to evaluate people, a way not often given enough importance, is by a human test of the company they keep—not just the people they meet by job or neighborhood, but ones they seek out or (more important) who seek them out. In his swinging days of the last century, Trump mixed as a celebrity with other celebrities. Some of these, like Roy Cohn, could also be useful to his business; others, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, could help him publicize one of his weddings. But what deeply intellectual or spiritual persons was he familiar with or respected by?

The circle of his trusted intimates is severely constricted—to those he can use or who want to use him. Otherwise he relies on his employees, his sons, and one of his daughters (who are also his employees), along with some of his wives (not all).

Crowds cheer him, but leading Republicans were openly contemptuous of him until he cowed them with fears of losing the Republican base (in every sense) of people angry at Muslims, Obama, and government. People like Chris (“no more Oreos”) Christie, or Ted (“Lyin’ Ted”) Cruz, or John (“not a war hero”) McCain did not so much join him as get run over by him. They are chained to his chariot wheels, prizes of war.

He does not have a circle of friends but an entourage. Where are the historians, philosophers, or poets he admires or who admire him? Whose are the minds that expand, challenge, or refresh his own? He reads nothing. The ghostwriter of his book The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, spent eighteen months interviewing Trump and never saw a book on his desk, in his office, or in his apartment. (Trump thinks the Schwartz book is his own, like everything else in the room.) He knows and talks about little but his own excellence. He cannot learn from peers, since he thinks that he has none. Why consult others when they are, compared with him, losers? 

Contrast this with Hillary Clinton’s intimates. I doubt that she has ever lost a friend, from school days on. Her staff has always been fiercely loyal, not out of compulsion but genuine admiration. She is respected by the numerous people she has worked with, for children’s rights, black rights, women’s rights—people like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. Among her friends are people of real achievement in various fields. I think of the civil rights historian Taylor Branch. He has been close to Bill and Hillary Clinton since 1972, when the three of them worked as a team for the George McGovern campaign in Texas. Before Hillary joined Bill there, when she was still working on the Nixon impeachment panel in Washington, Bill asked McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, if he could take a weekend off to go see his girlfriend in Washington. Hart said the McGovern campaign was too important for him to be thinking of girlfriends.

When Hillary Clinton told me that story in 1992, over lunch in Little Rock, she laughed, “Imagine that—from Gary Hart, of all people.” This was after Hart had his own girlfriend trouble with Donna Rice in 1987, and before Bill had his Monica Lewinsky trouble in 1998. I asked Branch, who met privately with the Clintons throughout their time in the White House, how and why Hillary put up with that betrayal. He said, “Because she’s crazy-in-love with him—always has been.” Somehow, the public image created of Hillary Clinton is not that of the intellectual, friend, and crazy-in-love person her many loyal and knowledgeable friends treasure.

I know this human test—who are the friends from whom one gets intellectual and emotional sustenance—is not the serious political analysis pundits are supposed to furrow their brows about. So instead of such touchy-feely stuff we get deep pronouncements of this sort: “Hillary Clinton is the end product of the System (whatever that is). Donald Trump is outside the System (whatever that means). The System has failed (at something, or everything). To escape the System, we must vote for Trump (or anyone) outside it. What do we have to lose?”

Everything, probably.




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