Garry Wills profiled, praised as America's leading presidential historian





Popes don’t visit America often, so when they do, the country’s Catholic stars come out to shine. Airwaves and opinion pages brim with punditry from what Commonweal editor Paul Bauman mockingly calls the “Catholic commentariat,” meaning the galaxy of prominent Catholics eager to serve up their insights about the state of the church.

Last April, however, when Pope Benedict XVI came to town, one of the brightest stars in that firmament was conspicuously absent. Historian and journalist Garry Wills, perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years, spurned requests for comment from every major TV network, as well as The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

It may seem a curious missed opportunity for the author of 2000’s Papal Sin, a blistering, best-selling polemic against what he described as systemic papal dishonesty and inflated papal power. Wills, however, offers a simple motive for his reticence: “I’m poped out.”

“I’ve had my say, and I have no desire to say more,” he said. “Popes don’t interest me very much.”

Therein lies a key to understanding the unique spot on the Catholic landscape occupied by Wills, one of the most fascinating personalities American Catholicism has ever produced. In the wake of Papal Sin, fans and critics alike tended to style Wills as a new guru of the Catholic left, a sort of Noam Chomsky for the Call to Action set. In truth, he is both less and more. Less, in that Wills has no interest in leading a reform campaign in Catholicism, since doing so would imply investment in an institution he regards as irrelevant and dull; more, in that Wills is hardly just a “Catholic writer,” but one of America’s most distinguished nonfiction writers, period, whose horizons are far broader than the church.

Wills’ remarkable life and career thus reflect several realities of U.S. Catholic life: the emancipation of American Catholics from their pre-Vatican II ghetto into the full light of secular accomplishment and acclaim; the post-Vatican II option of many liberal Catholics for political and social crusades rather than internal church concerns; and the consequent quandary of the Catholic left, which is that its best and brightest often don’t care enough about the institutional church to stand and fight.

Now 73 and still going strong, Wills sat down with NCR for an extended interview at his home in Evanston, Ill., near the campus of Northwestern University, where he has served as a professor of history since 1980.

Wills is an academic and a journalist, putting him on both sides of what has long been a peculiar love/hate relationship. Reporters mock the specialized jargon and narrow interests of the egghead class, but depend upon the fruits of their learning; intellectuals lament the superficiality of journalists, but envy their fame and public influence.

What’s distinctive about Wills is not that he has a foot in both worlds, but that he has scaled heights of success in both that few ever attain in one.

There’s never been any doubt about his erudition. Wills is the kind of guy who, as a young man, when asked if he was a conservative, would reply, “No, I’m a distributist.” (To save traffic on the Wikipedia Web site, distributism is a political theory associated with the English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton and 19th-century papal social teaching. It posits that ownership of the means of production should be widely distributed among the population, rather than controlled by the state, as in communism, or by financial elites, as in capitalism. Its model is the medieval guild system. Not coincidentally, Wills’ first book was on Chesterton, and he remains for Wills an enormous influence.)

Today Wills is regarded as America’s premier presidential historian, with acclaimed studies of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Kennedy and Nixon. His Pulitzer Prize came for the 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, which is routinely assigned at major American universities as mandatory reading for incoming freshmen....



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