Against the Wind
France Griggs Sloat
April 8, 1968. The nation is on the verge of exploding into a firestorm of racial rage over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when Garry Wills walks in the front door of the Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Tenn.
Wills stands in the entrance of the church, his two small bags and raincoat in hand, and looks around. The place is packed, but he is alone—a white Catholic from the Midwest in the heart of the poor, black South. A hundred or so striking sanitation workers, whom King came to Memphis to support, fill the pews and try to hammer out the details of getting to King’s funeral in Atlanta, some 400 miles away.
The tension is high, although that wasn’t unexpected. In order to get to the church, Wills has to break the city’s dusk-to-dawn curfew and catches a ride with a surly taxicab driver who keeps a gun on his seat and reflects the unease of the nation by responding to Wills’ chosen destination with a racial slur.
As the plans are hammered out, Wills sits back and observes, collecting an inside look at the living, breathing state of the civil rights movement. He collects more observations at the Lorraine Motel where King was killed, and still more at the funeral home where the embalmers tell him how they had to work all night using plaster to reassemble the right side of King’s face where the bullet blew out his cheek and left the jawbone dangling. When they wheel King out for the viewing, Wills notes how the TV lights “pick out a glint of plaster under the cheek’s powder” and that “not one white person from the town goes through that line.”
The next morning, Wills looks even deeper into the movement, climbing onto the rented second-rate bus and riding 12 hours with the black mourners to the funeral in Atlanta. Folding chairs set up in the aisles block the path to the toilet in the back. They arrive exhausted and cranky—and late.
[Read Wills' opinions on some of the subjects of his books.]
As the mourners scatter to watch the procession, Wills holds back. He doesn’t need to go. The funeral is the focus of the nation. It’s the main stage. And as the nation’s eyes watch it to see how the drama will unfold, Wills knows he already has the real story. The one from backstage, from behind the curtain.
He begins writing about his experience—a 15,000-word account that runs over 16 pages in Esquire magazine and quickly becomes one of the greatest articles of its era. The story also becomes, in many ways, classic Wills.
His ability to go where others don’t go, look where others don’t look, dig where others don’t dig help him carve out an unexpected life as a writer—a life that over the course of 50 years garners him bylines in Time, The New York Times and Vanity Fair, and etches his name on the cover of more than 40 books.
[See Wills' author page on Amazon.com]
His ability to reveal America by shining the light on all its many layers, especially the ugly ones, lands him on the list of the greatest “New Journalism” writers alongside Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and Norman Mailer. And his ability to offer vivid insights into our world and shed new light onto our history—as he brilliantly did with Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg—earn him pinnacle of the writer’s life: the Pulitzer Prize.
In all, they have made Garry Wills one of the best writers of our time. They’ve also made him, in some cases, one of the most scorned.
Richard Nixon hated Garry Wills.
The nation’s 37th president added Wills to his master list of political enemies in 1970, tucking him in alongside Bill Cosby, Ted Kennedy and The New York Times. Wills’ crime: Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man, a 617-page examination of Nixon—and politics as a whole—in which he concludes that the staunchly conservative Republican president is actually a liberal. Not in the modern liberalism sense—compassion for the poor, big government, tolerance of dissent—but classical liberalism, the liberalism of the Social Darwinians, and, says Wills, “he was as dated as those obsolete specimens.”
Wills didn’t return Nixon’s enmity, though. He admired the late President as intelligent but flawed, and admits he actually felt too sorry for him to feel hatred.
[Watch Garry Wills on the Colbert Report on Nixon, the Tea Party and more.]
But that’s Wills—outspoken, never pulling punches, but honest enough and intelligent enough to back up his claims. That’s one of his virtues. And flaws.
After six years of teaching Greek at Johns Hopkins University, the chair of the department decided he would no longer tolerate Wills’ part-time work—columnist for the ultraconservative magazine National Review and its outspoken editor, William F. Buckley. It was the era of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, but the magazine took a staunchly conservative viewpoint. The department head told Wills to stop writing for Buckley or he would not be recommended for tenure.
Wills refused. He also transferred to the humanities department to teach American history. But his coverage of the anti-war demonstrations and social issues of the time was turning him into a liberal. Eventually, he clashed with Buckley over a piece stating there was no conservative argument for the war.
“I said it’s hurting us and helping the Communists,” Wills says. “He said he couldn’t publish it, and so that ended it. We stopped talking for 30 years, then his sister called me up two years before he died and got us back together.”
Wills grew up in Adrian, Mich., where his father worked as an appliance salesman. Both his parents were chain smokers, and Wills would escape the smoke by going outside to read comic books and dog stories. He became a voracious reader, which made his father angry, especially when he was caddying while his father played golf. Once his dad paid him $5 not to read. Wills took the money and bought more books.
Neither of his parents went to college, but his mother followed the advice of the Dominican nuns at his Catholic grade school, who said he ought to be challenged more.
So he was sent one state over to Campion High School, a boarding school run by the Jesuits in Prairie du Chien, Wis., where he was immersed in classical studies and the liberal art.
“There was tremendous encouragement for reading, music, debating, oratory and Latin and Greek,” he says. “I was really lucky. In fact, there are none of my later interests that weren’t begun in that school.”