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Adventures of an Observer

by Garry Wills

Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-670-02214-4
Publisher: Viking

Pulitzer Prize winner Wills (Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, 2010, etc.) offers up a pleasantly revealing grab bag of memories.

These rocking-chair ruminations are relaxed, intimate and impressionistic. Though he writes that he “was determined to be an outsider looking in, not a participant,” he thoroughly engages with his subjects here, a number of whom were friends. These vest-pocket profiles are a genuine mix, from William F. Buckley, who emerges not as the bombastic right-winger he projected in his public life, but as a generous, risk-taking soul, a man whose “gifts were facility, flash, and charm, not depth of prolonged wrestling with a problem,” to Wills’s wife, who receives as endearing a love letter as the retiring Wills will likely ever openly tender. The author has canny things to say about public figures, including Richard Nixon (“an emotionally wounded man who rises to power without ever becoming a full human being”); Thomas D’Alesandro III, the hard-boiled mayor of Baltimore who cut the entitled legs out from under presidential aspirant Jerry Brown; and fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel. But much of the best stuff concerns people at the edge of the limelight, such as organizer Septima Clark, who let Andrew Young know that arriving at a voter-registration drive in a chartered plane was “no way to join dirt-poor people getting literacy qualifications in order to vote”; opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin (“listening to the man’s beautiful barking was like hearing a cave sing”); and James Bevel, the daring strategist for the SCLC who later joined Lyndon LaRouche’s party and later still was convicted of incest. Only rarely do his comments fail to have bite.

Ultimately, it is Wills himself who shines brightest from these pages—owlish, ethical, skeptical of power, deep of faith and achingly honest.