LEAD TIME: A Journalist's Education by Gary Wills

LEAD TIME: A Journalist's Education

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The title and subtitle mislead somewhat: this is a collection of Wills' magazine pieces, 1968-82, with an introductory tribute to two editors he learned from, Esquire's Harold Hughes and the New York Review's Robert Silvers, and a brief postscript to some of the pieces. The titular theme distracts too: because of magazines' lead time, the long stretch between assignment of an article and its appearance, magazine writers must have something to say that escaped the newspapers' notice--must ""look for longer trends, subtler evidence."" This, however, has always been true: it didn't produce the ""new journalism,"" as Wills suggests, nor is it special to Esquire and/or New York Review writers. So if we want to understand both Wills-the-journalist and how the US looked to him in (mostly) the '70s, we have to turn to the pieces themselves. The two long lead-off pieces, for Playboy--on a freaked-out draft-resister commune in Canada and going-to-jail with the Beautiful People--chiefly remind us that Wills isn't Tom Wolfe's equal as a social satirist or Norman Mailer's match in the self-exposure department. The succeeding, still longer account of a bus ride with the Memphis sanitation workers to Martin Luther King's funeral in Atlanta benefits from Wills' feel for religious and populist rhetoric (and suffers from a petty, score-settling afterword). The following section, ""Spies,"" presents part of Wills' much-criticized introduction to Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time, plus another tidbit about ADA ""Commie-hunting"" (but not the most criticized part, nor an answer to the critics); then, his review of Allen Weinstein's boat-rocking Alger Hiss book, Perjury (with no reference to that imbroglio); finally, his own earlier, Watergate-related Hiss-Nixon piece for the New York Times (""A new, an evil Nixon was born in the Hiss case, and he felt it a duty to nurture that Nixon even as it was consuming him""). There follows a dust-flecking section on Watergate and its principals and then, from the mid-'70s, Wills' best journalism and the meat of the book: ruminative impressions--largely from the New York Review--of the Senate and House, of politicians (Moynihan, Wallace, Bert Lance, Jerry Brown) and political conventions. Here Wills, the professor of politics and government, exactly characterizes Moynihan's ""flattering service to one patron at a time,"" abetted by Wills the image-maker. (""With Harriman, the Brahmin governor, he was the tough guy from Hell's Kitchen, fighting off do-good-ers."" For JFK, he was ""a tony professor who could out-tough the Irish Mafia. . . ."" To Nixon, he held out visions of a place in history, ""right up there with Disraeli."") And Wills the observer of gesture and inflection and phrasing has his innings too. Of the remaining pieces, the standout is Wills' devastating report on media coverage of the Pope's US visit, for Columbia Journalism Review. Lots of sluggish stuff, but also much that will be invaluable to anyone assessing the academic/scholarly inputs into the ""new journalism""--or the presence of gifted, quirky mavericks.

Pub Date: March 18th, 1983
Publisher: Doubleday