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The influential historian has become his own iconoclast

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Garry Wills, who just turned 90, looks unencumbered by history these days. He lives in a swanky building for seniors in Evanston, and if his walker wasn’t waiting there beside him, if he didn’t lean in to hear you, if he didn’t talk with such a deliberate pace, you might assume one of the United States greatest historian intellectuals was on extended sabbatical from Northwestern University, where he is still professor emeritus.

His hair is long in places, white and curling upwards at the bottom. He has light peppered stubble that doesn’t quite qualify as a beard. For a lunch date at least, he didn’t bring the boxy eyeglasses he wore for decades. His eyes were pale ocean blues.

But that remarkable mind is there, the pithy commentary on American history, the casual nods to political contradictions and the way American myths trap us in our own narratives, the references to ancient Greeks, the love of Saint Augustine, all still flowing out like a tap.

Only slower.

Thankfully slower, you might say: For six decades, including 30 years at Northwestern, Wills was an intimidating, supremely confident, fearless intellect, a provocative iconoclast so prolific that his 50-odd books include classics (“Inventing America,” “Nixon Agonistes”), game-changers (“The Kennedy Imprisonment”) and one Pulitzer winner (“Lincoln at Gettysburg”), as well as works on religion, theater, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, politics and religion, politics and paranoia, opera, the A-bomb, the Greeks, the Romans. To say he challenged conventional wisdom is to understate the subversion that Wills became known for: His books advanced the idea of Nixon as the sympathetic “last liberal” and Reagan as a self-mythologizer. He argued a president is not really a commander-in-chief. He argued the United States does not have a Constitution if one politician holds the unilateral authority to launch nukes. Here was a Catholic who wrote a book on why we didn’t need priests. Here was a pacifist whose father taught boxing.

Here was a conservative — “I’m still conservative by temperament” — recruited to the National Review by William F. Buckley Jr. himself, who would then be arrested for protesting Vietnam. Here was a historian summoned to the Obama White House in 2009 to give a new president some advice. The room included Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, Douglas Brinkley and Wills, and when it came time for him to offer wisdom, he told the president to get the hell out of Afghanistan, quick.

He was never invited back to the White House.

As journalist Sam Tanenhaus once wrote, sooner or later “anyone who writes about America must reckon with Garry Wills.” He described the feeling of being reviewed by Wills akin to feeling “like a vagrant caught urinating in the master’s hedges.” Indeed, even that pitilessness towards authors whose hot takes don’t measure up to Wills’ scrutiny — it’s still evident in 90-year-old Wills. When I asked if he was still a pacifist, he nodded, reached into the seat of his walker and pulled out a book, on loan from a friend.

This, he waved, this book was supposedly an anti-war book! And really it’s pro-war! He shook his head and said the he appreciated the loan, but — he shook his head again.

A smiling older man, a fellow resident of his building, stopped at our lunch table.

Portrait of historian and author Garry Wills, 90, at his home in Evanston on May 17, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Portrait of historian and author Garry Wills, 90, at his home in Evanston on May 17, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

“He’s come to wish me happy birthday,” Wills said, explained, gesturing at me.

“Oh, how old are you?” the friend asked Wills.

“The big 9-0,” Wills said.

“That was a good deal we got, when you were born. We’re all better for it.”

“Happens to all of us.”

“Being born?”

“Getting up there.”

And yet, no less willing to drop a bombshell: Wills decided recently he’s no longer Catholic. The guy who attended church weekly, said his rosary daily, completed five of 13 years of Jesuit training to become a priest (only to get cold feet during the vows), wrote “What Jesus Meant,” “What Paul Meant,” “What the Gospels Meant,” “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis” and “Why I Am a Catholic,” left the Catholic church.

He explained:

“My hero, for a long, long time, has been Saint Augustine. He didn’t believe in the eucharist, he didn’t buy transubstantiation (the conversion of a host into the body and blood of Christ). He fought against a papacy. He was more anti-sex than anyone, and abortion would not have been a problem since, to him, there was no sex outside marriage. But in other ways, he was enlightened. I consider myself an Augustinian Christian.” Wills could not embrace Pope Francis’s canonizing of Pope John Paul II, or continue to reconcile taking communion but not believing in transubstantiation himself.

But mainly, Natalie, his wife of 60 years, died in 2019, and the more he reflected on her own opposition to having a pope, the more decided he could not continue to be Catholic.

While we talked, most everything he said, in time, wound back to Natalie.

“(Her death) changed everything,” he said slowly, looking around the room. “I would always say that I got up in the morning happy because I would be smarter by nightfall because she was there. Almost all of the major changes in my life, she was there for. The night we met, we were both 23 and we realized we had two things in common: Catholicism and the opera. She was brought up in a Catholic household in Connecticut. I was brought up in a Catholic household in Adrian, Michigan. She asked, you buy all the church teachings? I said yeah. She said, even on contraception? I said yeah. She said, come back in 20 years. It didn’t take that long for me to see differently. On abortion, on pacifism, Natalie taught me where I should be going. She was smarter than me. You know I met her on an airplane? She was a flight attendant. She said, ‘You’re too young to be reading that book.’ I was reading Henri Bergson’s ‘Two Sources of Morality and Religion.’ I said, you’ve read this? She said no, but her sociology professor had condemned it. So we talked and argued. There was an empty seat beside me.” They married two years later and moved into her Italian neighborhood, not far from Yale University, where Wills was still in graduate school.

Portrait of historian and author Garry Wills, 90, at his home in Evanston on Friday, May 17, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Portrait of historian and author Garry Wills, 90, at his home in Evanston on Friday, May 17, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

He was not born into a family of intellectuals. The family settled in Michigan after his father left Georgia looking for work during the Great Depression. One grandparent was a strict Christian Scientist. His mother’s brother married his father’s sister. “It became a complicated arrangement of religions and views.” He was brought up anti-communist and became a fan of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose demagogy fueled the Red Scare.

He mainly wanted to become a literary critic. After sending some writing samples to Buckley at the National Review, he was invited in. Buckley had just lost his theater critic — maybe Wills would go to Washington, watch Jimmy Hoffa get questioned by a Senate committee and treat it like theater? After that, Wills met more journalists, only to split ideologically with the National Review and became a fixture of Esquire as the magazine (and others) pioneered a more literary, less rigidly objective New Journalism. He covered Martin Luther King Jr., Nixon, Vietnam, linking past and present, rooting his reporting in historical spelunking, showing exactly what it felt to live through a moment.

He thought of every story “as an opportunity to learn,” he said. “That made me broaden my world. Harold Hayes (the legendary editor of Esquire during the 1960s) would say, ‘I’m interested in this, why not write something about it.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ And so he would say, ‘Well, then you have a chance here to learn.’”

Natalie was there the whole time.

“She challenged everything I knew, in a way that was convincing. She wore me down.”

Since she died, Wills has not stopped writing. His last byline was in the New York Review of Books a year ago, about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and he’s halfway through a new book on the history of women’s rights. But his contract lapsed with book agent Andrew Wylie (who is also literary agent for Bob Dylan and Salman Rushdie, among others) and there’s still no publisher attached. He’s talking to his daughter, literary agent Lydia Wills, about a book on leaving Catholicism. He said he doesn’t get many requests to write these days, presumably because “they think I’m old.”

He smiled blankly.

Portrait of historian and author Garry Wills, 90, at his home in Evanston on May 17, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Portrait of historian and author Garry Wills, 90, at his home in Evanston on May 17, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

You know, he said, though he moved here in 1980 to join the history department at Northwestern, Natalie was not thrilled. She preferred the East Coast, “but I remember, once, coming home from Scotland, her saying it was a relief to go home. I remember that because it was the first time she called Chicago home, and it had been two years.”

After her death, Wills sold their home on Sheridan Road. He also got rid of most of his library, donating it to Loyola University. But he kept his favorites, which he calls “the core.” Books on the Greeks, Saint Augustine, the dictionary written by Samuel Johnson.

He doesn’t write at night anymore. He writes after meals. He sleeps more. He talks to his three children, all of whom live in the Chicago area, and to his many grandchildren.

He talked so much that he didn’t eat lunch. He boxed up his sandwich and began the slow process of standing with a walker. I thanked him for the time, and he said: “All I got is time.” When I got home, he emailed me the final chapter of his women’s rights book.

It was titled “Natalie.”

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