Garry Wills then and now

The folks at National Review Online are culling the archives of National Review for highlights from years past. NRO’s weekly email with links to newly posted highlights from a given issue can be had simply for the asking. Readers can sign up for all of NRO’s newsletters here.
This week’s email highlights the February 13, 1962, issue of NR. One of the selected highlights is Garry Wills’s review of the then-new edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The review is funny in a highbrow kind of way. In addition to the pleasure of the humor we have the added pleasure of Wills lampooning the progressive gospel of which he has become a celebrated devotee in all its forms. Referring to the dictionary, Wills writes:

The editors of this wondrous stew do not feel they have any duty toward their own language, any job of defense or purgation or clarification, any even minimally normative function. They believe not only in The People (“the ultimate arbiters of our linguistic standards,” in the words of the Editor-in-Chief), but in Progress. Language, like all things, will advance of itself, and our only task is “to keep up with our changing standard of language,” with “up-to-date English that no prescriptive rules can interfere with.” The lexicographer is part Gallup, part IBM machine, part voting booth. He does not need to think and choose. The future is shaping itself: “It is now fairly clear that before the twentieth century is over every community of the world will have learned how to communicate with all the rest of humanity.” It would be “interfering” for Editor Philip Gove to get under the wheels of Language’s proud advance.

Wills had been discovered by William Buckley, who gave him a place of honor with the lead essay in Buckley’s anthology of modern American conservative thought. (Wills’s essay was dropped from the book when it was revised by Charles Kesler in 1988.) But Wills turned left under the impact of the civil rights movement toward the end of the 1960’s.
In the 2008 campaign Wills was one of the Obama inebriates who used his erudition to laud Obama’s big speech on race in Philadelphia (“A more perfect union”). For Wills, Obama’s speech stood with Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Cooper Union Speech.
Lincoln’s speech was a remarkable work of original scholarship reconstructing the views of the founding fathers on slavery. Obama’s speech was a Clintonian triangulation seeking to negotiate his way through an inconvenient personal controversy raised by the exposure of Jeremiah Wright’s views, and not very honestly at that. Wills presented himself as the voice of moderation among the media hosannas over Obama’s Philadelphia speech: “Obama’s speech has been widely praised–compared with JFK’s speech to Protestant ministers, or FDR’s First Inaugural, even to the Gettysburg Address. Those are exaggerations. But the comparison with the Cooper Union address is both more realistic and more enlightening.”
Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech is still looking good 150 years later. Obama’s Philadelphia speech didn’t last 150 days. It failed upon the reentry of Wright to reiterate the views that had prompted Obama to give the Philadelphia speech in the first place. Thus Obama’s subsequent press conference repudiating Wright.
I don’t think Wills has been guilty of a heterodox political thought since his turn to the left. His 1962 review shows a bit of what was lost.


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