Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books on Garry Wills and the decline of The New York Times
January 8, 2011

Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer | By Garry Wills | Viking | 195 pages, $25.95

This is a curiously brief patchwork of memoirs by the most prolific and versatile journalist-historian-philosopher of our era. Garry Wills has written forty books, dealing with subjects as diverse as the Founding Fathers, Nixon, the Gettysburg Address, and the teachings and travails of the Catholic Church. (The selection of titles listed inside this volume does not even include my favorite, Henry Adams and the Making of America, a study of Adams’s classic history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations.) There have also been numberless magazine articles—many of the best being reports of major events of the sixties and seventies, often assigned by his favorite editor, Harold Hayes of Esquire.

In his latest book, however, the author seems almost to be hiding. Describing himself as a bookworm, Wills recounts the purportedly few adventures of his life as if he were observing rather than participating in them. He recalls friendships and breaks with such tendentious associates as William F. Buckley and I. F. Stone, but bears no apparent grudges. He offers a loving tribute to his wife of fifty-plus years and a slightly sardonic profile of his rambunctious father, who left a lot to forgive, and was perhaps the anti-model for Wills’s own imperturbable life.

His years in Baltimore do elicit some notable warmth: he recalls with affection his teaching duties at Johns Hopkins, and rhapsodizes over the Colts’ great pass-and-catch team, Unitas and Berry. He is no less enthusiastic about Studs Terkel: “It was fun just entering his house. He would whoop with welcome, using his favorite word, ‘Fan-TAS-tic.’ Always pronounced that way…. He drew people out by appreciating them. And what he drew out was the best in people. They were embarrassed not to live up to his admiration of them.” Then there are brief encounters with presidents, about whom Wills is refreshingly non-doctrinaire. He liked Carter the best, but regarded Nixon with respect after he gave Wills an unexpected answer when asked for the book that influenced him most: no conservative tract, but a biography of the Progressive Republican senator, Albert Beveridge.

Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America | By William McGowan | Encounter Books | 276 pages, $25.95

”Gray lady,” the nickname that attached itself to The New York Times many decades ago, connoted the verbosity, the dullness, and even the monochromatic appearance of the newspaper operated by the Ochs family and its descendants. These days, the phrase has grown even more pejorative—as if to suggest that the once reputable institution has become an aged vamp, attempting to kick up its heels, trying to survive by the consumption of age-nullifying elixirs.

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William McGowan’s is the most recent of a number of such critiques, a lament for the Times past now utilized to deplore the Times of today. His model is the newspaper run by the authoritarian A. M. Rosenthal, who was in charge for nearly twenty years ending in 1986. The author praises Rosenthal for running a centrist newspaper, and for bailing it out of financial difficulties by hastening the “Sectional Revolution”—the addition of cultural seasonings to the old menu. As McGowan argues, however, these changes were “insidious, providing a back door to the countercultural values, liberationist ideologies and special interests that Rosenthal had tried so hard to keep at bay,” by giving the cultural left its very own playground.

The bulk of Gray Lady Down is a free-swinging bill of indictment against today’s Times, often underlined with overheated language. The basic charge: the paper is no longer centrist, but an organ for all the aspects of American society and politics that conservatives detest. McGowan’s assault is worth reading for the details it contains on many genuine journalistic misdemeanors and crimes, embarrassing gaffes by callow Times staffers, and failures to pursue inconvenient stories. However, his real meat is political correctness, a standard term of opprobrium in recent cultural wars and the subject of his previous book, Coloring the News.

His catalog of PC crimes at the paper includes “the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Americanism, anti-bourgeois hauteur, hyper-sensitivity toward ‘victim’ groups, double standards, historical shallowness, intellectual dishonesty, cultural relativism, moral righteousness and sanctimony.” Surely, this is a tall order for one newspaper to fill! McGowan’s implication is that the Times must right itself, in at least two senses of that term, if it is to survive its current distress.  

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.