UC Berkeley News


Seven score and four years ago .
Garry Wills, at Zellerbach, on Lincoln, Bush, arrogance, and wisdom

| 03 October 2007

Garry Wills came to Berkeley last week in connection with his erudite, Pulitzer Prize-winning look at the most indelible speech in American history, Lincoln at Gettysburg. Unsurprisingly, however, given the sweep of his intellectual interests - his 32 books run the gamut from Jack Ruby and Richard Nixon to Jesus and St. Augustine - he had other things on his mind when he took the Zellerbach Hall stage Wednesday night.

Early in his brief lecture, Wills recounted an exchange between steel baron/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain. "Whether you like it or not," Carnegie is said to have told his friend, "America is a Christian country." To which the iconoclast Twain, acknowledging the point, added, "But so is hell."

Like Twain, Wills wanted to talk about the kind of Christian country America is, and the kind it might be. He wanted to talk about Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the former Rumsfeld-era deputy defense secretary who made headlines when he said of a Muslim warlord, "I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol," and who asserted that "God, not the voters, chose President Bush."

And he wanted to talk about George W. Bush, who, in Wills' considered judgment, is no Abraham Lincoln. With the nation once again "caught in a time of tremendous religious and political fervor," he argued, America is ill-served by leaders who claim to know what God wants them to do.

The 19th-century struggle to end slavery, Wills said, was widely viewed in religious terms, and Lincoln was often cast as the Messiah. But Lincoln - who was also attacked by defenders of slavery as the anti-Christ - insisted God's will was unknowable. Once, upon being informed that God required him to emancipate the slaves, Lincoln responded, "I hope it will not be irreverent of me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal His will to others on points so connected with my duty, it might be supposed He would reveal it directly to me."

Yet while Lincoln concluded "I am not to expect a divine revelation," continued Wills, "that is not how many modern presidents speak." When the laughter subsided, he quoted the current White House resident, who reportedly said, "I feel like God wants me to run for president. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen....I know it won't be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it."

"So God may have revealed himself to George W. Bush," mocked Wills, "but he would not do it to Lincoln."

Wills, an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University, was the second speaker in Berkeley's "On the Same Page" program, which launched in March with cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Last semester, freshmen and transfer students in the College of Letters and Science participated in a mass reading of Hawking's take on the mysteries of the universe, A Briefer History of Time. This time around, a new crop of more than 4,000 students was transported to the hallowed ground of a Civil War cemetery to plumb the mysteries of the Gettysburg Address via Wills' 1992 Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Changed America.

The Zellerbach lecture capped a month of events that included a performance of Our American Cousin, an operatic retelling of the hours leading up to Lincoln's assassination; an exhibition of Civil War-era photographs at the Berkeley Art Museum; a panel discussion with Berkeley faculty on the art and craft of writing history; and a reception with Wills for new L&S students.

'A different America'

Delivered in a measured, assured baritone, Wills' lecture had the feel of a secular sermon, immersed in religion yet wary of its abuse, particularly in times of war. At a brisk 33 minutes - followed by a half-hour question-and-answer session moderated by L&S social-sciences dean Jon Gjerde - the talk still dwarfed the Gettysburg Address itself, a masterpiece of concision that required a mere three minutes and 272 words. As Wills wrote in Lincoln at Gettysburg, the president's officially designated "remarks," commemorating the victims of a particularly savage battle in the war between North and South, were never meant to rival the formal, two-hour oration of Edward Everett, a scholar and diplomat widely considered the heir to Pericles. Nonetheless, they provided a deeply riven country with a new understanding of itself.

"The tragedy of macerated bodies, the many bloody and ignoble aspects of this inconclusive encounter, are transfigured in Lincoln's rhetoric," Wills wrote in 1992. His listeners "walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely."

As the nation's founders wrote it, the U.S. Constitution sanctioned slavery. Lincoln, Wills has said, "was, in effect, reading the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution - the part that says 'All men are created equal.'"

On Wednesday, Wills described Lincoln's "post-Christian theism," which took the form of an affinity for the Transcendentalists of his time - counterculture precursors who included Emerson and Thoreau - as well as for black evangelicals, "who had given their Bible a very different reading" from that handed down by their white masters. Lincoln, said Wills, connected with "the biblical sense of a struggle for freedom that [he] found in black religion."

Lincoln "combined the best elements of head and heart in our religious heritage," Wills said, and it was that blend of intelligence and conscience that impelled him to seek to "ratchet down" the moral fervor on both sides, "to expel fanaticism in times of war."

As if the contrasts with America's current leadership were not clear enough, one audience questioner wondered what Lincoln would do about the Iraq war. "Well, he would never have gotten us into it," Wills said, adding, "The first thing he'd do is fire Cheney."

Moreover, Wills said, Lincoln was anything but arrogant. "And that's all we have today, is arrogance."

As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has shown, Lincoln reached out even to his political enemies, an approach Wills offered up as a lesson in leadership. "Even in a time of war and fanaticism, we can find a few wise men," he said.

And Wills credited Lincoln's wisdom with recent progress in the rights of women, African Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and others who have long been denied their proper place in American life. "I take that," he concluded, "to be the real legacy of Lincoln."