Garry Wills


Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. His new book, Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time, will be published in the summer 2014.

See NYRB titles related to this contributor.

  • The Pope and the Pederasts

    July 11, 2014

    Pope Francis has acted fast on his preferred issues—poverty and economic justice. He has been slower to deal with the long-festering problem of sex abuse by priests. There are four structural problems in the Vatican he must address first.

  • Obamacare: The Hate Can't Be Cured

    April 22, 2014

    Opposition to Obamacare is a religious commitment--and it may well be strong enough in the mid-term elections to determine the outcome.

  • Back Door Secession

    October 9, 2013

    The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.

  • Verdi vs. the Fanatics

    September 24, 2013

    In its new production of Verdi's Joan of Arc, the Chicago Opera Theater has made Joan's obsession with sexual purity a consequence of religious fanaticism.

  • Popes Making Popes Saints

    July 9, 2013

    Pope John XXIII was beatified to take the sting out of Pius IX’s promotion. He is now being canonized to make a joint heavenly pair with John Paul II. John XXIII is the feel-good pope in a time of turmoil, even though he is being used to sanction the turmoil caused by John Paul II.

  • Does the Pope Matter?

    March 10, 2013

    In the coming papal election, we do not have to fear Dante’s hell-bound popes, Acton’s mass-murderer popes, or Newman’s in-need-of-death pope. Happily, we can expect the new pope to be a man ordinary and ignorable, like Saint Peter.

  • Dumb America

    January 21, 2013

    Tradition dies hard, hardest among those who cannot admit to the toll it has taken on them. That is why the worst aspects of the South are resurfacing under Obama’s presidency.

  • Our Moloch

    December 15, 2012

    We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily.

  • What Romney Lost

    November 9, 2012

    What public service do we expect from Mitt Romney? He will no doubt return to augmenting his vast and hidden wealth, with no more pesky questions about where around the world it is stashed, or what taxes (if any) he paid, carefully sheltered from the rules his fellow citizens follow.

  • Romney's Taxes in a Poke

    August 22, 2012

    One of the oldest bits of practical advice in the English language advises people not "to buy a pig in a poke." It dates from days when there were shortages of meat, and con men sold what purported to be succulent ham or bacon in the form of a piglet wriggling in a poke, or burlap bag. A bargain price was offered on the condition that the poke not be opened. When it was opened, too late for the payment to be called back, the sucker found he had bought a stray dog or large cat, not a pig. Mitt Romney tells us he has a pig--a reasonable account of his taxes--in his pouch, but he won't show it to us. Imagine our surprise if, after his election, we get to peek inside the pouch.

  • Nora the Perfectionist

    June 27, 2012

    To be a perfectionist is normally to be a pain. Nora Ephron was a picky person, who worried about all kinds of trivial things. This can make one completely unbearable. Nora actually made it attractive by mocking it in herself. Those impossibly detailed orders for lunch or a latte in When Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail are Nora to a T. I remember once we were with her at the Greenbriar in West Virginia, which had a famous, and what seemed an endlessly extensive, brunch buffet.

  • Keller to Nuns: Get Out!

    June 23, 2012

    Former New York Times editor Bill Keller thinks it sounds shocking that he agrees with the Catholic conservative Bill Donohue, but he need not be disturbed. Some of us have long thought he was closer to Donahue than he pretended. What he particularly liked is the way Donohue argues that half of Catholics should just leave the church they pretend to believe in. Keller puts the matter even more punchily. He tells the useless half, “Summon your fortitude and just go.”

  • The Curse of Political Purity

    June 18, 2012

    Roberto Unger, descended from a famous Brazilian family, is a respected philosopher, a famous political activist, and a professor at the Harvard Law School. But he is best known now for having taught Barack Obama two courses at Harvard. The professor has released a special video saying that “Obama must be defeated” for failing to advance the progressive agenda. I freely admit that Unger’s principles are better than Obama’s. If I had to choose between them as men of probity, I would prefer Unger as quick as the eye can blink. But in politics we never choose men of much probity.

  • Why 2012 Matters

    June 9, 2012

    This election year gives Republicans one of their last chances--perhaps the very last one--to put the seal on their plutocracy. They are in a race against time. A Democratic wave is rising fast, to wash away the plutocracy before it sets its features in concrete, with future help from the full (not just frequent) cooperation of the Supreme Court.

  • The Mormon Constitution

    May 24, 2012

    Will a Mormon president treat constitutional clauses as divine injunctions? If so, what grounds will we non-Mormons have for interpreting with secular arguments what is presented as God’s will? For that matter, what right will the Supreme Court have to treat the document as anything less than a divinely inspired covenant?

  • Why Is This Man Laughing?

    May 18, 2012

    Everyone has noticed by now the non-laugh laugh of Mitt Romney, a kind of half-stifled barking. But what does it mean?

  • The Myth About Marriage

    May 9, 2012

    Why do some people who would recognize gay civil unions oppose gay marriage? Certain religious groups want to deny gays the sacredeness of what they take to be a sacrament. But marriage is no sacrament.

  • Bullying the Nuns

    April 24, 2012

    The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops’ thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don’t. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops.

  • Santorum's Arrested Development

    February 29, 2012

    Rick Santorum, who nearly defeated Mitt Romney in yesterday’s Michigan primary and remains close to him in national polls, says that President Obama wants to force colleges on everyone because “he wants to remake you in his image.” He worries that people who go to college lose their “faith commitment” there. But Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken learned to cross-examine the Bible all on their own, without any help at all from college. An unquestioned faith is not faith but rote recitation. The opposite of such questioning is not deep belief but arrested development.

  • Contraception's Con Men

    February 15, 2012

    Contraception is not even a religious matter. Nowhere in Scripture or the Creed is it forbidden. Catholic authorities themselves have long rejected the idea, saying instead it is a matter of “natural law,” that the natural purpose of sex is procreation, and any use of it for other purposes is “unnatural.” But a primary natural purpose does not of necessity exclude ancillary advantages. The purpose of eating is to sustain life, but that does not make all eating that is not necessary to subsistence “unnatural.” Some Republicans are using the bishops’ stupidity to hurt the supposed “moderate” candidate Mitt Romney, giving a temporary leg up to the faux naïf Rick Santorum; others are attacking Barack Obama as an “enemy of religion.” What we are seeing is not a defense of undying principle but a stampede toward a temporarily exploitable lunacy.

  • Edmund Burke Against Grover Norquist

    July 14, 2011

    Grover Norquist is the powerful president of Americans for Tax Reform (where reform means elimination). He issues to all Republican candidates and office holders Taxpayer Protection Pledges--a promise never, under any conditions, to support the raising of a tax--and then he monitors and reports the performance of those who have taken the pledge, as almost all Republicans in Congress have. That, in effect, puts a ban on congressional discussion of tax income, since the Republican bloc has pledged not even to consider it. The idea of committing candidates to a rigid position as a condition of their being elected seems to be catching on.

  • The President’s Crack Team

    May 6, 2011

    We do not hear much about the Navy Seals, and with good reason. They are a secret set of special operatives. They are in the news now for their spectacular against-the-odds raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But they have been in the news before, and what they did then was also spectacular.

  • The Art Destroyers

    March 29, 2011
  • Blood Lust and the Super Bowl

    February 4, 2011

    The reality behind the Super Bowl is superb young bodies being broken and irretrievable harm being done to brains.

  • Sarge Shriver (1915–2011)

    January 19, 2011
  • Blind Libel

    January 14, 2011

    Robert Draper, who did the extensive interview-cum-article about Sarah Palin in The New York Times Magazine, still has good sources in her camp. On that basis, he told the Daily Rundown show on MSNBC that Palin timed her morning statement on the Tucson tragedy to play against the president’s anticipated speech later that day. The setting and solemnity of her presentation were manipulated to show who could be more “presidential,” she or Obama. That is a measure of her aspirations and arrogance.

  • Obama's Finest Hour

    January 13, 2011

    President Obama has been criticized by some for holding a “pep rally” rather than a mourning service. But he was speaking to those who knew and loved and had rallied around the people attacked. He was praising them and those who assisted them, and the cheers were deserved. He said that the proper tribute to them was to live up to their own high expectations of our nation. It was in that context, and not one of recrimination, that he called for civility, service--and, yes, heroism--in the country.

  • Chicago's Magnificent Macbeth

    October 18, 2010

    This month at the Lyric Opera of Chicago there is a production of Verdi’s Macbeth to knock your socks off.

  • Stealing Newman

    September 16, 2010

    Pope Benedict XVI is the best-dressed liar in the world. And in England he presided over the best set-designed lie imaginable. He beatified the nineteenth-century Oxford theologian John Henry Newman, presenting him (in the penultimate step toward canonization) as a docile believer in papal authority, an enemy of dissent, and a rebuke to anyone who questions church authority.

  • Obama's Legacy: Afghanistan

    July 27, 2010

    Most presidents start wondering--or, more often, worrying--about their "legacy" well into their first term. Or, if they have a second term, they worry even more feverishly about what posterity will think of them. Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early. It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan.

  • McChrystal Does Not Matter

    June 22, 2010

    General McChrystal is unable to command the respect of Hamid Karzai and McChrystal's own troops--for the very good reason that he has been given an impossible assignment, one that gets more surreal and absurd every day. His removal will not make the Afghan war go any better, for the simple reason that nothing will do that.

  • The Vatican's Ask and Tell Problem

    June 7, 2010

    In Arizona we have racial profiling. Now, around the world, wherever the Catholic church holds sway, we have sexual profiling. In The New York Times, Paul Vitello reports on the new screening tests the church is implementing to weed out would-be seminarians who are gay or who are considered prone to pedophilia.

  • Lenten Thoughts

    March 15, 2010

    The second mystery is the scourging of Jesus. This was a prescribed part of Roman execution by crucifixion. The convict was stripped naked and beaten with rods. This was done to break his spirit, so there would be no undignified scuffle when the man was led to the execution site and affixed to the cross. It was to demean him ahead of time, to degrade his manhood, so he would be cowed and submissive when taken to his death.

  • After Massachusetts: His Hopes Did Him In

    January 20, 2010

    During the 2008 primary campaigns, there was a constant muted roar telling Barack Obama to become more aggressive, to answer wild allegations against him, to “stand up to” Hillary Clinton or his other rivals. He rightly saw that would boomerang against him. The last thing he could appear was an angry black man. Harry Reid, with his derided comments in the book Game Change, was basically right. It was helpful that Obama, the first black man with a realistic chance at the presidency, was lighter skinned and better spoken than, say, an Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. He was the anti-Sharpton, not railing against American racism. He was more a Sidney Poitier than a Shirley Chisholm.

  • On David Levine (1926–2009)

    January 8, 2010

    It is a charming little dog, meticulously drawn, that faces us, all its curlicue hairs traced, its cantilevered thin legs ending in little paws (1971). Only on a second look do we see that the tiny face staring out at us from this fluff ball is that of Richard Nixon. Then, in a double-take (click!), we realize that this is Checkers, the dog Nixon used in his maudlin television address to stay on Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential ticket in 1952. A less adventurous artist might have done the obvious—made Nixon cower behind the dog he was using as protection. Levine did the unexpected. He made Nixon the dog. And as usual, there was a deeper purpose. He was saying that Nixon would not only do anything to get what he wanted, he would become anything. Later, when abortion was the issue, Nixon would become a fetus (1971). How does one give a fetus identity? With the nose, of course, the Nixon nose that Levine celebrated so relentlessly.

  • Afghanistan: The Betrayal

    December 2, 2009

    I did not think he would lose me so soon—sooner than Bill Clinton did. Like many people, I was deeply invested in the success of our first African-American president. I had written op-ed pieces and articles to support him in The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. My wife and I had maxed out in donations for him. Our children had been ardent for his cause.

  • One-Term President?

    November 3, 2009

    I am told by people I respect that Barack Obama cannot pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming a one-term president. I think that may be true. The charges from various quarters would be toxic—that he was weak, unpatriotic, sacrificing the sacrifices that have been made, betraying our dead, throwing away all former investments in lives and treasure. All that would indeed be brought against him, and he could have little defense in the quarters where such charges would originate.

  • The New American Hysteria

    October 6, 2009

    The hysteria shown at town hall meetings this summer is simply the tip of an outpouring of organized hostility to government that is unparalleled in our history. We have had wildly emotional opposition movements in the past—red scares, nativist riots, anti-Catholic and anti-Semite outbreaks. And there are some parallels with past forms of extremism. People who think Obama is a Muslim are like anti-New Dealers who thought Roosevelt a Jew or John Birchers who thought Eisenhower a Communist.

  • Dialogues des Carmélites

    May 4, 2013 — May 11, 2013

    There is no gainsaying the power of this opera, especially when well sung. Poulenc was a deeply religious gay man, and this is his meditative masterpiece.

  • 'Timon of Athens'

    April 24, 2012 — June 10, 2012

    Starring the brilliant Ian McDiarmid as Timon